Memoir of War/Emmanuel Finkiel

The Gestapo deported Marguerite Duras’s husband to Dachau for his role in the Resistance. In 1944, Duras began a long wait for his return home. Based on her memoir of this period, both personal and historical, Memoir of War brilliantly defies cinematic convention to convey the emotional space of active expectation. With Mélanie Thierry as Duras, Benoît Magimel as Rabier, the French policeman who has the power to connect Marguerite with her husband, Benjamin Biolay as Duras’s lover, and Shulamit Adar as Madame Katz.  Availability: Opens August 17, New York City, Film Forum; August 24, L.A., Laemmle Royal, with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.


DT: I understand that the film is an adaptation of La Douleur, not a biopic of Marguerite Duras, but you left out a number of important details about Duras’s life. For instance, she and her husband, Robert Antelme, had a child who died at birth. Antelme agreed to Marguerite’s having a child with Dionys, her lover; in fact, Marguerite, Antelme, and Dionys all lived together, and Antelme actually published Dionys’s book. That would have substantially changed the ending of the film.

EF: Yes.

DT: How did you go about choosing which details to include, to create not only the story but also the psychological space?

EF: I did begin working with the text by Marguerite Duras, but I always had in my mind, like seeing in the rearview mirror of a car, a biography of Duras, and sepcifically the biography written by Laura Adler. Because what the audience is looking at on the screen is a journal, I really had to do research beforehand to find out what the reality was, because film is supposed to film what’s real. When you do this research, you find out that Marguerite Duras was a big liar. She lived with Dionys Mascolo long before her husband was deported. They lived together as a couple under the same roof, and both of them were waiting for the return of Robert Antelme. In her book she treats Dionys almost like a ghost character who’s hovering over, but she never really gives him a full body, she never gives him a reality, and she emphasizes her behavior almost as the ideal wife.

So you have to make some compromises when you want to put this on the screen. On the one hand you have to respect the text, but on the other hand you have to insert little clues, little hints into the film to give the viewer the idea that maybe they were having a relationship that took place offscreen.

DT: If I had known all of that information, it would have changed the ending of the film for me. I would have gone away with a different feeling.

EF: In the story she’s giving us less than what actually took place. She wants to portray herself as this ideal wife, but in the book she suddenly throws at us this idea that she’s decided to divorce her husband and move in with Dionys. There’s this kind of brutal force and abruptness about it, and I wanted to keep some of that for the viewer. Some of the viewers as they’re watching the film are going to have that little idea in their head that maybe there was something going on between the two of them, but here I wanted, by doing it the way I did in the film, to keep some of what was in that original text.

I first read the book when I was twenty-five, and when I finished the book, I cried. I didn’t cry because of the waiting, I cried because of some important things in the book that I didn’t put in the screen version. One of the things I felt was very, very inportant was the fact that in the book she really helps her husband recover. She brings him back to health, but at the end she realizes, as she states—and this is great honesty on her part—that she doesn’t love him anymore. That was the thing that really moved me to tears, because in fact what she’s doing is she’s killing him a second time when she says this. And why return, why go through all this to come back only to be told, “That’s it. It’s over.”

It’s something that’s very strong, because at the moment when she decides that she doesn’t want to be with him anymore, she loses her status as a character, as a person, and she becomes a reflection of the complexity of everything that was going around her in the situation at the time. I think it’s important because we can all identify with something like that. We can all see that she can do what she wants, we know that she reacts with her emotions, which is something we’re capable of doing as well—we react to reality with different emotions—and our emotions can’t be ordered. We don’t know exactly how we would react in that situation, and at the end if you tell somebody you love them but then you want to deliberately lose them from your life, you don’t know how that situation is going to affect you as the viewer.


DT: The cinematography was stellar. Can you talk about your working relationship with your DP, Alexis Kavyrchine?

EF: My way of expressing myself is not necessarily by the story or by the specific image; it’s really the framing of each scene as it’s portrayed on the screen. Alexis is a very strong cinematographer. He comes from a documentary film background, so it gives that kind of resonance to the fictional story. While we were filming, I was right there behind him, right behind his ear. Nothing was planned in advance. As we worked along I would whisper something in his ear. We would frame it, and things would develop as the film progressed. We were always on the same wavelength, so it was a very direct relationship between the two of us. There are no two shots that resemble each other in the film. It’s almost as if we were Siamese twins, but three instead of two—Siamese triplets—because the third was the camera. The assistant cameraman with his camera was the third in this triad. The changing in the focus (e.g., depth of field) was also very important. It was really the third character in the film.


Dt: You lost two grandparents and an uncle in the camps.

EF: And a young uncle. My father’s brother.

DT: You’re a director, but you’re also a person. When you’re shooting a character like Rabier or the scene in the cafe with all the collaborators, do you get emotionally involved in the material?

