Unsung Auteurs: Gillian Robespierre

May 25, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: bittersweet comedy specialist Gillian Robespierre, who helmed Obvious Child and Landline.

The Unsung Auteurs column is disappointingly populated with female directors with just a handful of excellent early film credits who made a career shift into episodic television, never given the opportunity to expand upon and develop the very obvious potential of their cinematic voice and vision. While male directors are often afforded a second, third or fourth chance if their first film doesn’t set the world on fire, female directors tend to get shifted sideways into television if their first films don’t make an enormous splash. This unfortunate trend has seen the film world robbed of fascinating female voices that could have had so much to say. The world of episodic television has certainly benefitted, but this is not, of course, traditionally a field where the personal vision of a filmmaker can be platformed. Though a director can certainly flourish here technically and creatively, their talents are placed in the service of a narrative that is not necessarily their own.

Enter Gillian Robespierre, a terrific director with two superb films to her credit now working in week-to-week television. Robespierre’s films are pithy, funny, original and brutally honest, and are told from a singularly fascinating female perspective not often seen on the big screen. “Usually, the most relatable female character with the wittiest sense of humour and the most interesting face in movies is relegated to the best friend role, and I often wish those movies were actually about them,” Gillian Robespierre, told Filmmaker Magazine. Her two films do exactly that.

Gillian Robespierre

The now 44-year-old helmer – who began her career as a production assistant on big budget features like American Gangster – made the move into directing with her 2009 short film, Obvious Child, which she eventually expanded into her 2014 feature debut of the same name. Robespierre savvily and ingeniously subverted the romantic comedy genre with her winning, highly contemporary tale of Brooklyn-based comic, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), who toils in a failing bookstore by day and works the mic at night. A swoop of misfortune soon sees her unemployed, dumped, and blathering bitterly and drunkenly on stage instead of over-sharing funny stories about her sex life. The handsome, homespun Max (Jake Lacy) arrives as Donna’s fortunes seem unable to get worse, but then their one-night stand leaves her contemplating motherhood. Unable to look after herself let alone a child, abortion is an easy choice, though navigating the messiness of maturity proves anything but.

Obvious Child succeeds as a concise comedy unafraid of quarter-life malaise, and was an affecting debut from an real talent, and a star vehicle for Jenny Slate, best known for TV’s Parks And Recreation. In its aversion to female stereotypes, its honest broaching of a usually taboo topic, and its relatable protagonist, however, the film both entertains and courageously engages. It may lean heavily upon the cliché of pregnancy as a life-changing event, but like the template that it appropriates, the film spins the expected into the disarmingly touching with its frankness. Laughing, crying, and getting swept up in the story might be the standard rom-com outcome, but here such an emotional response is earned, understated, and cathartic.

Gillian Robespierre on the set of Obvious Child.

Despite the tough subject matter, the laughs come thick and inventively fast, with Robespierre instantly announcing herself as a big-time comic talent. “Comedy can be found in difficult situations,” the director replied when asked by Filmmaker Magazine about crafting a lighter take on the hot-button topic of abortion. “There are romantic and comedic elements throughout the story, not specifically the abortion. I know that it’s a serious issue, an emotional issue, and a decisive issue, and I’m not trying to make light of it at all. I always preface all my conversations with stating that this is just one woman’s story. But it’s a story that we rarely see in mainstream media or in our culture more generally.”

Critically praised and received well at festivals, Obvious Child showcased Robespierre’s gifts as a filmmaker, and she delivered her follow-up feature in 2017 with Landline, an excellent family drama set in a pre-social media/mobile phones/just about everything1995. Robespierre reunites with her Obvious Child star Jenny Slate, who wonderfully plays Dana, a scatty, on-edge bride-to-be. She’s part of a winning female triumvirate, with the film also taking in the relatable, messed-up lives of Dana’s mother, Pat (the brilliant Edie Falco), and younger teenage sister, Ali (the excellent Abby Quinn), both of whom are dealing with their own raft of considerable problems. Another rich, canny, and brutally honest slice of life from Robespierre (who co-wrote with co-producer Elisabeth Holm and Tom Bean), rogerebert.com critic Susan Wloszczyna perfectly described the film as “a forlornly funny and emotionally bruising dramedy that rarely misses an opportunity to reveal humans as the flawed and occasionally awful beings that they are.”

Gillian Robespierre on the set of Landline.

Landline disappointingly remains Gillian Robespierre’s most recent film, though the director has certainly had opportunities. “Since making Obvious Child, I’ve had the privilege to meet a lot of people who are excited about collaborating with me,” Robespierre told Filmmaker Magazine in 2017. “I read a handful of studio movie scripts that were sent my way to direct, and in the end, I didn’t pursue those projects because I didn’t feel connected to the story. Making a movie takes up a big chunk of your time, time away from your family and friends, and unless the idea makes you want to sacrifice every part of your being for two years (which they didn’t) I didn’t feel the need to say yes. If the right studio and project came my way, I would totally do it! But I do believe that the opportunities for women to direct in film or television are less available. I feel like there is a big discrepancy with the number of articles written about the topic and the actual number of women working in the field.”

Though she has certainly been working on excellent, top-tier TV projects (A Teacher, Mrs. Fletcher, Only Murders In The Building) since Landline, it’s been way too long since we’ve heard the wonderfully singular cinematic voice of Gillian Robespierre.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Brandon Cronenberg, Laszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay, Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun Suzuki, Albert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. Norton, Larysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.