It’s a dreary autumn morning when I find myself in a virtual interview with French director Eva Husson. The grey skies outside the window are fitting when we’re to discuss her new film, Mothering Sunday (2021), playing in the Gala strand of the BFI London Film Festival. Its reflection of death, and the certainty that none of us are exempt from experiencing loss and grief, has an impenetrable air of sadness.
Adapted by screenwriter Alice Birch from Graham Swift’s 2016 novel, the film opens on a Mothering Sunday in Henley, England. It’s the mid-1920s and families are still grieving the loss of their sons in the First World War. The prominent families are taking lunch by the river. Jane, a young maid for the Niven family, is involved in a secret affair with Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), the sole surviving son of another prominent family. The pair need to be discreet because he’s engaged to Emma Hobday (Emma D’Arcy), who was the intended wife of his older brother.
Jane is coy about what she’s going to do with her day off when asked by Mr. Niven (Colin Firth). While the families gather by the river, Jane and Paul enjoy the privacy of his vacant family home, shedding their clothes, making love, and afterward, they lay around naked, smoking and talking. Decades later, Jane, now a writer, is living with Donald (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), but she’s distracted from working on her new thriller by the memories of the events surrounding that day when tragedy ripped open grief’s wounds.
The conversation begins with us discussing Jane’s representation of femininity and creative agency. “Neither Graham nor Alice wrote any line about what it means to be a female character striving to be a creator,” says Husson. “I loved depicting a character that carries herself through the world with an enormous amount of presence and intent, and who looks around like a human being.” Jane’s character presents many possibilities. Husson believes “the whole conversation about feminism swallows the bigger questions”, and as a woman director and storyteller, she doesn’t want to only talk about her female gaze on those questions.
Husson’s preference to not have the story be a feminist-led approach is shared by Birch, Youn, and the film’s producer, Elizabeth Karlsen. “…None of us were talking about feminism, not that feminism isn’t relevant. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a hardcore feminist, but I want to have a space in my life where I’m not talking about feminism every five minutes [laughs]. It takes a big chunk out of our lives at the moment. Jane frees herself from that conversation and that’s why she’s a trailblazer.”
“There was definitely oppression towards women in the 1920s,” Husson continues, “She’s a maid and she’s having an affair with someone who has power, and that power imbalance is gigantic. However, because she’s such a different character, she makes it so that she’s the free person in the dynamic, and that is extraordinary to witness. It’s a privilege to be able to tell that story and show that representation of a woman.”
Openly expressing her frustration, Husson declares, “As a woman director, storyteller, and member of the audience, I’m sick of representations of women struggling just because they’re women. It’s necessary to tell these stories, but it sensationalises us to that struggle, and that’s something that we have an interest in fighting.” She believes that these stereotypical representations are inevitable, and while she’ll support them, she wants us to, “find stories and representations where it’s not about the struggle of being a woman, it’s about the struggle of being a human being.” She continues, “It’s already tough to figure out who you are, how to survive, and how to hold onto your humanity, in spite of the truckloads of shit life presents you with every day. Sorry, that wasn’t a very graceful image.”
Politically and culturally we are seduced by our adversarial instincts. Instead of empowering people, society is set up to devalue the individual, denying them power and influence. Husson is correct to say being human is to struggle, and if it’s easy to explain the reason this behavioural trend is difficult to break – we’re closer to the question of why we can’t resolve these issues than the answer of how we can.
“Unfortunately, the question remains valid in the sense that we’re still in a very patriarchal system, which is oppressive to men and women,” remarks the director. “Toxic masculinity works against men also, it’s not just about women. It’s about how we live our lives in these roles that are hard to maintain, without going bonkers.”
She adds, “I dream of the day when no one asks male directors what they want to say about masculinity and gender roles. A lot of the time it’s about the bigger questions, and that’s how I think about Jane and this story. She’s definitely filmed and written like a woman, and there were things I pushed for.”
Husson believes the nudity in the film differs from how it would have been filmed from the point of view of the male gaze. “Jane only happens to be naked and walking around the house. I didn’t make that scene about softness and sexiness, it’s about someone owning the world around her. The sex scenes are more about emotions. When she’s getting undressed, it’s about how she feels.”
One of the striking aspects of Mothering Sunday is how the sex – which the director suggests is just 45 seconds of onscreen footage – and the nudity lacks erotic energy. Instead, Husson presents the unadulterated form of her actors’ bodies, a tender picture of two lovers sharing their vulnerability.
“It was important to forget about the steaminess of sex, which does exist, but if we’re real about this, it’s around one percent of the time. It’s not like we spend our lives running around in steamy hot sex scenes. The rest of the time when you’re naked is about intimacy and vulnerability.
“Having that safe space with somebody is one of the most extraordinary experiences of one’s life. The longest part of the film is Jane and Paul talking about personal things while they’re naked. It’s what’s around the sex that’s important, and that’s what makes it special.”
The director suggests the audience may remember seeing her undress when they don’t. Yes, Jane is undressed by Paul, but it’s filmed with abstract close-ups that hint at the process of her undressing. We never see her undress, and one imagines the male gaze would have filmed the spectacle of her naked unveiling, which Husson subverts with her feminine gaze.
“All of these things are informed by the fact I’m a woman”, she explains. “I’ve thought about the female gaze and how to engage, but I want men and women to watch the movie and to be able to leave that conversation at the door, embracing the characters for who they are. They’re just flawed human beings who are trying their best to survive, and it’s not easy for anyone, in any era.”
Husson and Birch don’t position the families as being particularly guilty of hubris, but they’re reminded of their fallibility and how, in spite of their wealth, power, and influence, they’re not infallible. The façade of a once pristine life is chipped by the debris of death, their lavish lifestyles and traditions provide little solace.
Meanwhile, Jane has no family, and Mrs. Niven (Olivia Colman) sees in her someone who can escape grief. She tells her she was “comprehensively bereaved at birth, and she must use this as a gift. A theme of the film is control, and honoring its sad soul, the story matures into a touching reflection of how grief touches us all.
“One of the most interesting things about the film is the narrative that already existed in the novel. You want to maintain this façade to the world. You don’t own up to your own emotions, to your own grief, but there’s no way you’re going to get away with not processing it,” says Husson, who read the novel after experiencing her own personal loss.
“There’s not one of us that will go through life without knowing what death is. It’s hard to remain human and know what to do. There’s no manual for being human and we carry the luggage of our own era with us.” She continues, “Some eras are absolutely devastating, like the 1920s were, where all these families and these men were not allowed to be themselves. They had to carry some façade around and that was extremely detrimental to their mental health.
“Jane is not like that and that’s why she survives. She’s a survivor because she’s very honest with her own depth, and she’s lucky because not many people have honesty. It’s the journey of how she owns it that makes her character so remarkable.”