Two Sides of Love: A Film With Deep Family Roots Makes a Splash

Relative of the Author Isak Dinesen Captures Attention

Janet Stilson
Counter Arts
Published in
6 min readFeb 17, 2024

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Promotional material for Maoussi, via CSE Productions

It’s far from a given that creative “lightening” will strike twice in the same family — that a relative of a great artist will burn with an intensity and talent that turns heads. Such is the case of Charlotte Schioler, a relative of the great 20th Century Danish author Karen Blixen, better known by her pen name Isak Dinesen.

Schioler is making a splash these days on the film festival scene with her first feature-length film, Maoussi, which is pronounced mousey — the name of a little white being at the center of the tale. The film has screened at festivals from Tokyo to Dubai to Los Angeles, picking up several awards along the way. And luckily for those of us in New York, it will be featured at the Winter Film Awards International Film Festival on Feb. 23rd.

John Nein, senior programmer of the Sundance Film Festival, told Schioler in a letter that she had achieved “the rarest of things — finding a way for a simple story to contain so much character-complexity and keen observation of the world. It’s a beautiful love story.” And I completely agree.

Schioler’s famous relative, Blixen, is probably best known for her book Out of Africa, which was adapted into a film years ago, directed by Sydney Pollack and featuring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. One of her most striking short stories is Babette’s Feast, about a mysterious and exquisitely talented chef, which was also adapted into a film by the Danish director Gabriel Axel.

A WINK TO ISAK DINESEN

It’s no coincidence that one of the main characters in Maoussi is named Babette, a dancer played by Schioler. And Babette is also the name of the protagonist in one of Schioler’s short films. “When I originally chose the name Babette for my alter ego in my fictions on screen, it was a clin d’oeil [wink] to my great aunt, Karen Blixen,” Schioler explains, adding that “great aunt” is shorthand for a more complicated family connection. “She was actually both my grandmothers’ as well as my grandfather’s cousin in my very inbred Danish family.”

There are lots of differences between the short story and the film, to be sure. In Babette’s Feast, an extraordinary dinner draws some antagonistic characters together in 19th century Denmark. In Maoussi, a contemporary story set in Paris, Babette reluctantly agrees to let an African drummer take a room in her apartment. And they are drawn closely together by a cute white mouse as well as a mutual passion for music.

However, both stories are about refugees — what they face and how they impact the people around them. That has personal resonance for both Blixen and Schioler.

The Babette in Blixen’s tale was likely inspired by family history. The character is a French Catholic chef who fled France because of the communist uprising in Paris in 1871 and ended up in a small Danish village. “Karen Blixen’s father, Wilhelm Dinesen, lived in Paris during the uprising, which he describes in his book Paris Under Communen,” Schioler explains.

Similarly, “my own ancestors were French Huguenots who fled France in the 17th century when they were persecuted by the French Catholics,” says Schioler, who chatted with me from her apartment in Paris. “Well, I am back, but was neither reincarnated as a Catholic or a Protestant.” Instead, she explains that she’s a Bwiti-ist, “an animistic pygmy belief system.”

Other people in Schioler’s personal history were outsiders, which added an even deeper level of personal resonance — for example, the experiences of her great grandmother, who was partially Japanese. “She was teased in school for having yellow blood, and her father was excluded from a British club in Thailand where he worked because his wife was half Japanese.”

Maoussi isn’t weighed down by all that. The film is sprinkled with humor, a touch of whimsy, and lots of dance and music. Schioler’s favorite scene is a pillow fight between Babette and her handsome refugee boarder, Edo, played by Moustapha Mbengue.

TWO SIDES OF MARRIAGE

The romance that is the film’s beating heart explores how wildly different marriage can be perceived by different cultures. “They don’t understand each other,” Schioler says of Babette and Edo. For Edo, marriage is a way to remain in France legally. He’s afraid of being sent back to his war-torn country, the Congo. Babette is afraid that he wants to marry her for practical reasons — merely to get his papers in order, and not out of passion or romantic love.

“This could have been about a couple who both come from Brooklyn,” Schioler says. “Even when we come from the same place — and even when we have the same backgrounds — we can have difficulty understanding each other.”

The film was 10 years in the making. Schioler began writing it in 2013 when she was living in New York. After first drafting the script in English, she translated it into French and went on a search for the proper financing. The institute in France that gave her some monetary support kept requesting rewrites, which included contradictory and confusing notes from its various readers. Then came the long search for the right actor to play Edo.

Schioler needed someone who would speak French with an African accent. But the actors whom she considered weren’t right. “They didn’t want to speak with an African accent, because they were really trying to get out of being typecast as Africans.” She finally hit upon Mbengue after seeing him perform in a film at the Cannes Film Festival. Mbengue, who hails from Senegal, was so dedicated to the idea of acting in Maoussi that he came to France six months before production to learn the French language.

The third significant human character in the film is a dance choreographer played by Elsa Wolliaston, who guides Babette and her wild dance style. In real life, Wolliaston has been Schioler’s dance instructor since the 1990s. “She taught me everything about movement on stage,” Schioler says.

OF MICE AND LOVE

Then there’s the title character, Maoussi — a little white mouse that showed up in Babette’s apartment one day, apparently a lab escapee (and another refugee). The film’s animal handler used nine identical mice from the same litter for the various scenes. Each mouse “actor” could only perform one particular task, because that’s a mouse’s natural limitations. One raced around a music record; one scurried through the streets of Paris; one crawled on the back of a sofa, and so on.

“We shot for 52 days. It was not supposed to have been that long, but the mice would never do exactly what they were supposed to do, even though they were trained,” Schioler says with a laugh.

Schioler has had her own pet mice. She smuggled one of them back and forth between New York and Paris on several trips, because the airlines wouldn’t allow her to bring the creature along by “legal” means.

The Winter Film Awards International Film Festival screening takes place at 8:30 PM on Feb 23, as part of a French film showcase. (There’s a special cocktail just before.) The film will next be seen at the women’s film festival Nöff, which takes place in Estonia March 7–10. The film’s site will be updated with additional scheduling information as it materializes. After that, Schioler is likely to cut deals for TV and movie theater distribution. Usually those kinds of agreements are secured when indie films are on the festival circuit.

Babette, Edo, and Maoussi’s stories may live on in other ways, too. Just as some of Blixen’s stories migrated from prose to film, so too may Maoussi make a leap. Among her many projects under development, Schioler is working a six-part TV series version.

Tackling something as ambitious as TV, with so much competition, might seem daunting. Then again, film is no walk in the park. But as Schioler says, “Sometimes we just have to open our hearts and not be afraid.”

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Janet Stilson
Counter Arts

Janet Stilson’s novel THE JUICE, published to rave reviews. A sequel will be released in May 2024. She won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab for Women competition.