Dealing with desire
In Split, author and critic Iris Brey turns screenwriter and director for a story about a woman confronting her sexuality in the face of overwhelming desire. She joins co-writer Clémence Madeleine-Perdrillat and stars Alma Jodorowsky and Jehnny Beth to tell DQ about the series.
In Le Regard Féminin (The Female Gaze), French author and critic Iris Brey drew on examples from French and English-language cinema to explore how women are seen through the camera lens and represented on screen.
Having watched so many films and series in her research for the book and in her role as host of television review show Le cercle des series, Brey also noted a number of themes and topics that haven’t been present – and she has now leaned into those ideas in her own scripted series, Split.
The five-part drama, produced by Cinétévé, stars Alma Jodorowsky as Anna, a 30-year-old stuntwoman who falls in love with Eve (Jehnny Beth), the actor she is standing in for on the set of her latest film. Anna thought she was happy in her relationship, but will she have the courage to leave her heterosexuality to confront her overwhelming desire?
Brey directs the series, which had its world premiere at French television festival Series Mania earlier this year, and also writes the scripts with Clémence Madeleine-Perdrillat. Split will also screen at the Geneva International Film Festival on Saturday, ahead of its debut on France Télévisions’ Slash on November 24.
“The story came from me,” Brey tells DQ about the origins of the project. “I wanted to tell the story of a woman in her 30s who decides to leave heterosexuality and discover something else because it’s something I’ve experience and haven’t seen on screen.
“But the story is bigger than that in other ways. I wanted to tell a story about death and rebirth, and studying film and writing The Female Gaze, all the things I hadn’t seen or that I have seen in very few movies that brought me joy or emotion were very precise in my mind.
“I knew, for example, that I wanted some of my characters to have their period, which is something you never see on screen but is part of our lives. I wanted to see someone go through a miscarriage, because it’s something we never talk about but is something many of us go through. I knew that there were things I really wanted to write about from studying film.”
As a television critic for many years, Brey spotted a “revolution” on the small screen that made it the perfect home for her first project, one in which she wanted to explore female narratives. Slash’s younger audience was also appealing to the writer, while the channel afforded her the chance to experiment with her own filmmaking style.
But to write the scripts, she decided to partner with Madeleine-Perdrillat (Irresistible, Drops of God), who she describes as a “star TV writer” in France.
“I had watched several series written by Clemence and what was striking to me was that she would always show things I’d never seen before, and that her writing about female narratives is always so complex and moving,” Brey says. She then reached out to Madeleine-Perdrillat on Instagram, and discovered they had previously shared messages when The Female Gaze was published in 2020. “But I hadn’t met her, so I told her about the series and asked her if she was interested in the subject and helping me.”
Madeleine-Perdrillat signed up, arriving at a point where Brey had already laid out her ambitions for the series. “My work was then to create a distance between [the story and] the reality of Iris’s life, her own experiences and her gaze as a critic, bringing more adventure into the love story,” she says.
“When I arrived, Iris has already worked on the idea of the actor having a stunt double, and one character was going through a miscarriage and another one was pregnant – everything was a mirror image. So what I did was step out of this idea, this form, this idea of ‘the double’ that was everywhere, to bring more storytelling to the series.”
One element of the story they worked on in particular was bringing strengths and weaknesses to both Anna and Eve, so the story doesn’t just rest on Anna’s experience.
“What was interesting to explore is what happens when somebody looks at you,” Brey says. “That’s what I wanted to film – what happens when somebody really sees you. That changes everything. Sometimes it’s nothing, but knowing somebody knows who you are, looks at you and knows what you’re going through, that’s what I’m interested in in love stories, when somebody has their eyes on you.”
Madeleine-Perdrillat calls Split a contemporary fairy tale and says Brey’s early scripts were “the most radical story writing” she had ever read. “I didn’t know where she was going to take the scenes,” she says.
For Brey, not having any experience writing fiction for the screen meant there was a lot of space for her to explore the story.
