Scriptwriter and director of Yes, But...

(April 2001)

Yves Lavandier was born on April 2, 1959. After a degree in engineering, he went on to study film at Columbia University, New York, where he wrote and directed several short films. He returned to France in 1985, directed a further short film, and embarked on a scriptwriting career mainly for television. In addition, he began to teach scriptwriting throughout Europe and soon published a renowned work on the subject: Writing Drama. Yes, But... is his first feature film. Yves Lavandier is married with four children.

Why the title Yes, But...?
"Yes, but…" is a famous Transactional Analysis game—played by the gardeners in the film—as well as being Eglantine's overall attitude. Yes, I want to leave my cocoon and discover sexuality. But I'm scared. Yes I want to change and do therapy. But I'm scared or ashamed. I think this attitude is quite human and universal. We all want to change, usually for the better, and yet we all hold onto our neuroses and habits.

How did the idea of Yes, But... come about?
For quite a while now, even before starting therapy, I've been interested in all that has to do with human psychology. I believe that the greatest possible adventure is learning to become oneself. To me, this seems much more difficult than taking off on a mission to Mars or nicking a treasure from the Nazis. My interest in psychology led me to Transactional Analysis, which is both a highly pertinent personality theory and a form of psychotherapy. When you read a book on T.A. , you read about domestic squabbles or comic scenes. It is at once entertaining and right to the point. I realised that film was an excellent medium in order to illustrate T.A. This was soon intertwined with more personal concerns, especially my need to tell a story, and therefore choose a protagonist. To create some suspense, emotion and humour. The aim was to make the whole thing diverting and thoroughly accessible.

Was the script hard to write?
Not in the sense of being torturous. I love writing, bringing characters to life, stringing together situations. However, it was definitely a challenge. It required time, maturity, lots of rewriting (cf. the story behind the script). I was helped getting started by a writing workshop set up with Didier Boujard in the framework of Canal + Ecriture. There were seven of us. We were each working on a project and we'd meet once a week to discuss it. I then continued on my own. I asked all sorts of people to read the script, young women, psychotherapists. Their response, which was generally positive, helped me rewrite the script.

Your film is essentially about the coming of age of a 17-year-old who is in the throws of adolescence.
Yes, that is the film's broad outline. Eglantine is obviously the protagonist. She is the one who has a goal and who encounters obstacles. The film tells her story. That being said, I think she undergoes something beyond typical adolescence. It is never easy to exit childhood and enter adulthood, but when on top of that you also have clumsy parents… Let's say that her parents add to the trouble. At the same time, what she goes through is not atrocious. This was intentional. I didn't want to “handle” a severe case. It's the same old idea: you don't have to be gravely sick to be healed.

You broach rather intimate subjects, such as first love, teenage sexuality, and the shame that adolescents can feel. How did you manage to capture this world of youth on the verge of adulthood but already wanting to live as adults?
I must remember quite a bit from my own adolescence, because I didn't do any research. I asked women and teenagers to read my script to make sure that the female references were accurate. I'm a firm believer that we are all part masculine, part feminine. I even believe that one of the keys to fulfilment is in developing both sensibilities. I must have drawn on the woman inside me to characterise Eglantine. That being said, it is also the basics of scriptwriting. Dramatists would not go very far if they were only able to create alter egos.

The topic of psychotherapy has often been tackled in films, but rarely so realistically. How does one do a cinematographic rendition of such an intimate and mysterious subject?
The challenge was to capture therapy in the space of 40 minutes. That is around how long Eglantine spends with Moenner, out of the film's 104 minutes. I therefore had to cheat a bit and condense 45-minute sessions into just a few minutes, only showing fragments. But the rest was quite simple. Psychotherapy is an awesome human adventure, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. With conflicts, gags, developments. As Moenner says, it is Shakespeare. In other words, it's a script. It was then up to me to create some structure in order to make it entertaining. That's the scriptwriter in me talking. But directing is an entirely different challenge: how to film 40 minutes, face to face in the same setting. With director of photography Pascal Caubère, I had fun splitting each scene into parts and then jumping from one part to another by crossing the axis.

