Not Just a Daughter: On Stephanie LaCava’s Short Film “Based On, If Any”

By Sarah FensomFebruary 13, 2023

Not Just a Daughter: On Stephanie LaCava’s Short Film “Based On, If Any”
BASED ON, IF ANY (2022) opens with images of Seward Park in Lower Manhattan: pigeons pad along an expanse of brick; children play; two women, Leigh and Tess, walk arm-in-arm towards the exit. The short film, written and directed collaboratively by the novelist Stephanie LaCava, filmmaker Tess Sahara, and producer, editor, and programmer Isaac Hoff, goes for nearly a minute without dialogue. A title card flashes, reading “Cinematic Example” in a sparkly orange font that looks like a Hollywood Boulevard souvenir shop version of the Hollywood Sign lettering. Then Leigh (played by Sahara, taking LaCava’s middle name) says, in voiceover, “Cinematic Example: A Letter from an Unknown Woman. She falls for a concert pianist, and after a casual rendezvous — casual to him — she has a daughter who she raises to be a musical prodigy.”

Based On, If Any, like so much of LaCava’s output, is deeply concerned with parents and children. In her latest novel, I Fear My Pain Interests You (Verso, 2022), Margot is the neglected daughter of famous musicians: an oblivious father and a withholding mother. She struggles with their absence and finds herself in a series of emotionally abusive relationships with partners who negate her. LaCava’s earlier novel, The Superrationals (MIT Press, 2020), follows Mathilde, a meek outcast working for an international auction house, in her chaotic pursuit of her unknowable publisher mother who is no longer alive.

The five-minute-long film, like both novels, reckons with daughterhood as a form of identity that’s inherited rather than chosen. The protagonist, Leigh, idles around the sidewalks of New York wrapped in a red headscarf reminiscent of the one Nastassja Kinski wears in Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979). Her sense of self seems to hang in the air, suspended between the phone calls she takes and the images she passes, like a man walking by on the street, wearing a paper mask of Kinski’s face. It’s held together in loose stitches by her voiceover, which takes the form of observations, references, dismissals — her sense of agency.

In the film, mothers appear and disappear. In one of the opening shots, a woman playfully chases a small girl, ostensibly her own, around the playground in Seward Park. Later, in a cryptic phone call, it’s implied that the mother of Tess (played by LaCava, taking Sahara’s name) has vanished. “She really shouldn’t freak out. Her mother does this, has for years,” Leigh tells whomever she’s talking to. Later still, her voiceover describes the singular, sonic space of the womb — an impermanent, discarded, and ultimately unremembered part of a mother’s body.

A father, Klaus Kinski, appears babbling about himself in a field in some old interview footage that’s artfully cut into the action so that it feels startling, almost like a violation. Klaus sexually abused his oldest daughter, Pola, throughout her childhood, and Nastassja Kinski has said he attempted to do the same to her but was unsuccessful. LaCava described the loaded nature of the archival footage in an interview over the phone. “This collage of Klaus Kinski,” she says, “it evokes so many themes of incest, being a ‘daughter of,’ sexual taboos, creation, and image.” Nastassja, who was heavily sexualized as a teenager in her early film roles, embodies an image of seemingly impossible beauty, whether she is eating a strawberry in Tess or wrapped in pink mohair in Paris, Texas (1984). Nastassja is also irrevocably tied to the volatility and ugliness of her famous father.

LaCava’s interest in parentage is also about the origin of ideas, where references come from and how their meanings can change in new contexts. “Based on, if any,” she explains, is the default line that appears on the first page of the screenwriting application Final Draft. It’s supposed to be changed by the writer. But leaving it here as the film’s title creates a sort of digital inheritance passed down from the software program. The title also references the practice of some French auteurs, like Bruno Dumont and Catherine Breillat, who based their films on their own published and, in Dumont’s case, sometimes unpublished novels. LaCava, Sahara, and Hoff were also inspired by Hollywood’s reversal of this practice, like Quentin Tarantino’s novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2021), which was published two years after the movie’s release. In this vein, the short film’s script takes small portions from an essay about Marguerite Duras’s film Nathalie Granger (1972) that LaCava wrote earlier last year.

