“Swim, Little Fish, Swim” provides insights, depth into family, art

Ruben Amar and Lola Bessis’ first feature film, “Swim Little Fish Swim,” offers a successfully whimsical twist on the trials of reality. Set primarily in New York City, the humorous film follows Lila (played by the charming Bessis), the daughter of renowned artist Françoise de Castillon (Anne Consigny), as she struggles to establish her own artistic identity in America. After escaping — quite literally – from her eccentric boyfriend (also an artist), Lilas enters the life of an atypical American family.

Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa) is a talented musician but a child at heart. Much to his wife Mary’s (Brooke Bloom) dismay, Leeward often turns down well-paying jobs, alleging that commercial work would sacrifice his artistic integrity. And then there’s Maggie (Olivia Durling Costello) – or is it Rainbow? Her feuding parents cannot even agree on their child’s name. Perhaps this tragic state of affairs would consume the film’s mood, if not for the dynamic characters that enliven their circumstances with a little hope and simple melodies.

This sense of simplicity allows the directors to turn potentially serious material into a comedic film. I had the pleasure of Skyping with Amar and Bessis this past weekend to discuss the unparalleled creativity behind “Nage, Poisson, Nage” (the French title for the film).

I was greeted by smiles from both and a “How are you?” in Amar’s eloquent French accent, as the two got comfortable. After a brief interval of my gushing over their film in a typical star-struck-teenager sort of way, we began our conversation with a discussion of their developing film styles – something that Bessis revealed has “changed a lot” in the past decade. These changes are the result of “trying many things through short film” as well as “taking a different approach with the actors,” explained Amar.

The construction of “Swim” followed decade or more of experimentation with short films, starting as early as 2006 with the release of Amar’s “Objet Perdu(e).” This film, like Bessis’s “Chinatown Portrait” (2010), is a student film. It wasn’t until 2011 with the production of “Checkpoint” that the two had enough money to create a more distinguished short film. In fact, Amar revealed, they had more money for “Checkpoint” than for “Swim.” This accounts for many of the differences between the two films.

“The subject matter was very different because we shot at the border between Israel and Palestine [for “Checkpoint”],” Bessis said. “It was more political [than “Swim”]. But there is one similarity…We still have the point of view of the kid.”

However, what makes “Swim” so unique are the interactions the directors had with their actors even before the cameras started rolling.

“We made a lot of workshops with the actors to create something very fresh, very new,” Amar said.

“I would say that the main difference was… for ‘Swim, Little Fish, Swim’ we wanted to write a very simple storyline so that we could have room to experiment with the actors,” Bessis added. “We wrote all the dialogue with the actors because we were actually recording and shooting the workshops and after that, every night we would write the dialogues accordingly… We chose the words of the actors and [allowed] their way of talking and moving to inspire us.”

This inspiration played a major role in crafting the film’s cunning humor.

“We really wanted the movie to be a comedy,” Bessis said. “The characters all have something kind of funny in their behavior.” But the necessity of plot complications introduced more serious themes such as those of gender differences and marital conflict.

“The movie shows that women are stronger than men,” Amar said, and the relationship between the immature Leeward and his stalwart wife certainly reinforces this theme. But rather than offer a simple social or political message, the directors aim to showcase the difficulties of being an artist.

The film’s opening scene, in which Lilas is tied up wearing nothing but her signature red lipstick, jumps right into artistic commentary.

“We thought that [the “bondage” scene] would be a good way to… ‘ridiculise’ the artist [Lilas’ ex-boyfriend, Leo] in a way.” Bessis explained that he was not too different than her character’s mother. Both are dedicated artists, but whereas Leo’s work is very experimental – “part of another system” – Lilas’s mother has achieved fame on account of her paintings’ simplicity.

Much of the film’s success derives not only from the characters in Lilas’ life but also from the film’s use of her physical surroundings. Her character, the directors explained, was the sole focus of the film – her surroundings merely allow her to mature as she follows her ambitions.

“Lilas wants to flee [the] life she used to have in Paris, but… she cannot escape it; she will still be [herself],” said Bessis.
As a young woman trying to establish her independence, Lilas’ character is in many ways quite similar to that of the four-year-old Maggie.

“I never thought about this,” Bessis said when I brought up the parallel, “but it looks obvious now. [Like Lilas,] Maggie is also torn between the kind of life her mother would like her to have and her dad’s free spirit.”

Growing up and coming-of-age emerge as major themes in the film, even for the adult characters. Leeward is introduced in the film trying to persuade his friends that his book, “Give to the People,” is the solution to creating an informed and idealistic world. Ultimately, Leeward gives the book to Lilas.

Originally, “Give to the People” was intended as “a pretext for him [Leeward] to walk in… to be involved in society,” Amar said. The book was not expected to play a major role, but unanticipated developments like this are what give the film its enchanting spontaneity.

The twists and turns of “Swim” enhance the film’s realism. Life is full of unexpected currents, but there is an unconventional beauty in the ability to navigate the rough waters.

“Each of the characters could be the fish,” said Bessis, “because they are all sort of trapped…” The title gives “positive order” to the characters and their struggles.

We concluded our conversation with a brief discussion of Amar and Bessis’ future plans. For the time being they have their hands full with final preparations before “Swim’s” release this spring, but they do have a few projects currently underway. I’ll be waiting with baited breath (sorry, I’m hooked on fish puns) to see what this incredible team comes up with next.

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