The film traces two points of view: Eglantine's and the therapist's. Did you feel it was important to have two angles on the story?

It happened quite naturally while writing. I needed a shrink's viewpoint, especially at first, to explain psychological games in an entertaining fashion. And I also needed a protagonist to live through the narrative. This protagonist could not be Moenner. In therapy, you have to undress alone. The "other" facing you does not open up, and may give the impression of always being right. It can be rather irritating, but that's how it works. And I certainly did not want to have the shrink in my film to grow and change, which is what happens in Good Will Hunting or other films on the subject. Making all characters evolve is an American obsession, but reality is different. I wanted the audience to identify with Eglantine and be in the position of someone who goes to a shrink. The next challenge was how to blend both viewpoints.

Why did you use vignettes to illustrate the shrink's ideas?
Because I wanted to avoid a mere conference on the subject, and also because the cinematic medium enables such tools. In addition, a gap between image and commentary creates room for humour.

Some directing choices are radical, such as when Moenner addresses the audience.

This was already in the script. It started out quite simply. All films contain psychological games. A quarrel or a comic scene can illustrate such games. But if no one is there to point it out, then it may slip you by. I therefore needed a commentator, a bit like Jean Laborit in My American Uncle, to create some distance and help us understand. At the same time, I was well aware that this distance might prevent us from identifying with the characters, which is why I use a head-on camera just at the beginning of the film. Once the action takes off, Moenner no longer addresses us, but rather focuses on Eglantine.

You have always been open about having done therapy. Is that what sparked your desire to tackle the subject? How did you manage to remain objective about your personal experience?
Obviously, I could never have written the story if I hadn't done therapy and if I hadn't trained to be a therapist. I probably wouldn't have wished to write it. And I don't give a damn about objectivity. First of all, it is impossible to be objective. And I doubt it is even desirable in film. As a spectator, I like when films convey a point of view, whether or not I share it. But I do know for sure that therapy has helped me feel better about myself and my surroundings, all of whom would heartily agree. This seemed reason enough to write Yes, But...

In Yes, But... , you clearly divide the world into victims and persecutors.
I do hope it is more complex than that. Eglantine's mother, for instance, is both a victim (of herself and her husband) and a persecutor (of Eglantine). Eglantine is essentially a victim, which is relatively normal for a protagonist with a good share of conflict, but she is also a rescuer. Of herself, but also of Sébastien.

You seem to be saying that we can help people but not rescue them. Nevertheless, Moenner ultimately "rescues" Eglantine.
Of course we can rescue people! I'm rather saying that it isn't desirable to do so, because it puts those being rescued in a state of dependence. Like giving a hungry person fish as opposed to teaching him how to fish. Helping people is first and foremost about respecting their autonomisation process. It means doing less than half of the work. Moenner clearly has a "rescuer" side, like all psychotherapists , but he refrains from overdoing it and tries to help Eglantine find her inner rescuer. That being said, I admit he is rather interventionist. But this is in line with the principle of strategic therapies where psychotherapists give instructions (often paradoxical) to their patients.

On that note, aren't you anxious about how orthodox psychoanalysts may respond?
No. I asked all sorts of shrinks to read the scripts, and I was amazed that so many psychiatrists and psychoanalysts actually liked it. As one of them explained: whatever technique is being used, what really matters in therapy is the relationship between two human beings, which has to do with compassionate listening. And I think that the film portrays this quite well.

No one in the film understands Eglantine's decision to start therapy; neither her parents, her friends nor her boyfriend. Why doesn't anyone trust this kind of treatment?
For two reasons. In terms of dramatic technique, the protagonist's path should be strewn with obstacles. So for the script to work, the environment should be more hostile than understanding. And also because it is quite realistic. Therapy is scary. Just look at how shrinks are portrayed in films—like phoneys or psychopaths. It is scary because we fantasise about its power, but we don't want to feel affected and we prefer not to feel concerned. It's the same with car accidents. Despite the fact that shrinks are increasingly present in the media, we say it's meant for others. Which brings us back to the "yes, but..." attitude of Yes, But...: changing your habits, entering unknown territory, poking at old wounds, is all very scary. And what do we do when we're scared? We judge, we condemn.