“My writing in general,” LaCava says, “is not about thesis building; it’s about making connections — a flow of things.” In the flow of ideas, like generations, some traits become imprinted and seem to carry on, while others deviate, forming something new. When film gets reproduced in new prints or different formats, for instance, mutations, corruptions, and irregularities often occur between successive generations. In David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), offspring mutates and becomes uncontrollable once it is severed from its source. In Max Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), mentioned in the short’s first piece of dialogue, Lisa (Joan Fontaine) has a baby from her brief liaison with the concert pianist Stefan (Louis Jourdan), but it’s not a girl who becomes a musical prodigy, as Leigh’s voiceover states. It’s a boy who dies of typhus in anonymity — a child, a referent, separated from its mother, unrecognizable.


Based On, If Any has its US premiere on February 15 at Brain Dead Studios in Los Angeles, accompanied by Catherine Breillat’s controversial coming-of-age masterpiece 36 Fillette (1988). Mezzanine, an itinerant, L.A.-based repertory film series led by curator Micah Gottlieb, has staged screenings in theaters around the city since February 2022. With its rigorous program of hard-to-find and often underscreened films, Mezzanine joins several current initiatives — American Cinematheque, WHAMMY! Analog Media, Corina Copp’s Rotations series, Brain Dead Studios’ in-house programming, the Academy Museum’s surprisingly varied slate of screenings, and others — in offering what feels like a new landscape of independent, experimental, and unusual moving-image work here in Los Angeles.

“My goal with Mezzanine is to create a space where the film and art communities of Los Angeles can intersect and find kinship, in the same way that they do in other major cities like New York,” Gottlieb, a former programmer at Quad Cinema in New York, shared over email. Mezzanine events often include collaborations with artists, writers, curators, and filmmakers. Gottlieb has also published a number of limited-edition zines to complement their events. Last March, when he screened a rare, imported 16mm print of Nathalie Granger, Duras’s wry portrayal of a woman’s domestic routine, he released the now sold-out Mezzanine Vol. 1 featuring LaCava’s essay on the film and had the novelist come to Los Angeles to introduce the screening. Mezzanine and Mubi hosted the Los Angeles premiere of the new 4K restoration of In the Shadow of the Blue Rascal, a 1986 film by Pierre Clémenti, in November. The event coincided with the release of the English-language translation of Clémenti’s 1973 prison memoir, A Few Personal Messages, which was translated by Claire Foster and published by LaCava’s imprint, Small Press.

In a stroke of luck, Gottlieb discovered a good-looking 35mm print of 36 Fillette in the collection of the USC HMH Foundation Moving Image Archive while interning there in graduate school. The US rights on the film had lapsed, providing an open path to a screening. “I’ve always admired Catherine Breillat’s slyly provocative and deeply considered approach to depicting sexuality onscreen, one that often challenges conventional or accepted notions of character psychology,” says Gottlieb, who considers this entry in her filmography strangely neglected.

Gottlieb describes LaCava, Sahara, and Hoff’s film as a “dense, allusive mini-essay about young womanhood that [feels] very akin to Stephanie’s writing.” His decision to pair the short with Breillat’s feature stemmed from his awareness of LaCava’s interest in the French writer and director as well as from his curatorial practice of programming newer shorts with older features. The two films seemed to rhyme thematically too. “Particularly in this era of ready-made representation — plus Stephanie’s own voracious interest in transgressive fiction and the legacy of the New Novel — it felt right to pair two films by and about women that are confrontational and cerebral, and that stick in the craw,” Gottlieb says.

Breillat’s film 36 Fillette is based on her 1987 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. It follows Lili (Delphine Zentout, in her acting debut), a 14-year-old girl on vacation in Biarritz with her distracted parents and dopey older brother. Lili’s combination of disaffection and restlessness makes for a volatile mix. Clad in a corset and long black raincoat, she hitchhikes with her brother to a local nightclub.

They’re picked up by Maurice (Étienne Chicot), an aging playboy with a sports car, silk-blend trousers, and a receding hairline. Maurice feigns annoyance with Lili’s bratty attitude: “Girls who think they’re hot stuff are always lousy,” he tells his friends. But her sense of defiance coupled with his own seen-it-all inquietude create a challenge that’s intriguing to him. Lili and Maurice engage in an illicit two-day tryst that spills over from the nightclub into his hotel room and the vacation town’s cafes. When the tumultuous affair of accusations, caresses, and emotional entanglement runs its course, the pair ultimately part with Lili’s goal unaccomplished.

