Days of Happiness Chloé Robichaud

Chloe Robichaud’s Days of Happiness is about an orchestral conductor on the brink

We spoke with the filmmaker about her third feature, Quebec’s answer to TÀR.

Anxiety underscores Chloé Robichaud’s Days of Happiness, a film that follows a rising star in the contemporary world of classical music. A young conductor named Emma (Sophie Desmarais) has a challenging relationship with her father (Sylvain Marcel), who also happens to be her agent, and a burgeoning love affair with a cellist, Naëlle (Nour Belkhiria). Effectively using walls of sound and close-ups, the film draws us into Emma’s interiority, rendering the claustrophobia of her increasingly tense interpersonal relationships. Desmarais is undoubtedly a star, capturing, with nuance and sensitivity, an exceptional woman on the brink. 

Days of Happiness, Chloé Robichaud’s third feature, had its world premiere at TIFF. Robichaud spoke with us over the phone about diving into classical music.

Justine Smith: Can you explain your writing process and your inspiration for the film?

Chloé Robichaud: The idea first came from the character. I found her to be a strong symbol, a female orchestra chief, confident and vulnerable. I found the world of classical music would be a great way to explore the character’s emotional journey. Classical music has a universal quality that transcends and inspires emotions. As for the writing process, it was years of work. I didn’t know much about classical music or the symphonic world. I did a lot of research and saw many concerts and rehearsals. I was lucky to have Yannick Nézet-Séguin as a musical consultant, so I could work with him on the concerts and bring realism to my script. It was very important for me that the movie reflected the life of contemporary conductors and the modern world of classical music.

JS: How did it work to choreograph the conducting? 

Chloé Robichaud: It took two years of work to learn the technique of a conductor. You have to learn to disassociate the two hands as they’re not doing the same thing. The right hand keeps track of time, and the left hand gives intention to the music. It was also tricky to figure out what Emma’s body language would look like. Every conductor has their own “voice,” [their way of directing music]. It was a long, hard work, building technique. Sophie Desmarais did the work of a real conductor, embodying music fully like a real conductor.

JS: What do you mean by developing the voice of a conductor?

Chloé Robichaud: Conductors all have their style in the same way all filmmakers have their style. We had to think, what does hand style say? At the film’s beginning, people often say that Emma is a bit technical, first class. We had to reflect on how we would translate that through her body. In this case, her shoulders were tense, and her hands and back were rigid. Throughout the film, it evolved. Her grasp on the baton loosens a bit; her hand movements become more harmonious, lighter and fluid. 

JS: There are a lot of complicated and embodied relationships in the film: family, romantic and work. Do you work a lot with the actors as an ensemble? A lot of rehearsals? 

Chloé Robichaud: I do a lot of meetings but not a lot of rehearsals. It’s essential to develop a complicity, that the actors and I know where we’re going. Who are these people? What are they looking for in life? Before we shoot, we take the time to talk about these things. I like the idea of rehearsal a little less because it takes away some of the magic of arriving on set. You lose some of the spontaneity. I want to find momentum on set, and many actors seem to think the same way. We’re still working, searching, and trying little things during the shoot. We’re refining certain things. I like to work the interior life of the character. What’s happening on the inside? It comes out in the actor’s gaze. It’s not just about the words, it’s about embodying the characters and making them live. 

JS: Can you talk about working with Ariel Méthot on the cinematography? In particular, the use of close-ups within the style of the film. 

Chloé Robichaud: Of course. I wanted to use a style of mise-en-scène that would engage with the story. So, we’re often very close to the hands as if we were inside the head of the character. We’re really living things with her. The choice of framing is motivated by these choices. Emma is also a character who we feel is quite lovely, so we isolate her in the frame. My choice of lenses and lighting, where there’s not much depth to the image, meaning the background is a little blurry, helps to isolate Emma further. As for lighting, working with Ariel, we knew that even though the film has violence, we didn’t want to shoot it like a horror movie. We wanted something more naturalistic, even if we sometimes embraced the darkness. 

JS: The film is obviously about music but uses silence deliberately. Can you talk about the use of quiet within the film?

Chloé Robichaud: Conductors often have a very good ear. They hear in a way that most people don’t hear. They’re capable of harmonizing just by listening. It interested me to imagine what that might be like outside of music. Emma’s hearing must be alert at all times. I wanted to play with auditory violence, where she’s even harassed by exterior sounds, leading to this climax at the end of the film that I won’t discuss.

JS: An important subject in the film is feminine ambition. For all the discussion of the importance of women being ambitious and how empowering it is to follow your dreams, there’s this contradictory message that we must still be soft and feminine. How does ambition work within the movie? 

Chloé Robichaud: Sometimes, we ask women to be a bit of everything. There are many double standards even today, even though I sincerely believe, at least in Quebec, things have greatly improved. It’s still important to talk about it. Even in my work, I sometimes feel like I’m being told that I should do things a certain way. There’s an expectation that everything needs to be done softly. When, at heart, I think everything we do and should do is with honour and respect. 

Sophie Desmarais in Days of Happiness

JS: This isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Sophie Desmarais, and it sounds like she was involved early on in this film. What is your collaboration like?

Chloé Robichaud: I worked with Sophie 10 years ago on Sarah préfère la course, but we are good friends, so we already have a bond. I needed that line of confidence to make the film. We were talking about the importance of interior worlds earlier, and Sophie is an actress who really has that. We can see so much in her gaze. Physically, she can incarnate a conductor. We needed someone who didn’t need to use words to portray emotions. She’s an intelligent actress, who has nuance. She works hard, and I knew going into this film I was asking a lot. I was asking for a lot of generosity in prepping for the role. Sophie is a person who is rigorous and passionate, and she took the time to do what was necessary for the film. 

JS: Let’s discuss the costumes because they help inform the characters. 

Chloé Robichaud: (I worked with) Francesca Chamberland, who is really fantastic. The character’s costumes reflect me a little bit. I don’t feel like I’m represented on screen, so to have a character who is a girl but doesn’t necessarily fit into the classical markers of femininity, with pants and a big shirt, was a way of showing another facet of femininity. We liked the idea too that all her clothes would be a bit too big for Emma, almost as if she’s floating in the clothes. Then, over the course of the film, something happens with the clothes that is important. As for the other characters, I’m always searching for authenticity. I don’t like costumes that are too archetypical. Instead, I prefer looking for nuances in who they are. I’m always in search of nuance. ■

Days of Happiness (directed by Chloé Robichaud)

Days of Happiness opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 20.

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