Mid-career switch

A relative newcomer to feature-length movies, Jerusalem Film Festival guest Sam Garbarski convinced singer Marianne Faithfull to take on a very different role.

Marianne Faithfull film  (photo credit: Pyramide Films)
Marianne Faithfull film
(photo credit: Pyramide Films)
A relative newcomer to feature-length movies, Jerusalem Film Festival guest Sam Garbarski convinced singer Marianne Faithfull to take on a very different kind of role Irina Palm, director Sam Garbarski's latest film, opens today in Israel and tells the story of Maggie, a middle-class grandmother in a London suburb who becomes a sex worker to earn money for her dying grandson's medical treatment. You might expect that the director of such an offbeat, serious movie would have a dark side himself, but Garbarski, in Israel for the Jerusalem Film Festival, bursts with happiness and good cheer as he talks about his creation, which was one of the audience favorites at this year's Berlin Film Festival. "The reaction was so positive. Even at the press screening, there was a standing ovation, even during the film," he says. "This kind of thing happens once in a lifetime." Garbarksi admits that a large part of the film's success has derived from the performance of Marianne Faithfull in the lead role. The glamorous Sixties pop singer (and one-time girlfriend of Mick Jagger) reinvented herself in the Eighties as a smoky-voiced cabaret singer with her album Broken English, and may have seemed a counter-intuitive choice for the part. But when Garbarksi, who is based in Brussels, heard Faithfull was in France to play a small role in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, he contacted her through her agent, and within a day, she had agreed to play the part. He did wonder if she could put her alluring stage persona on hold to play the dowdy grandmother, but when they met, Garbarski says, "As soon as I saw her, I knew, if she decided she could do it, she is Maggie." To reassure him, he says the actress told him, "If you don't think I can do it, let me try." During several weeks of rehearsals, she won him over and, in the finished film, is absolutely unrecognizable but utterly compelling as a lonely woman who finds herself in London's seamy sex-club underworld. There were moments when Faithfull, who had never played a lead role before, "got sick of being 'shabby Maggie.' She'd say, 'Sam, I can't wear these boots anymore.' I wouldn't let her take them off. Even if you're shooting in close-up, the boots make you walk a different way, feel a different way. And in the end, she was glad." Faithfull had fewer problems with the role than other actresses might have, including in the many scenes in which Maggie performs a certain sex act. "To tell the story, we had to get audiences to break free of their preconceptions, just the way Maggie does ... When she does something, she does it right," he says. Eventually, the character learns to take pride in her newfound skills and self-sufficiency. To create the sex-club atmosphere, Garbarski and his crew did research on real clubs in London and insists, "what you see in the movie, at Sexy World, it's all like that." The film has been a hit in Europe, and its reception in Germany was especially gratifying for Garbarski, who was born there to Polish-Jewish parents who moved to the country after the Holocaust. "Going back to Germany with this kind of success was very meaningful for me," says the director. "It also means a lot that [the film] is opening here in Israel, that it will be in many theaters." Garbarski has visited Israel several times in the past, including on a vacation to Tel Aviv many years ago. During the trip, he met a young Belgian woman and moved to Brussels with her, where he went into advertising. He became a director by accident, when he complained about a commercial director's work to a fellow ad executive, who suggested Garbarski shoot the spot himself. Many more commercials followed, which led him to direct several critically praised short films. Finally, the opportunity to direct a feature came along, and he made his debut with the 2003 film The Rachevski Tango, a comic drama about an assimilated Belgian-Jewish family. He last visited Israel when the film was shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival three years ago, when it won the Jewish Experience Award for Best Feature Film. He decided to make Irina Palm when his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Phillippe Blasband, came to him with the idea for the film, which he initially wanted to set in Belgium. The film's credits show that Irina Palm received funding from many, many sources from across Europe, but in spite of these investors, there wasn't enough money to make the film until a British producer stepped into the picture and the director and screenwriter agreed to shift their story to England. Why does Garbarski think it was so hard to get funding for a film that has so delighted audiences? "Everyone is always looking for an original script, but when you have one, then everyone is afraid," he says, laughing.