The film’s alternative title, Virgin, lays bare what is at the film’s center: Lili’s desire to lose her virginity, not Maurice’s predation, as illegal and disturbing as it may be. This need of Lili’s is grounded not in her longing for a relationship with a man or her eagerness to experience some sacred rite of passage, but in her yearning to begin her own private life. In a pivotal scene, when she returns home to her family’s Winnebago, her parents learn of her involvement with Maurice and brutally accost and hit her. Lili’s pursuit of this relationship signifies a violent rupture in the family unit — she’s no longer just a daughter.


Based On, If Any is LaCava’s first film. After collaborating on the script, LaCava, Sahara, and Hoff shot the film on 16mm from December 2021 into 2022, acting as their own skeleton crew. At the time, the novelist was going through final revisions on I Fear My Pain Interests You. “The film and Stephanie’s book kept bleeding into each other in interesting ways,” Hoff said over the phone. “We talked a lot about how ideas in the book could play out onscreen, like how to represent a sense of absence or negation — themes that play heavily in Stephanie’s work.” A certain coolness in LaCava’s prose, he notes, came through in Sahara’s affectations and delivery. The group’s shared pool of references like Duras, Clémenti, and Godard (“We go back and forth with Godard,” he says, laughing) kept them all on the same page, and connected to writing LaCava had already published.

“My thing is a lot about a universe — there’s always going to be a certain space I occupy,” LaCava says. The exploration of recurring themes and a palette of certain fascinations, artists, and films allow her to play with different formats while maintaining a singular vision. “I can move easily between media,” she notes.

On its surface, the LaCava universe is a pleasing one. She lulls her audience into comfort with aspirational settings that feel culturally significant. In The Superrationals, there’s an established writer’s house outside of Paris and a hostel Cy Twombly and Carolee Schneemann stayed in. I Fear My Pain Interests You features a covetable family-owned East Village apartment and a late-modernist mansion in rural Montana that belonged to a significant film critic.

But as in Duras’s India Song (1975) or Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe (1973), LaCava uses opulent environments to heighten a sense of degradation. Margot escapes to the Montana mansion to get away from a toxic relationship in New York, only to meet another man, who capitalizes on her vulnerability. Graves, a neurosurgeon, diagnoses Margot’s pain disorder, and the gorgeously designed mansion becomes the backdrop of his psychosexual tests on her. “A lot of people told me they didn’t want that setting to end — it was purposely about a certain aesthetic and atmosphere, like a Pinterest house ready to repost on @your_house_in_the_woods,” LaCava says. “This desire to have some ridiculous house with pretentious­ — the owner might say ‘understated’ [laughs] — details, like the perfect conversation pit. Of course, we know this is where tragedy happens.”

Unlike LaCava’s book, where the action unravels in these significant interiors, the filmmakers chose to make Based On, If Any a study of exteriors. “We were thinking a lot about reversals, and the trappings of the exteriors in the novel and of interiors onscreen,” Hoff says. “There’s a constant sense of movement in the film and almost a fear of going inside — when we see interiors, they’re often mirrors or reflections — another trapping.”

Based On, If Any was shot in Upper Manhattan near the Met and Downtown in Seward Park. Both locations harbor a sense of monolithic prestige — the former time-worn, the latter a public space in the middle of Dimes Square, relatively new. Crucially, Seward Park lines the branch of the New York Public Library where Mary (Parker Posey) works in Party Girl (1995), a movie that was on the filmmakers’ minds during shooting. Another potent referent was Claude Miller’s Juliet in Paris (1967), which LaCava describes as a more pretentious Party Girl. Both Mary and Juliet (Juliet Berto) incite chaos and reject a sense of conventional domesticity while trying to find their own space in the city. Juliet, a seemingly nice, quiet girl, struggles to secure a permanent living situation due to her need to drink blood. The film ends with her sitting in a Parisian park, clutching a pigeon she will eventually bleed for sustenance. Based On, If Any ends with LaCava’s character, Tess, catching a pigeon in Leigh’s red scarf. Sitting on a park bench next to Leigh, she cradles it. Her gesture seems caring, even motherly.


Sarah Fensom is a writer based in Los Angeles. 

LARB Contributor

Sarah Fensom is a writer based in Los Angeles. 


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