‘Thunder’ Director Carmen Jaquier Breaks Down Her Toronto Platform Drama

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In an early scene in “Thunder” (“Foudre”), the camera soars around the Swiss Alps. Caught at first in daytime, as it glides down a grassy hillside, past a stream, it hovers over a high valley, up to rocky peaks and blue sky and around again in a final 360 degree circle. There it alights on Elisabeth, 17, a nun, as the sun sets behind a mountain in silhouette. Meanwhile, religious choir music swells on the soundtrack.

The shot is symptomatic of the muscular physical direction of Swiss writer-director Carmen Jaquier, whose feature debut world premieres at Toronto’s Platform, before segueing to San Sebastian’s main New Directors sidebar, where it weighs in as one of the buzziest titles in the section.

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“Thunder” is set in 1900 when the church exercised an extraordinary grip over outward social life and Swiss hamlets were dirt poor. Elisabeth returns to her village after the mysterious death of her elder sister, Innocence. Discovering Innocence’s diary, she is soon treading the same path to emancipation.

“Thunder” is produced by Geneva’s Close Up Films, a co-producer on “I Am Not Your Negro.” It is sold by WTFilms as the Paris-based sales agent broadens its slate beyond genre. Variety talked to Jaquier about the film.

Early on in “Thunder,” your camera revolves across dramatic Swiss mountain tops in a 360-degree loop. Slightly later, at a village bonfire, Elisabeth exchanges glances with three young men. In both scenes religious music plays. In many ways, these scenes, in their fusion of nature, sex and faith, anticipate the whole film.

I think it always comes down to this. There’s a moment during writing when you realize you won’t be able to say everything you want to say during a movie. So I talked with the DP, Marine Atlan, about having some scenes where the audience can feel — though not understand directly — all the levels that I assembled during research. The 360-degree shot reflected a desire to feel the movement of Elisabeth in this immensity. I wanted the camera to go under the earth, to hear the rivers, to give the sense of so many things in this world, anticipating that something will happen and the drama that will play out in the film.

And what were your guidelines when directing?

That’s a huge question. Directing for me is really an interplay between image and actors’ performance. I always try to stay in the present. When we shot outside, in nature, if the wind blew during a take, I knew that that would be the shot I’d keep for editing, because you’re dealing with something you can’t direct. So maybe my direction is to sometimes let go and trust in something that doesn’t come from me.

“Thunder” turns on a young woman’s battle for liberation in the 1900 Swiss Alps. Why this period?

It was a mixture of reasons. I found notebooks from my great-grandmother. She was a mystical person, full of devotion. She talked with her God, wrote every day and could tell everything to this presence, including really sensual things. In my research, I also discovered that in this part of Switzerland in this period the farmers often fought against the church because they came from a world which had a more mystical base.

So how could the church exercise the power you see in the film?

There were contradictions. People needed to obey church rules. They were poor and wanted a place in society, something to keep misery away. The church gave men power through the authority they were allowed to exercise over women. Through its portrait of the three friends of Elisabeth, the film narrates the place of men in society. It’s not just about women.

What were your inspirations when making “Thunder”?

I have a long history with some artists. I carry in my heart Ana Mendieta, Kiki Smith. … During the shoot, we also talked a lot about two movies. One was Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew,” a film full of grace. If you watch a film so many times, at one point something of it fuses with your own film.

And the second movie?

Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light.” It’s one of the most beautiful films I have seen — how the camera floats independently of the characters, for example. In my movie, I was also really interested in displaying the physicality of the camera work, by its movements and the choice of optics. We decided with Marine not to hide the digital film process, to bring something more contemporary to “Thunder,” because the film is a historical movie that tackles present-day issues.

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