In a woman swinging between despair and exuberance, THEO PANAYIDES finds someone living the dream, willing to promote the need for a touch of narcissism
Alexandra Matheou doesn’t stand on ceremony. “I thought it must be you!” she guffaws, coming up to me at PlusSea in Limassol – we’ve already done the polite thing of glancing around the room and meeting each other’s eyes briefly – and gives me an enormous hug. This, I assume, is the same exuberant energy that once opened doors (entry-level doors, but still) in the notoriously insular UK film industry and eventually led to her film debut, a 20-minute short called A Summer Place that’s played some of the world’s biggest festivals (AFI, Palm Springs, Tampere) and won 12 awards, two of them right here in Limassol at last year’s ISFFC, the International Short Film Festival of Cyprus.
That was important, she admits. Limassol, after all, is her hometown (though she lived in London for 10 years, and has been based in Athens since 2018) – and the film itself is set in Limassol, reflecting its messy reality. She recalls pitching the project at Clermont-Ferrand, a year before they actually filmed it (this was at a forum introducing new directors to European producers; the film ended up as a co-production between Cyprus and France, with a budget of around €35,000). How did she actually describe the movie? “The story of a food stylist living in a kind of fake ‘Miami, wants to be Dubai, failing at both as a city’,” she recalls with a merry laugh. “And it’s basically a slice of life in her despair.” Behind us, the arc of the coast reveals the city’s chaotic skyline, randomly dotted with skyscrapers.
“The comment that really stayed with me [at ISFFC] was ‘Alex, I can see a lot of your anger towards what’s going on, but you still managed to portray Limassol as a beautiful place, no matter what’,” she muses. Actually, A Summer Place doesn’t feel angry at all, shot in a hazy, languid style with a dash of melancholy – what Alex describes as ‘despair’ – that’s delicately sensual more than anything; it’s played at LGBT festivals but is actually very subtle, just as it delights in diversity (depicting Limassol as a melting pot of Greeks, Arabs and Russians) without making a big deal of it. It’s a film that seems to mirror its creator, a warm, un-abrasive 34-year-old who actually has a steely side – strong social principles, a mile-wide competitive streak – but prefers to convey it through character nuance and a sense of humour; she’s among the brightest lights on the Cyprus film scene right now.
She has brown hair, brown eyes, brown glasses. She also has a law degree from King’s College London, and a Master’s in Commercial and Financial Law too. “I don’t regret it,” she shrugs. “While I was studying law I was regretting it deeply, but…” So why did she go on to the LLM? “Yeah – completely pointless!” she agrees, and laughs. “There’s a thing in Cyprus where you have to have a Master’s, which is not the case at all abroad.” I assume there was pressure, after all she’s an only child from a fairly conventional background, the daughter of a civil servant and a Cyta employee – though her parents, slightly unconventionally, divorced when she was two, and her now ex-Cyta dad also has a passion for amateur dramatics. She came to films late (or later), making her first short in 2015; that was Anorak, written in one afternoon and shot in two days during a Christmas break, while she was working for the Discovery Channel in London as a programming co-ordinator.
It sounds a bit slapdash, then again that’s her energy: “I tend to throw myself into situations”. She doesn’t stick to a shot list when filming (though she’ll make one, just to be safe), working with spontaneity and emotional intelligence: “I have to feel the location, and what’s going on in the moment… I find it liberating to go in with an open mind”. There’s a dreaminess to her personality; her time management (she says) isn’t the best, and when I ask about bad habits she instantly replies “procrastination!”. The bio on her Vimeo page reflects her sanguine nature: “Writer. Filmmaker. Errs on the side of unwarranted optimism”.
That’s the Alexandra I meet at PlusSea, the impulsive hugger and natural extrovert who forges a connection in a matter of seconds. It’s not exactly a façade, she is indeed an extrovert and a people person – she’s retained a lot of friends from her law-student days, despite having gone in different directions – but there’s obviously more. Film directors, after all, are a very special breed, the last redoubt of despotic authority (or megalomania) in a soft modern world of equality and prudence. Partly it’s the job – being the captain, the one with the vision, the conductor of a very expensive orchestra – partly all the difficulties that come with the job. “You really have to be super-lucky,” admits Alexandra, speaking of the industry in general and the hurdles facing a young writer-director like herself, “to get to the one person who’ll appreciate the idea, and appreciate something in you… Otherwise it can be very, y’know, Don Quixote – a very quixotic pursuit. We are a bit Don Quixotes. I mean, half the time it’s just chasing money to make films.”
