Girls into women: Muriel & Delphine Coulin's drama transports a striking U.S. news story to the shores of France

Strand Releasing’s 17 Girls, written and directed by siblings Delphine and Muriel Coulin, was inspired by the real-life news story of a group of American teenage girls who made a pregnancy pact together. It’s a terrifically well-made coming-of age tale which, given its subject matter, both addresses certain vital issues of adolescence and avoids the easy predictability rampant in the genre. Superbly acted by a sorority of fresh, lovely young faces, this French import marks a quite remarkable feature debut for this sister team of auteurs. We met with Muriel Coulin during her trip to New York this past March for the annual “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” festival at Lincoln Center.

Film Journal International: What gave you the idea for this film?
Muriel Coulin: Actually, I read two lines in a French newspaper and as soon as I read them, I said, “This is an incredible story. We should do something about this.” In our previous short films, my sister Delphine and I dealt with femininity and the body, and we thought that here was the possibility of developing the themes we had [explored] before.

The fact was that 17 young girls in the same school in Gloucester, Massachusetts, decided to get pregnant together and they did it. Gloucester is very similar to our French town in the film, a middle-range town by the Atlantic Ocean. Economically and even geographically, it is quite similar, so it was not so far-fetched to be adapted.

FJI: For a first feature, this is wonderfully assured and well-shot.
MC: Thank you. We didn’t think that every day while shooting it, but if you say so! In cinema history there are quite a lot of films made by brothers but never any sisters, so I think we are kind of a premiere.

FJI: Does she or you do more of the directing, or the writing?

MC: It is fifty-fifty, really. We share everything and are very close to each other, so there is no problem sharing the direction.

FJI: Did you study film in school?
MC: I went to film school and my sister did political sciences. I went to one of the two national film schools in Paris. I started making short films and docs. My sister was a novelist. I was a cinematographer on other films.

FJI: 17 Girls really captures the youthful sensuality of the girls visually, as well as the beach setting.

MC: We took great care about the visual aspects. The aesthetics were very important, although you didn’t want it to be too aesthetic. At the same time, the form is very important. We were always looking for new forms and new ways of showing things. We like the cinema of sensation, showing how the wind blows, how you can feel the sand on the beach, new ways of showing life, in fact.

FJI: It all feels very fresh, and not like some civics lesson about “the problems of youth today.” You also captured that kind of stifling boredom one can feel even in a lovely beach town. Growing up in Hawaii myself, I could relate.
MC: Someone told me this morning, “When you see the natural beauty of the landscape and all that, you should never get bored.” I thought, “Wow, it looks like you’ve never been a 17-year-old girl by the seaside. Because in a little town like this, you feel that there is nothing to do and the seaside cannot help you. My sister and I remember going to the seaside with our parents every Sunday and walking on the beach and feeling, “Ohmigod, this is too terrible here!” [laughs] We wanted to go back to those feelings we had when we were young.

FJI: Did you grow up in Paris?

MC: Oh, no! We were in Lorient, in Brittany, the west of France. We weren’t Parisians at all. Paris was like a dream for us in this small city by the seaside. In winter, it’s terrible: You just look at the sea and it’s often raining. It’s grey and you feel like you’re going to be trapped in this town for your whole life and everybody knows everything about everyone else.

FJI: Your film is superbly acted. Were these actresses first-timers?
MC: Yes, a lot of first-time actresses—most of them, actually. We did a very long casting which lasted nine months and we saw 600 girls, mostly non-professionals. But two of them were a little known. Our lead, Louise Grinberg, who plays Camille, was in The Class and we did notice her. She was so pretty, such a personality, and the second one is Roxane Duran, as the girl who is fakes her pregnancy. She worked in The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke, in that scene where she is speaking about death with the little boy…a fantastic actress. Apart from those girls, all of them were non-professional, so we had the great job of rehearsing and mixing them together and making it happen. Because at first they were looking at each other like statues and completely not like friends, so we had to work it from the first shot to convince you they were friends.

We took them out to dinners, parties, went to the beach swimming, and singing together—everything that would make it work, but it didn’t feel like it was a job or work.
Grinberg had a very small part in The Class and is a very simple girl, so easy to work with. She’s so pretty and intelligent and had done a little bit of work in cinema before. But she’s not big-headed at all, even though she’s so beautiful when you see her walking in the street. She’s great.

FJI: Yes, a classic French beauty, like a model for Marianne [the French national symbol of liberty, stemming from the Revolution]. Every year, there seems to be a new one. What do you feed those girls?
MC: Yeah, yeah, you are right. Well, we are not all like that, unfortunately [laughs].