One of the film's key characters is the mother. She is both terrifying and moving. Almost a caricature in her extreme suffering.
I decided to give the mother a slightly caricatured aspect so as not to slip into melodrama. I wanted her to be disturbing and moving, but also funny now and again. Alix de Konopka added a lot of depth to the role.

Is she in the persecutor group or the victim group?
Both, but more victim than persecutor. She is mostly a tangle of suffering and clumsiness. It isn't easy to live with such a curse etched in your mind (“men abuse women”).

After Rosetta and Brotherhood of the Wolf, Emilie Dequenne reveals a new facet. We sense that through the character of Eglantine, she really opens up.
You'd have to ask her. All I can tell you is that she amazed me. She is a born actress and just lights up in front of the camera. As the role of Eglantine is bursting with colours—she hops from fear to giggles, from anger to guilt—I think that Emilie had great fun with it. In any case, I'm thankful that she gave me so much.

How did she surprise you?
I was impressed rather than surprised. She truly grasped the role. We never even talked about interpretation. She just got it. Of course, this didn't happen by itself. It required a lot of work. And I was very demanding. I asked her for 120%. I think she did a sublime job.

Gérard Jugnot jokingly says that he isn't used to being offered roles that are smarter than he is. Did you immediately consider him for this role?
When I gave it some thought, I quickly realised he would be ideal for the role.

What did he bring into his character?
His frankness, his generosity, the twinkle in his eye, his warm-heartedness, his normal looks. And above all, his incredible acting talent. It doesn't stand out, but the role of Moenner is quite tricky because he doesn't experience any conflict. The actor thus has no emotion to hang onto. It's like windsurfing without any wind. There's nothing to hold you, so the surfer is suddenly unstable. What Gérard does in the film may not be spectacular, but it's superb. A real balancing act. I'm deeply grateful to him for what he achieved with Moenner.

For Eglantine's boyfriend, you chose Cyrille Thouvenin, known from Confusion of Genders. That film wasn't out yet when I did the casting. For Cyrille, as for Alix de Konopka, Vanessa Jarry and Patrick Bonnel, I was helped out by a casting director, Stéphane Gaillard. Cyrille entirely deserves his nomination for the Césars. He is an excellent actor.

The end of Yes, But... is optimistic. Was it important for you to have a happy ending?
Not especially. The end of a story should be a logical outcome. That being said, I believe I'm naturally optimistic and a little positivism never did anyone any harm. In addition, I can vouch for the effectiveness of Moenner's technique. Not that it resolves everything. But I can tell you that it helps you climb out of your manure pit and deal with suffering. And it's a good idea to continue, to do for instance thirty years of brief therapy, as Moenner mischievously suggests.

Before the credits, you quote a Hindu legend. Where did you come across this legend?
In something I read. I don't remember what. I think it's beautiful. And it fits in with my belief that the most beautiful, and probably most difficult, human adventure is to become oneself. Not travelling to the Moon. Now there's nothing wrong with doing both. But I often get the impression that running around, going far away, embarking on big things are ways of escaping the essentials.

As a renowned scriptwriter, did you discover anything while directing your first feature film?
Millions of things. I wouldn't know where to start. Nevertheless, in a nutshell, it confirmed what I knew from my short films: that a director, with the actors' help, can considerably change a script, for better or for worse. And as I continue to believe that the script is a film's backbone, it just emphasised how scriptwriters should be more respected and more involved in making films.

What would you like people to say about your film?
Whatever they wish. Of course, I'd rather people say that the film is generous and entertaining and not the contrary. But criticism, when constructive, can be instructive. In any case, I really see film as an exchange. Granted, it is a personal means of expression—and the film deeply resembles me—but it is also a dialogue. So I'm very curious about reactions, from professionals as well as from the general public. I'd be delighted for people to send me their feedback, by email for instance.

Yves Lavandier facing Gérard Jugnot in Yes, But...
(photo by Pascal Caubère)