Premiering in the Cannes Official Selection as a Special Screening, French-Swedish director Anna Novion’s astute drama, Marguerite’s Theorem, is a confrontation of academic excellence. Novion’s film follows the eponymous Marguerite (a stripped-back performance from Raw break-out Ella Rumpf), a highly-praised mathematics student at France’s Ecole Normale Supérieure. As she prepares to present her revered thesis, a fatal flaw is spotted and the error sends her life, and several years of research, into disarray.
Once a scholarship PhD student with a bright future, Marguerite is now a college dropout in desperate search of somewhere to channel her restless mind. Goldbach’s conjecture, the unsolved theory she was so close to resolving, still plagues her but with bills to pay and a brewing frustration at her supervisor’s untrustworthiness, Marguerite sets out on her own path. Mixing romance and maths, Marguerite’s Theorem endeavors to explore the reality of a wildly gifted student attempting to rebuild her life and catch up on the youth she had traded in for textbooks.
We spoke to Novion at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival about how she first came across the mathematical world, the inspiration behind this formidably intelligent character, and developing the film’s unique genre identity.
Projektor: Mathematics seems unemotional as a subject so it was very unique to see human emotion appear so strongly. What was it about the subject that interested you in the first place?
Anna Novion: I actually stumbled on this subject by chance. When I write a film I always start with an emotion, a feeling. This film came from an experience that I went through when I was sick and had to stay inside for six months. When I finally could come out, I felt I was not like other young people my age. There was some kind of difference. I found a way of transposing that in the world of the higher, elite schools they have in France and the universe of mathematics.
But also, this film came from an encounter with Ariane Mézard, who is one of the 33 female mathematicians that we have in France. When she talked about maths, the way she talked about it made me think of my line of work because she talked about passion, risk-taking, and everything. [She shared] that sometimes mathematicians spend years trying to solve theorems without being sure they will find anything out. This is really similar, and I could feel there was something parallel with my line of work.
It inspired me because the way of creating art is very close to the way of creating maths. The encounter with Ariane Mézard was really the main point because she showed me maths can be poetic and not just like all the cliches.
Sometimes mathematicians spend years trying to solve theorems without being sure they will find anything out…I could feel there was something parallel with my line of work.
The film also centers on a woman in a male-dominated world who seems to view life as a series of problems to solve. Why did that perspective appeal to you?
Indeed. When I met with mathematicians, they also commented on the lack of women in that world. I felt I really needed to speak about this and about what the room is like for a woman in a man’s world, in general. The character feels as though she’s an anomaly and an exception in the world, and as a woman in the world, you have this extra load to carry because you need to be better than anyone else. She has to show she is better because you cannot be mediocre when you’re an exception. When you’re an exception you have to be exceptional.
How did you work with Ella Rumpf to ensure she, and subsequently conveyed to viewers, naturally understood this internalized world of maths?
This involved a lot of preparation work. Of course, she’s an exceptional actress, but we worked for four months: she worked for hours a week with me and then also four hours a week with Ariane Mézard. She would train to write out the equations so she could do so with fluidity. Also, with me, we would repeat scenes and discuss them over and over and progressively speak and bring this character to life. We got to know Marguerite in a very profound way. In the end, this insulated character came to life, and you can really feel that behind her apprehension, she’s really a person on the edge.
The film has these elements of a romance between Marguerite and maths, as well as other characters, but Marguerite’s Theorem isn’t particularly styled like a romantic film. What was your approach to developing the film’s style?
I don’t like to be trapped in a genre. I don’t want to be burdened with a label or something like that. To me, it was more like a journey of initiation where Marguerite would blossom out and not be afraid of her emotions anymore. But also break free of Werner’s [Marguerite’s supervisor] hold on her.
I’m trying not to spoil the story too much, but the main thing that I wanted to convey is that a woman doesn’t need to choose between work and love. They can have both.
This interview has been edited for clarity.