“Some things didn’t work but it was wonderful to work together to think about why it wasn’t working, thinking of new ideas or tightening the story,” she says. “It’s also the way we shot it and [worked] on my set. I didn’t know the rules. I had never been on a movie set before and so I wrote a story that happens on a movie set never really knowing what it was like.
“I wanted it to be a place of hard work and joy. I didn’t want people to feel a hierarchy and I didn’t want to reproduce systems of domination on my set, and I think that’s a new way of directing. Not having seen anything before gave me the freedom and the space to make up our own rules and reinvent the rules as a crew.”
Brey shared with the cast and crew a list of films that inspired the themes or visual style of Split – works from filmmakers such as Delphine Seyrig, Musidora and Germaine Dulac – and fostered a collaborative spirit on set from the beginning. This included asking various members of the team about their thoughts on a scene once it had been shot.
“Sometimes they were taken aback because usually you don’t go to another technician to talk about the way we’re shooting,” she says. “But it was really important to me that everybody was feeling the same thing. When I look at my crew’s faces and sometimes I didn’t get what I wanted or create an emotion, I could really feel it.”
The intensity of the 16-day shoot in Touraine, a province south-west of Paris, was reflected in the way the drama was shot, and the burgeoning relationship between Anna and Eve. Notably, the show’s sex scenes were filmed together with intimacy coordinator Palomar Garcia Martens, who took up a role Brey says is still rare in French filmmaking.
“It was really important to me the intimacy coordinator was working with us on creating an aesthetic,” she says. “When we worked with Palomar, my director of photography [DOP] and the first assistant director were also there with the actors, really thinking about how we would shoot this. We would first choreograph the whole thing and then the DOP and I would think, ‘Where do we put the camera?’ We would shoot it and show it to the actresses and say, ‘OK, how can we make this better?’
“Creating an image wasn’t just me saying, ‘This is what I want.’ It was, ‘Let’s search together and say what we’ve never seen.’ Having the time to create a new visual grammar of desire was what I loved the most about this project.”
Jodorowsky remembers making Split was “very intense, very powerful,” but she and Beth praise the female-led crew for creating a collaborative, supportive environment on set.
“Everyone was working together to bring Iris’s vision to life,” Beth says. “It was very moving because it meant a lot for Iris to do this. Watching the birth of a director is also very moving, especially when they’re as good as Iris.”
“It was a first for all of us in different ways,” continues Jodorowsky. “For me, it was the first time I was playing a character so in her body, so active. I’ve been playing more passive characters before that and for me it was a joy. The series is about desire, and desire really drove not just the characters but everyone on set. Everyone was really driven by desire and how powerful it was.”
The actors also valued the chance to work with Martens, who not only created a safe working space for them both but put additional meaning into those intimate scenes so that they could carry the story forward.
“We have stunt choreographers for fight scenes and for intimacy scenes the coordinator is the same,” Beth explains. “It should be just normal. I enjoyed preparing those scenes, shooting those scenes and watching them afterwards because there was this environment. Normally you dread them, you’re afraid before you do them. When you do them it’s not very pleasurable. All of that was gone.”
“The first day we just learned to look into each other’s eyes and hold hands, and all of a sudden you have a very calm, more trustful experience and it’s something that really helped us through the whole path of our work, through all of the scenes,” Jodorowsky adds.
Jodorowsky describes her character, Anna, as someone who has a very stable life, who has been with her boyfriend for 10 years and who she is trying to start a family with. But when she meets Eve, she suddenly connects with a part of her life that she has hidden – and falls in love at first sight.
Meanwhile, Eve has a history of sexual abuse and opens up to Anna. “They help each other with their own wounds,” Beth says. “That’s what’s touching.”
“It was not just a character, it was a whole culture that you felt you were embracing,” says Jodorowsky, who had her own stunt double on set. “I said to Iris that I’d love to do a role or project that changes me in my life, and that’s exactly what happened. There was a connection with pleasure the characters had that really changed me in a way.”
“Everything was connecting, but it’s really rare. The emotional and the intellectual really connected. It’s rare you can see that,” Beth says. “I know people will love it. It’s a series that talks about an important subject but it’s a project with cinematographic ambitions and I hope people will see that too.”