CANNES, France — Most ensemble films from England are bittersweet comedies in the vein of “Four Wedding and a Funeral” or “Love Actually.” But British writer/director Martha Fiennes has bigger themes in mind than simply romance. Indeed, her new movie, “Chromophobia,” which closed the Cannes Film Festival 10 days ago, ambitiously tackles weighty subjects such as death, sex, betrayal, motherhood, truth and, oh yes, consumerism.
“Chromophobia” is Fiennes’ second film. The ensemble drama, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Damian Lewis, Ian Holm, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans and Penelope Cruz, takes place in contemporary London and examines modern-day malaise.
“I live in London, and there is so much to explore, all these different people living on top of each other, where privilege and wealth and Westernization are jammed up against struggle and secret lives,” says the 40-year-old director, whose long, lean frame is folded into a wing chair in a suite at the Hotel Majestic, the Palais visible through the window.
One of the film’s most brilliantly depicted characters is Scott Thomas’ Iona, a frustrated housewife who masks her insecurity with some seriously out-of-control shopping.
“Her character was pure inspiration for me, because I’m a woman, I’m hardwired to love clothes and bits and baubles and the odd earring. It’s totally in my DNA,” laughs Fiennes, before adding on a more serious note, “but the culture of commerce has seduced us to the point where credit card debt in the U.K. is out of control.”
Of her leading lady, Fiennes says, “I had always wanted Kristin to play this role. There was no other actress I could think of who was the right age and pedigree as Kristin in all of England.”
Fiennes says she had another actor in mind for the role of Stephen, a gay art curator, but her brother wanted to play it himself.
“At the time, I wasn’t in a casting frame of mind, but he rang me up and asked very politely and I nearly fell off my chair,” recalls Fiennes, a film major who got her start directing commercials and videos, including three Boy George numbers, before making her first feature film in 1999, “Onegin,” which starred her brother Ralph and Liv Tyler.
Fiennes calls herself a “magpie, taking bits of stories that interested me,” including that of a dying prostitute and the social worker who comes to care for her, played by Penelope Cruz and Rhys Ifans, respectively. The story came from a book “about different people’s deaths,” says Fiennes. Other subjects the film tackles are motherhood, fatherhood and secret assignations, which all come into play among the film’s multishaded characters. It explains the film’s title, which means the fear of color.
Though the film deals in these broad themes, it’s the little details that make it a treat to watch. After all, there is something to be said for the fact that as the plot shifts between the wealthy and the destitute, the common thread — literally — is a red Stella McCartney dress feverishly purchased, then discarded, by Scott Thomas, and later bought in a thrift shop by Cruz.
“Typical movies have baddies and goodies and a hero and a journey, but it’s not all so black and white,” Fiennes says. “‘Chromophobia’ is also the title of a work of art that Iona buys, and you can leave it at that, but if you really want to get into it, it’s this idea that there are so many colors and tones in everybody’s lives that in order to understand them, you have to not judge.”