For the first installment of our new “in the dark” series we sat down with agnès b., who is currently promoting her first movie, “Je m'appelle Hmmm...” (“My name is Hmmm...”). The shattering road trip film, starring Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, untangles weighty subjects including child abuse and lost innocence. We met Agnès by the fireplace in her New York hotel room, and then turned off the lights to tackle the film's themes of trauma and redemption.
The film tells the story of an 11-year-old girl (Lou-Lelia Demerliac as “Hmmm”) who runs away from her father: an unemployed, desperate man who is sexually abusing her. She finds comfort and recovers innocence while travelling alongside a kindly truck driver (Gordon). Photography by Clement Pascal.
You’re the first person we’re interviewing in the dark. So let me begin: is this your first movie?
Yes, although I’ve been taking photographs for a very long time.
You did the photography as well?
And wrote the story?
I handwrote the story in two days. I had to because I read something in the newspaper about someone who killed himself in a judge’s office. I didn’t know anything about this guy who killed himself. I invented a story, which is the film, that tries to explain what happened beforehand, why this guy killed himself.
How long have you been carrying this story?
I wrote it fifteen years ago. I’ve always wanted to find time to make the film, because it’s always been a film in my mind and the final product is exactly how I imagined it. Exactly. Now that the film has been released, I realize that what was in my mind is exactly what’s projected on the screen. Everything in the movie was done on purpose. There are no accidents. It really is exactly the story I wrote.
Can we talk a little bit about the storyline and say that the first quarter is the destruction of the father’s figure and the following three quarters are the redemption of it?
Well, I see the destruction of the girl, rather. She changes when she meets this truck driver because she wants to escape or die. She doesn’t want to have this life anymore because her father has been abusing her — a terrible everyday theme — because he’s always home and the mother is never there. He has the chance to do this to the girl and he hates it. I want to show the suffering of the father at the same time as the girl… Jacques Bonnaffé plays the role of the father with a lot of suffering and heart.
It’s a movie about the chemistry of trust, about how trust is built, destroyed or threatened. When the little girl is in the truck with the driver, we don’t feel entirely comfortable...
Yes, we’re scared at the beginning. I want the audience to be unsure whether the little girl will be all right with this truck driver. Hence the scene where he has a knife....
Once she hops on his truck, there’s no way back.
No. He’s involved from then on. But I think he’s very happy to have this girl in the truck, and they get along very well together. They don’t speak the same language but he makes her picnics, something he was never used to doing before.
At the end of the movie she’s even more broken. Her only hope is dead.
Yes but there’s promise and hopefully her father will keep that promise. “I will never bother you again,” is what he says… In a way, she loves her father because she’s never denounced him. She wants her family to be together. She knows that if she denounces her father, her family will be broken. And the truck driver understands that.
So writing the movie was pretty quick. What about the production, how long did it take?
Six weeks, three weeks in the South of France and three weeks around Paris and in the studio.
What did you find different from what you had in mind because it’s your first long feature?
It’s no different. I think the team didn’t know if I could do it myself. That was quite uncomfortable for me because I really wanted to direct the film, to film it, to do it the way I wanted.
Is there something new that you learned or was it similar to the work you do as a designer, designing images and atmospheres?
You always learn; I think I learn something every day, so you always learn.
Are you thinking of doing another movie?
You’re working on it?
I’m working on it in my head.
“Je m'appelle Hmmm....” is a road trip movie. We’re travelling through space but just as importantly we’re travelling through time. Maybe we’re travelling back to the age of innocence?
Yes, exactly. The girl suddenly becomes the girl she was before. She’s away from her father and as long as she breathes on the beach, she’s never seen the sea before and she breathes — I love this breathing scene — she becomes again herself and she escapes. She escapes from her life without figuring out how to escape, without noticing.
Did you do this film to have a conversation about innocence?
It was something like an exorcism for me. It was something I experienced when I was little with an adult, who wasn’t my father. I really had to do it. It’s a necessary film for me.
Do you think it has resolved anything?
I hope it will help some people. I had girls crying in my arms when I showed it in Glasgow. They said we should show this movie in schools, everywhere. They were turned upside down. There are a lot of sexually abused children. A lot. And you don’t always recover.
And making this movie did help you?
Yes, I think so. It did help me in a way.