Chloe Sevigny is bringing a movie she directed to the Cannes Film Festival.
It’s about a young girl who turns into a cat.
That statement is worth pausing over, just to let the full weight of its weirdness sink in. Chloe Sevigny — the epitome of Gen-X cool, an early exemplar of upscale cable TV — has turned to filmmaking. And for her first project she has chosen “Kitty," a short film that — and this is as accurate a description as could be offered — channels “The Metamorphosis” by way of Meow Mix.
Oh, and did we mention it’s sneakily autobiographical?
She’s still letting it all sink in herself.
“Did the film make sense? I hope it made sense," said Sevigny, partly convinced, over lunch at a Brooklyn diner earlier this month. "I mean, it is a big leap. I'm trying to tell an emotional story from the point-of-view of a cat."
At 41, Sevigny is something of a paradox. Her very presence is a reminder of time’s passage — she will, after all, forever be associated with the '90's indie-film renaissance thanks to roles in the likes of "Kids" and “Boys Don't Cry.”
And she evokes a bygone period of celebrity culture. Canonized at 19 as the "coolest girl in the world” by Jay McInerney in the New Yorker for doing little more than hanging out at downtown flea markets, Sevigny was famous without trying to be famous. This was a sharp contrast to the reality-television era that followed, in which many people tried very hard to be famous and were quickly forgotten.
Yet Sevigny’s presence as a filmmaker circa 2016 also speaks to a more modern moment. The actress has become part of a wave of women entertainers tired of seeing the director's chair occupied overwhelmingly by men, tired of roles they say don't do them justice.
“I just want to do really interesting character parts. But are they out there? It’s either network television or Jessica Chastain," she said. "There’s not much in-between.
“You get to a point where you think, 'OK, how am I going to make a living?'” she continued. With steady work in fashion and television (including her recent turn on “American Horror Story”), no one expects to see Sevigny on an unemployment line any time soon. But she said it’s been a challenge to find meaningful, profitable work. So in a sense she's starting over.
Dressed in black jeans and a gingham top colored her signature pink, Sevigny comes off as at once swaggering but vulnerable. It's easy to see why McInerney and many others that followed described her as the person everyone wanted to be friends with, even as (or because) she maintains a certain toughness. She peppers conversation with casual-cool references (Claire Denis, Sandra Bernhard, the photographer Sally Mann, the artist Rita Ackermann). A wrong word from a conversation partner, or a reference not sufficiently on-point, can prompt a questioning response or a skeptical glance.
But she also can sound unsure of her next step, doing away with the actor-interview pretense that her career is squarely in her hands.
“I don’t get those parts. How do you get those parts?" she said, genuinely, when asked what made her turn down not-quite-meaty love interest or female-partner roles in studio tentpoles.
Her career poses a question so simple it's surprising it doesn't get asked more often: What happens to the It Girl after the labels have gone?
It may be no accident that Sevigny chose this as her directorial debut. In “Kitty” (the film, based on a Paul Bowles story, will eventually be made available on the feminist website Refinery 29), a young heroine spends her waking hours thinking about all things feline. Neglected, if benignly, by her mother, she grows excited when she sprouts whiskers, then pointy ears, even as no one around her seems to notice. (For all her art-film signifiers and its magical-realist qualities, the film’s radical, childlike point of view may owe as much to Steven Spielberg.)
Soon the transformation is complete, at which point the viewer’s perspective, not to mention Sevigny’s directing challenge, makes the shift to cats.
It’s hard to avoid the film's connection to Sevigny’s own life and career: discomfort at being defined by others and wanting to morph into someone else, even without fully grasping the consequences.
“The hardest thing for me being an It Girl was people always equated me to Edie Sedgwick instead of Clara Bow,” she said, then, after a moment of reflection, added, “I’m not an It Girl. I never wanted to be an It Girl.”
Even her pursuits in fashion — she has modeled for the likes of Miu Miu and published a style book — are a result of a kind of identity ambivalence. “Part of my love for fashion is I didn’t feel especially interesting in high school. It was a way of adorning myself in this armor."
“Kitty” happened like this. Back when she was making “Gummo” with her ex, Harmony Korine, Sevigny would create some collages, just to pass the time. She found herself talking about them with Jean-Yves Escoffier, the late cinematographer who was working on the film, saying she'd like to make a movie based on the Bowles story in the same spirit. Escoffier told her he could make it happen. Then things got in the way —a breakup with Korine, Escoffier’s death in 2003, her own psyche.
“At 20 I had confidence but mostly because I wasn’t self-aware. And then in my 30s my confidence dipped. I had all these friends who were successful in their artistic endeavors. But instead of inspiring me it made me feel more lacking or insecure.”
That changed when she first saw the work of, then shot a part for, Tomas Alfredson, the exacting Swedish director of “Let the Right One In” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” She saw a template for following your own quirky muse.
“I mean, I don’t know if it will work," she said of her attempt to shoe-leather her way into a directing career. "But I’m hoping this becomes a calling card and leads to a lot of other things."
But while more cable television is a possibility, she appears in no rush to get embroiled in another "Big Love" scenario, which wore on for five seasons on HBO. Besides, she says, she wants to be in film right now, where it all began for her — where it was all at when she first got into the business.
"Kitty" is part of a planned series of about a dozen shorts by Refinery 29 of directorial debuts from other prominent female entertainers; they include a host of directors by trade, but also people like Kristen Stewart and Gabourey Sidibe. "We really want this to be about the dynamics of power," said Amy Emmerich, Refinery 29's chief content officer. "And Chloe represents that. Weird and cool, that's what we want."
Cannes is about the best venue around for a quick career reset, of many kinds.
To aficionados, Sevigny's return to the Croisette will bring a knowing, possibly amused nod. The actress is at the center one of the — how to put this delicately? — well-known moments in Cannes history. In 2003, she could be seen performing a real-life oral sex act at the end of Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny." For a festival whose claims to edginess can outstrip its appetite for it, the scene was a stunner, a hand-grenade in the middle of a pacifist rally. (She said she remains "proud" of the film and remains perplexed by the volume of the reaction.)
Sevigny will, notably, be in Cannes at the same time as Stewart, who is in the middle of her own transformation, arriving at the festival with two films, from Woody Allen and Olivier Assayas. Stewart is currently contending with the privileges and burdens of a 21st century It Girl status. That would seem to give Sevigny and her a bond.
"I'm really intimidated by Kristen Stewart. I want to be friends with her really badly," Sevigny said.
"We text a little and see each other at parties. But she's intimidating," the filmmaker added, alluding to Stewart's fast-talking, no-nonsense demeanor.
"Also, she's so famous. It must be hard to be that famous."