Woman in Car Vanya Rose Helene Joy

Woman in Car puts Montreal in the spotlight

Director Vanya Rose talks about adapting Edith Wharton and working with actors and a local band in her feature debut.

“I’m Canadian and Québécoise,” explains director Vanya Rose, “but most of all, I’m a Montrealer.” There’s no mistaking the city’s influence on Rose’s first feature film, Woman in Car. The film examines an upper-class anglo family. Anne (Hélène Joy), set to be married, finds her life gripped with obsession when her stepson returns home with a new girlfriend. Anne becomes obsessed with her, the seams of her perfect life unravelling as she hopes to hold onto her power and privilege at any cost.

Partially inspired by a novel by Edith Wharton, The Reef, the film took shape based on this idea of an unsurpassable barrier, something a character just can’t overcome. The novel tells the story of an affair, and alternating chapters take on different points of view. In Rose’s case, she was particularly interested in the stepson in the original novel, who always struck her as a strange, almost unexplained presence. “I just took that and tried to figure out what’s going on?” Rose explained. 

The other thread of the story came after Rose moved to Outremont. “I started taking my kids to school around here, and I’d just roll up dressed like whatever, but these other women were perfect,” Rose says. “I’d walk down Laurier, and there would be these perfect women in cars, waiting. Is this their only time alone? Are they waiting for their kids? Waiting for someone else?” This whole world of restrictive social expectations and tightly knit communities unfolded before her. It felt like ample grounds to explore. 

There’s something wound up about Hélène Joy’s performance at the film’s centre. Anne comes across as cold and aloof, entrenched in a world of privilege and perfection. As a character, she negates many expectations of likeability and relatability. “I had producers and readers tell me you can’t write a character like this,” Rose laughs. Particularly, Anne’s role as a mother drew fire — particularly in the final act. Rose, though, stood by her character and her destiny, as “there was no other possible ending.” Joy’s performance is committed and challenging. She’s able to open up new avenues of understanding with the smallest gesture. She seemed destined to play the role. 

Rose brought an early version of Woman in Car to a CFC (Canadian Film Centre) workshop in Toronto. In the workshop, they had to pretend to be casting agents. She picked out Hélène Joy as someone she wanted to meet. “I had no idea who she was. Everyone was telling me she’s on this TV show (Murdoch Mysteries), but I was in love with this image of her. She seemed perfect.” Joy was shooting and unable to come to that first meeting for this little project, but Rose didn’t let go. She started watching her performances, and then they met, hitting it off immediately. “In a way, Hélène was my muse,” Rose says. 

Vanya Rose studied performance at the NYU Tisch School, then turned her attention to directing, pursuing a degree at McGill in English and Theatre. “I never went to the theatre, though. I spent all day watching films,” she laughs. Then one day, her thesis director asked her why she was storyboarding a play. “I just thought everyone did that!” Rose didn’t immediately turn to film, though. That wasn’t part of how she imagined her life. “I thought I was going to be up on some Russian mountain, starving for the theatre,” she laughed. “I didn’t realize people starved making films, too.”

Her theatre background proved invaluable in her work. “I’ve been acting since I was five. Working with actors is like second nature to me,” she explained. While making one of her shorts, she realized she needed to pay more attention to her actors. The screen was not like the stage, and she needed a new approach. A set could be noisy and distracting. Actors don’t just run through the material; they need space to start and restart, again and again. It’s okay if the crew looks or feels exhausted, but actors need to be fresh even when working a demanding schedule. The physical demands of being on camera are underestimated.

“I’m very protective of my actors because I just feel like there’s not that respect given to them,” Rose says. She kept the set as quiet as possible, giving the actors space to work and breathe. 

Woman in Car has one nomination at the upcoming Canadian Screen Awards for best original song. Thus Owls, the indie-pop band that features Simon and Erika Angell, wrote and performed “Lovers Are Falling,” which plays over the end credits. It’s dreamy and romantic. As Rose imagined it, Erika’s voice would “kind of be the voice of Anne’s subconscious.” Rather imaginatively, the film features an unconventional “post-credit scene,” which features the band as well. “As a producer on my own film, I have to hold back my crazy, experimental impulses,” Rose says. This brief moment lends the rest of the film something more ethereal and otherworldly, and it brings to the surface what was otherwise burning below. It’s an inspired and rather daring choice that pays off beautifully. 

Vanya Rose has been working on a new script. “At first, I was taking it away from the city, but it just kept coming back to Montreal,” Rose explains. She previously made a series of shorts, Montreal Stories 1912, 1944 and 1977, exploring different parts of the city’s history. Rose has long been fascinated by cities, almost pursuing a thesis topic related to them and the theatre. Even though she’s lived in many different places, she keeps coming back. “It’s a fascinating city. I could have been born anywhere, but I’m happy I was born here.” ■

Woman in Car has its Montreal premiere on Feb. 25 at Cinéma Musée with a post-screening discussion and acoustic performance by Thus Owls.

Woman in Car, directed by Vanya Rose

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