In Conversation with Annie St-Pierre, director of Like The Ones I Used To Know (Les Grandes Claques)
Annie St-Pierre’s 2021 live-action short ‘Like The Ones I Used To Know (Les Grandes Claques)’ is a touching coming of age tale that deals with topics of family and empathy, all whilst set against the backdrop of Christmas Eve. Strand sat with director Annie St-Pierre to discuss the meaning of the film’s two titles, her creative process in regards to filmmaking and more.
Credit- Annie St-Pierre
Kevin Wang: Can you tell me about your creative process? How did you end up making this film and where did you get the idea from?
Annie St-Pierre: The idea came from a long time ago, more than ten years ago. I wrote this script with one of my dear friends Daniel Schachter and it was because someone asked me to write a short film, a collective of shorts about Christmas, and it just made me think that my Christmases were very different from my cousins who had diverse families. It was difficult for me to see that our family was not together and that we had to make difficult choices even as kids.
I would not say that this film is autobiographical, but it’s auto-fiction. I used to make documentaries, and I made more than three feature documentaries, and maybe ten medium length documentaries for TV. What made me take this script out of the drawer and write it again and rewrite every scene and every character is that I did my first fiction short film a couple of years ago, and it was just a four minute short and not in a professional context, but I did that and I just felt free. It was a script in Mandarin, and it was all played in Mandarin and by non-actors who only speak Mandarin, and for me I felt free with fiction, and I needed to explore more with that kind of freedom.
KW: The meanings of the English title and the French title are very different. Can you explain the significance of both?
ASP: I chose both, and I think that language is something that is really specific, and just to translate words for me is not enough. I really wanted something for [the character of Denis] in French and in English too. It was all about translation. For the French title Les Grandes Claques, it would not work in English, because “les claques” means to slap or smack, and we can say “ça c’est vraiment grosse claque”, which means that in your life there was something that shocked you. It’s also a kind of overshoe that you put over your shoes for adult men during the winter, but just old men wear it. So, for me that was the image for “claque”. Something that shakes you. It also meant the shoes of the father that the little girl has to wear in a symbolic way, because she’s becoming and taking the place of the adult. She’s the one who’s taking care of her father, so it’s a really poetic and symbolic title that I’m not sure if people are at all catching, but sometimes in films, it’s important to keep some little things that only you can perfectly understand.
As for the English title, it comes from the line in the song ‘White Christmas,’ that goes “just like the ones I used to know”. For Denis, the family are the people he used to know, and everything he used to know is disappearing now. So for me, it was the perfect sentence. I have to say that it’s a little wink to my father too because it’s his favourite song. It brings memories of a sunny day in the summer, while he is gardening and singing “just like the ones he used to know”.
Credit- Annie St-Pierre
KW: Were the tragic-comedic elements in your short film an intentional decision?
ASP: Yes, it was planned like that. I feel like in life, as in film, when it’s tragic it’s a bit funny too. Maybe I’m cruel, I don’t know! I think that I'm a sarcastic person, and when it’s tragic or when something bad happens, I have to laugh about it. Also, I could say that for the visual aspect of the scene where everyone is singing the Christmas carol, I had in mind and referred to the photographer Martin Parr, who looked at people with tenderness but was able to make them look ridiculous too. I’m always interested in what I call ‘the cruelty of day-to-day life’.
I think because when I write I always use the vulnerable part of myself to try to find the vulnerable part of my characters, and I think it’s this space that all human beings can communicate the best. I love the pathetic characters in the film, and I think it’s just because they allow us to be vulnerable, and it feels good to be in front of those characters. I always try to give them as much emotional complexity as a real human, and it’s always this thing of not totally ‘sad’ or not totally ‘funny’. It doesn’t exist for me; emotions are much more complex, and I try to give that to my characters. I also have to say that I have amazing actors in this film so that's probably the main reason it works.
KW: Why did you decide to tell the story from the subjective perspective of Julie, the little girl?
ASP: I think it’s funny because in interviews sometimes people ask me why I chose the film to be in the father’s perspective. It’s perfect because I intended it to be in both perspectives, because I think that as a family, we sometimes become one, and as a child in a family, you have to go through some difficult moments, or adult problems, at the same time as they are facing it. It forces you to evolve and grow faster than you might have if everything went perfectly. For me, Julie and Denis, the father and the daughter, have this deep relationship, this really deep understanding of everyone, and this performance of sincere love, so it was about that. It was also about the relationship between the father and the daughter. Most of all, I think it’s a film about the birth of empathy.
KW: What mood or feeling were you trying to convey with the production design and the art design?
ASP: I’m so lucky to have worked with Eric Barbeau who is a master here in Canada. He has this really singular way of doing production design which is to do it ‘by the heart’. He just tries to put some feelings in a house, or a place, and he would totally redo everything, and he would touch every little detail. Even if the camera didn’t go there, he would go there. I just let him do what he wants. Every wardrobe of the house was full of what reflected the era, even if there was nothing in the script about the wardrobe. He’s doing that because he really wants the actors to feel like they’re in a real house. For me it was important that we feel like we’re in a family house in the early 80’s, in the countryside, and that this house has had many other Christmases before. What I really love about Eric Barbeau is that his design is never decorative, and everything that is decorative for filming purposes doesn’t interest me. You really have to make a universe with little gizmos everywhere.
‘Like The Ones I Used To Know (Les Grandes Claques)’ has won three Oscar-qualifying awards and has screened at over 50 international film festivals, including its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
Edited by Saffron Brown Davis, Film Editor