The director of The Wonder recounts this atypical project which questions beliefs and our relationship to cinema.
In The Wonderthe Chilean director Sebastian LelioOscar for Best Foreign Language Film with A fantastic woman, depicts an English nurse who arrives in the Irish borders still marked by the terrible famine which has just devastated the country. She is there to investigate a strange medical case. A young girl no longer eats and claims to feed on heavenly manna. The community sees in it a divine sign, it a scientific heresy. But who is right? And who to believe? In this philosophical thriller and this very contemporary fable, Lélio asks many questions. He also agreed to give us some answers.
How did you end up shooting this adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel?
I did Disobedience with producer Ed Guiney. And as we were finishing the movie, Ed told me he had acquired the rights to Emma’s book. “And it might interest you.” I started skimming through it and quickly hooked: this English nurse summoned by Irish bigots to a lost town; the period – the middle of the 19th century; this young girl who manages to live without eating and the nurse who must solve this mystery. My first response was emotional: the two women at the heart of the story touched me a lot. The strange sisterhood that binds these two souls seemed rare to me on screen. And I loved the idea of the duel of characters, but especially of philosophies. Because basically, if I wanted to make this film, it’s for the clash that it stages. The rationalists against the fanatics, the opposition between these two “truths”, the collision between on the one hand the intellectual and spiritual rigidity (on the part of the fanatics) and on the other the more elastic, more humble approach to science.
This opposition also joins the problems of the time…
The heroine is like an investigator who arrives in a very closed community. And this community is under the control of a particular ideology: everyone obeys God. And women are under the authority of men. Reminds you of something? (Laughs). But beyond the echoes with today’s fake news, the weight of religions or certain political ideologies, it was the theme of belief that interested me.
In the film, each of the men explains what happens to the girl in different ways, with sometimes opposing fictional narratives. And the body of this little girl who is wasting away becomes the center of very important issues (political, theoretical, theological…). Lib observes all this and tries to raise awareness. Because behind the interpretations, behind the smokescreens and the power dynamics, there is a real thing: the suffering of this kid. That’s real.
This is one of the morals of the film, the other is that science can also be seen as a belief…
Fiction and stories are everywhere in our lives. And in science too. But the richness and the beauty of science is that its truth is a flow, always in motion, always elastic. And that it must constantly be reconquered. Extreme religiosity is exactly the opposite: when the religious have found the “truth”, they no longer move from their position. They are even ready to twist reality so that it fits their ideology. And I have no problem with that… as long as it’s not imposed on me.
The beliefs you are examining are not far from the one‘we put in the pictures. And from its very meta opening shot to the stunning ending, The Wonder is also a film about cinematographic fiction and its manipulations.
We had to find a way to introduce the film itself into this questioning of beliefs. Because there is no finer machine for fiction than the cinema – which triggers a form of belief in the spectators… In the opening sequence, the narrator explains that the characters and the actors believe in their story with a lot of devotion and he asks the viewer to also believe in the film. Once he states this, he suspends the viewer’s disbelief and the narrative begins. History can happen. But regularly, we break the fourth wall during the film (with the return of the voiceover in particular) – just to show people that they too believe in a fiction. Like the characters they see live! The belief mechanisms at work in the cinema are the same as those that make us believe in the rest. Beware of your beliefs and those in whom you believe! The Wonder is also a good opportunity to ask yourself questions: which believer are you? Was your belief forced upon you or did you fabricate your own story? Are you flexible or rigid?
After Chile, you toured the United States with Gloria Bell and Désobéissance and today you have gone even further from home: in the19th century Ireland. What drives you to shoot far from home and on subjects that may seem very far from your daily life?
I’m still trying to figure out how to be legit to tell stories. The Wonder seems light years away from my daily life, but I grew up in the south of Chile – very green – in the 80s, when a very macho dictatorship was raging. And I saw the comedy played by the men in power in a very Catholic country. I’m not an expert on 19th century Ireland, but on the other hand I know a lot about the completely “fucked up” power dynamics…
Did you have any movie references?
We asked ourselves the question of references a lot with Ari Wegner, my director of photography. We obviously thought of meta films (French and Italian), in particular the opening of the Contemptor the generic of Fahrenheit 451but also the way in which the hero of birdman look at the camera… And then of course there was David Lean: the ambition, the scale of Ryan’s Daughter. And Kelly Reichardt’s Last Track. But the movie that stuck with me the most is Ordet. There is in the film, the most beautiful resurrection in the history of cinema. It is moreover this theme that made me make the film. It’s such a rich topic…
How did you choose Florence Pugh ?
I wrote the screenplay not only with Emma and Alice Birch, a young playwright. When we were done, I immediately wanted to suggest it to Florence and she said yes immediately. She has a thing of authority and presence that gave intensity to her character. And especially in front of a camera, she knows how to convince!