It is an irrevocable fact that after a certain age, a woman’s fertility starts to rapidly decline. A pregnancy is deemed ‘geriatric’ after 35 and no matter what decisions you have made in your life, there is an impending internal countdown which can lead to some desolate moments and choices that push the boundaries – one of which is intensely framed in Immaculate Deception by writer/director Emily Lucienne. Her dialogue free five minute short is deeply affecting both in what is not said and what we don’t see. Lucienne was woefully aware of the scarcity of depictions of women’s desperate struggles with wanting a child but not being in the right situation for one reason or another to achieve that goal and wanted to show how a powerful, strong and formidable woman could react when her choices are eroded. Immaculate Deception doesn’t need to rely on wordy dialogue or detailed backstory to hammer home its themes – it instead deploys an intense performance by lead actor Sarah Syed, coupled with imposing, meticulously framed camera angles and a sound design which adds a deep narrative richness to the transgressive actions we bare witness to. As Immaculate Deception premieres with Directors Notes today we speak to Lucienne about building the diegetic soundscape with everyday natural sounds of life, why she chose to leave the film dialogue free and questions of consent.
Why was this a story you felt the need to tell?
In your 20s and 30s, having kids is something many of us feel like you might do ‘in a few years’ – if at all. You are busy juggling relationships, money, existential crises of various kinds and then one day you wake up the wrong side of 35 and suddenly your womb is deemed ‘geriatric’. Among my closest friends; one has had multiple miscarriages, another early onset menopause, another’s relationship has just ended – none of them can afford IVF. Lockdown made us feel we lost two years. I was terrified my time was running out and went to some very dark places in my mind. Not that I would actually do what this woman does but your mind goes there. Your mind goes everywhere and no one talks about it. Womxn tread on eggshells around each other as each of our stories is potentially more fraught than the next. I found those feelings incredibly isolating so I wrote about them.
One day you wake up the wrong side of 35 and suddenly your womb is deemed ‘geriatric’.
How did this thought process develop into Immaculate Deception?
I had a very clear vision which would unfold on tiptoes in the veil of darkness. Simple and up close, too close for comfort. We had one evening to film it. Time was running out both metaphorically and literally. My main focus is always the actors and Sarah Syed’s audition tape blew us away. On the day of shooting we blocked it out without rehearsing as I knew that the awkwardness of getting her to do this awful thing was what we wanted to capture. Meanwhile, Sarah was completely comfortable as she knew the camera was staying with her face and her eyes. I wasn’t interested in showing what she was doing. So much so that in the edit Lainy Black and I toyed with a version where you don’t see the condom at all – but that took us in an even darker direction.
Sound was particularly important as there was no dialogue, nowhere to hide behind a glossy score. If you get diegetic sound wrong it’s painfully obvious. Luckily Leo Baynes at 750mph is a genius and completely understood the stripped back tension I was after.
On the day of shooting we blocked it out without rehearsing as I knew that the awkwardness of getting her to do this awful thing was what we wanted to capture.
Were you at all worried about the questions of consent that the film brings up?
Not worried at all, that is part of the point. This scenario would be a nightmare for a man. But it’s a nightmare for the woman too, to reach that level of desperation, regret and feeling you should have done your life differently. There is a loneliness epidemic. With the reversal of RoeVWade and women having their rights removed increasingly worldwide, I thought it would be appropriate if we removed the choice for the man.
One of the most powerful elements is the lack of words. Why did you decide that the film needed to be entirely dialogue free?
The film is silent as what she does is unspeakable. I didn’t want to give the audience much information about them. It’s not about their relationship or the circumstances. I wanted the act to speak for itself.
Everything is written on her face as she lies in the bathroom with her legs up with the ticking clock. How did you and Sarah develop the emotional beats she needed to hit?
I never wanted the emotion to be overstated. I took great care with casting and trusted my actress. We agreed not to rehearse. Instead we explored the breath. The film is so up close that a lot can be achieved by breathing out. Holding your breath.
What cameras and equipment did you use in that space to get so close to Sarah and create that claustrophobia?
I’m so glad you say it feels claustrophobic. We shot on an Alexa mini with anamorphic lenses. I wanted to be up close but wide so she felt trapped and yet exposed. The bathroom was small. Filming in a terraced house, there is never enough room. I loved the grid of the black tiled floor.
I wanted to be up close but wide so she felt trapped and yet exposed.
With only one evening to film it, how much footage did you shoot and did you always know it was going to be such a short but impactful runtime?
I always knew it was going to be short and tight on time so there was no room for extra shots. Having said that, there were many set ups that I wanted that we couldn’t get. It’s always painful when you have to let go of things because of practicality but that is filmmaking on a tight budget, isn’t it?
Can you go into more detail about creating the sonic scape and that tension you built with sound?
I wanted an ever-present ticking clock to represent her biological clock ticking always in her mind. I wanted to build the tension but I didn’t want anything un-naturalistic. So we built in sound that were all things that could be there, the rain, trains, cars. Women in the distance laughing on a night out, seeming to mock her. The siren highlighting the criminality of her act.
I love the intense female gaze and storyline of this film, what can we look forward to from you next?
Thank you. I am developing a feature called Rage Against Time. Unravelling two women’s sanity as they grapple between wanting children and the lives they actually have. A dark comedy of constant introspection.