FJI: I was most impressed by Yara Pilartz, who plays Clementine. Although so tiny and young, she seems to possess the rich soul of a true character actress, like a little Simone Signoret.
MC: It’s her first time on the screen. She came in the casting room like a dream, this small girl with red hair. We had a character that might have fit her comfortably, so we gave her some lines, and ohmigod, it was like she had 15 years’ experience, a fantastic actress. She was right on the point from the very first shot, the very first take, fantastically good. She is getting to be well-known, did a film for television already and won a prize for it. It is no problem for her

FJI: As an American, it’s always interesting to see how our culture has taken over yours, especially where the youth is concerned, like with all the music. You have such a rich culture, but all the kids seem to want to be is black rappers.
MC: That’s right. At the same time, we have this strong French background and culture. Like Camille has over her bed a portrait of Arthur Rimbaud. When we are at school, we study those poets and French literature, so it is there in the background, this French culture. But it is true that teenagers want to be American. When I said I was going to New York, it was like a dream for them: “What? Those people will see us in this film?!” They were very proud of that.

FJI: I also liked the fact that you portrayed their parents as real, struggling people, not indifferent monsters.
MC: It was important to give a counterpoint to the girls, but at the same because we follow the girls, they are a little bit in the background. That does not mean they are not important, but they don’t know how to deal with this phenomenon. They have no means to stop them. In France, there is a law that you cannot interfere with the births of your kids, even if they’re underage. The parents cannot force the child to abort, so they have no means of stopping them. Suddenly, they see this phenomenon that grows and grows and cannot stop it.

FJI: Is there a lot of teen pregnancy in France?

MC: Yes, quite a lot. It’s kind of a problem, in a way, and the government is making things to prevent it, sending information for teenagers to be aware that this is not only a game, but what happens afterwards… The fact of illegitimacy is not so much a problem anymore, even in this Catholic country.

The debate is completely different in France and in the U.S., because when this was happening in Gloucester, it was a matter of “We have to prevent this and take care of the paternity of the children.” It was a Catholic matter and the debate was on.

In France, it was totally different, because now those questions with feminists and all that are far away now. The problem is more how to bring up those children in a better way.

FJI: How was your film received in France?
MC: It has been very well-received. Since Critics’ Week in Cannes it has been for us a wonderful adventure, fantastic! My sister couldn’t be here in New York. She wanted to come, but she is pregnant. She’s the 18th pregnant girl of the film! But usually we do all this together. We travel together and it is a fantastic way to show our films.

The film was released in December and the press was really good. It sold quite a lot abroad, which was a surprise for us. We did many festivals around the world and it was funny to see how it was received in India, for example, because there teen pregnancy never happens, maybe in the countryside. We also went to a French island where teen pregnancy is very common, 13- to 14-year-old girls. We saw two countries’ reactions, where the matter is not the same at all. It was great to deliver it to different audiences like that.

FJI: I hope a lot of French kids have seen it, even if American films have dominance for many of them.
MC: Not that many kids. Our audiences have been more like 30 to 40 years old. And now there is a problem of this phenomenon that you cannot control, this downloading of films. I heard kids say, “Yeah, your film looks fantastic, but we’ll wait until we can load it onto the Net, or wait for the DVD.” I would say, “That’s terrible. Come and see the film tonight, but they’d be like, “No, we wait. It’s less expensive.” What can we do?

FJI: What was your budget?

MC: The budget was good, but not too much. Our producer also does the Dardenne Brothers, very good, and he gave us time to be good, to rehearse with the young girls and to be at ease throughout our film. It’s very important. On a first film, you don’t know where you’re going, you are traveling into the unknown. It was less than three million dollars, which is I think good but not that much. We didn’t have a big cast and the girls were unknown, so salaries were low, but it was very well-produced.

FJI: Who are your favorite filmmakers?
MC: When I was a focus puller, I worked with Krzysztof Kieslowski on The Double Life of Veronique, Blue, Red and White. Every day was a master class. His personality made him so strong. I remember shooting Veronique at night and he was listening to opera and trying to get the technicians to do their best. It’s like a conductor for music and if he’s good, everybody’s good. You want to do your best. He was a fantastic human being, very humble, and I learned a new lesson every day. You will probably never be as good as he was, but you try to push your limits to be the best that you can.

FJI: What’s next?
MC: We are writing now, but with a second film you have to be strategic about what you do. It must be in the same vein but a little bit different, too. It won’t be about such young characters this time. You have to grow up, unfortunately, and get older.