Ego and delusion come with the territory. “Narcissism exists, no matter how you polish it… You actually need to maintain that narcissism – because it’s that delusion that’ll keep you going. The delusion that you [i.e. the audience] should spend two hours watching something I made for a bunch of money that could’ve been spent on – y’know, cancer research.” Alexandra says all this in a resigned way, not necessarily agreeing with it – yet she’s not without ego herself, even if just in needing to excel and being comfortable in the role of the leader, the centre of attention. (She’s a Leo, for what it’s worth.) She’s competitive, a keen squash player who hates to lose. Being on a film set – as the director, of course – comes easily, “I feel like it’s my natural habitat”. She tells an intriguing story of writing a book as a nine-year-old – which is not too unusual in a kid who wants to be a writer, but Alex also made it clear that it was her book, cutting out a photo of herself and designing a book jacket with a fake bio, incidentally giving ‘herself’ a glittering educational resumé. That’s the director in her.
Maybe it’s because she fits the role so well that she wants to do it better. (Being a woman in what was till recently a man’s job also may have something to do with it.) “As a person, I tend to be very positive and very calm,” she replies when I ask what she’s like on a film set. She has no demons to exorcise, indeed she was always – even before the whole #MeToo-inspired discussion on unacceptable behaviour – “very reluctant to accept this portrait of the creator as a tormentor, that everything is okay because it’s done in the name of art… For me, it’s much simpler. To make films has been a childhood dream, so when I’m shooting a film it’s like I’m living my dream. So I can’t fathom being in this process and hating it, or making it unpleasant for people”.
Once again, the energy is sunny, exuberant; yet she’s not just a hugger and unwarranted optimist. There’s also a darkness, a morbid streak. She actually thinks about death more than you’d expect from a young person, is currently reading Jose Saramago’s Death With Interruptions and also developing her first feature Shibboleth (hoping to shoot in 2024), set on an island where people have magically stopped dying. “That’s the contradiction in me. On the one hand I’m, like, super-positive – but I think it stems from my deep existential dread about the pointlessness of it all,” she explains, laughing at her own doomy pessimism. Her taste in movies also tends towards the morbid; her hastily-compiled top 10 includes Gaspar Noe’s Vortex, one of last year’s bleakest and most upsetting films, while a formative event in sparking that childhood dream was watching David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive “at a very inappropriate age” – a film to which she later paid tribute when naming her own production company: ‘This Is The Girl’.
This is the girl, ladies and gentlemen: Alexandra Matheou, writer and filmmaker, bubbly or angsty depending on how you look at her, but essentially hopeful. She hates what’s being done to Limassol, the high-rise buildings no-one can afford – except those with no intention of living in them – and A Summer Place is partly about that, with shots of construction sites and estate agents’ signs, and an abiding melancholy – yet A Summer Place is also warm and funny because she’s not, ultimately, an angry person. She’s young and single, a creative on the brink of a new project. She writes, goes to workshops and script labs, plugs away at her job as head of development at a Greek production company, hangs out with friends (she loves her friends), and vacillates between despair and exuberance.
She has principles: she started a company in Athens called Film SOS, calling for sustainability in film productions. A Summer Place was shot as close to “zero waste” as possible (thus, for instance, there was a water cooler and a metal cup for every crew member, not the usual dozens of small plastic bottles). “If you have a voice, use it,” she says. “And if you can do good, do good.”
Is she worried about the world – about the future? “I am worried. I am truly worried. But there’s only two paths you can take. One is to see what’s happening and just despair – which I do a lot, like all of us. A lot of times I think ‘Why do we even make films? It costs so much money, like who cares?’. But does it really help anyone to think like that – to give up? I mean, the planet is dying, in Ukraine people are dying…” Alexandra shakes her head: “Sorry, I’m rambling. But it’s all to say that, to be optimistic and hopeful in our day is an act of – well, it’s an act of revolution. I really think so.”
A Summer Place ends (spoiler!) on a kind of cliffhanger: our melancholy heroine and the mysterious Arab girl she saved from the sea – and obviously fancies – are on a motorbike, driving through Limassol at night, huddled close together. “How did we meet?” asks the heroine – then stops the bike and turns to the girl (this is the girl): “What’s our story?”. Their story, it turns out, is only just beginning – and the same is largely true of Alexandra, who’s just broken through as a filmmaker. The childhood ambition was vague; she was never the nerdy mini-Spielberg type making DIY epics on a camcorder. She persevered, but never really planned things; like she says, she tends to throw herself into situations.
There’s a recurring dream she’s been having recently, says Alex. She has a pregnant friend in real life, and “I keep having dreams that it’s me and this friend, and we have to look after a cat, and we feel completely incapable of doing it!”. It’s her subconscious telling her not to take on any more responsibilities, she suggests with a smile – and it’s true she has a lot on her plate at the moment, even without worrying about the state of the world; still, she can only keep going. We part with another big hug – and the sea next to PlusSea looks lovely, and even the Limassol skyline has a certain mad grandeur. Unwarranted optimism, indeed.
ALEXANDRA MATHEOU’S ‘10 FILMS THAT MEAN SOMETHING TO ME’
Mulholland Drive (2001)
All About My Mother (1999)
8 ½ (1963)
12 Angry Men (1957)
Frances Ha (2012)
Thelma and Louise (1991)
Blade Runner (1982)
Midnight Cowboy (1969)