EF: My father told me about the occupation. He said that during the occupation he crossed paths with one of the collaborators who was very famous, but not in a good way. He was someone who was called a geulcasse, which is a real rough, brutal kind of face. He was a police inspector, and he would arrest people and take their property. For him it was a business deal—he arrested them  and profited by taking their property. When I read Duras’s book and saw the character of Rabier, this story that my father told me came to mind. He’s terrible, but at the same time, much as my father said about the first guy, he didn’t talk gruffly and he wasn’t mean. He spoke very gently, and there was almost a kind of charm about him. In Duras’s description of Rabier she really talks about him as being this monster, a traitor. But nothing is simple in Duras’s work, and you can see when you read that even though she describes him as a monster and a traitor there was also almost an erotic attraction that he had for her. So I did some more research into her biography and found that a number of her friends and people who were part of her network in the Resistance had seen both of them going into a hotel together. So here the Rabier I’ve created on the screen is really a combination. I built him of these two characters—the one that I recalled my father telling me about and the character that Duras describes.


DT: I loved the dichotomy between Mrs. Katz and Duras. You have the Jewish woman and the non-Jew, and you have someone who’s desperately waiting for a loved one to come home and someone who’s ambivalent. How did you direct those scenes? I know that you’ve worked with Shulamit Adar, the actress who plays Mrs. Katz, a lot.

EF: Madame Katz is actually my contribution to this story, and it’s part of my own personal story. In this work Marguerite Duras speaks very little about the Jews. What happened to her husband is very interesting. He was arrested because of being in the Resistance. He could have taken the path that was the path of the POW. He could have gone that route and not gone the way the deported Jews went, but instead he chose a different path.

DT: He chose it?

EF: It was a terrible meeting of circumstances. He wasn’t Jewish but things just happened, so instead of being given that destiny he went the same way that any of the Jews did—he experienced Buchenwald, the death march, Dachau. It was the route that ended in death, and it was the route that specifically the Jews took. These were the people who never returned. In Marguerite Duras’s book Mrs. Katz is spelled with an s at the end—K-a-t-s instead of K-a-t-z. I restored her z to her, which is probably what it was originally, and she really is a reflection of my own personal history. There are times when the two women are almost totally in sync in terms both of their suffering and also in their waiting. But here Mrs. Katz is representative of the Jews.


DT: You were basically making a film about waiting. What were your biggest worries? Were you worried it was going to be too boring, too sentimental? What did you try to avoid?

EF: I had a lot of concerns. I didn’t want in this film to re-create history because this is probably the period of history that’s been most re-created on the screen. I didn’t want to redo the same things. I tried to begin with something that was a very intimate story and make it epic. For me Marguerite Duras is almost a double. She has two sides. One is this very mental, intellectual character who can be on the boring side. The other side of her is this very young, romantic woman who is in love with her husband. I wanted to reflect both parts of her personality, because if I had really told the story simply about waiting, people in the audience would have been waiting and they would have been waiting for something to happen on the screen.


DT: There are many, many different elements to this film. Did you ever have an aha! moment when you knew that everything came together?

EF: Like Moses.

DT: Exactly.

EF: No, there was not one moment. I think it’s really true that good ideas really don’t come through an intellectual process of reflection and constant thinking. They just impose themselves. They come. I think that when they come they don’t necessarily come all at the same moment. I don’t think that I believe in love at first sight, but at the same time it’s something that could develop over the course of several days.

The idea of the double Marguerite came to me when I was working on a very, very intense scene. It’s the scene where she learns from one of the people who had been deported that they had seen her husband, that he was still alive. In the book she recounts how she fell to the ground and had a terrible attack of tears and crying, tears from her eyes, from her nose, from every part of her body. At that moment I put down my pen and thought, ‘This doesn’t ring true. I don’t believe it.’ It’s almost as if she was doing all this to be theatrical, almost cinematic, both for herself and also for Dionys. Think of a situation where someone’s in mourning. They’re crying and they’re just beside themselves with grief, but yet deep inside they’re not really completely feeling what outwardly they’re expressing through this grief. Also to ask an actress to throw herself on the ground would have been a very difficult scene to pull off. I had to contrast that idea of seeing her on the ground with the scene where you see her by the window. And there you realize that she’s not a dupe. She’s not fooling herself. She knows she’s being theatrical.

DT: Brilliant.

EF: Thank you very much.


Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Standing Tall/Emmanuelle Bercot

Director Emmanuelle Bercot. Copyright: Emmanuel Pain

Director Emmanuelle Bercot. Copyright: Emmanuel Pain

In a breathtaking screen debut, Rod Paradot plays Malony, a tough kid who’s thrown in and out of corrective institutions until he finally lands in jail at the age of 16. His painful path through the French juvenile justice system is smoothed by his corrections judge, lovingly played by Catherine Deneuve, and a tough-but-tender social worker (Benoit Magimel). Availability:  Opens April 1 in New York City with national rollout to follow. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview. Thanks also to Emilie Spiegel, Cinetic Media.


DT:  Let’s begin by talking about the French juvenile justice system, which is the setting for the film. It’s far more generous than the one we have in America, but as France becomes more and more racially diversified, is there any kind of backlash against the system, as there would be in America?

EB:  The juvenile justice system we have in France is one of our great strengths. It promotes education and protection, as opposed to repression. It dates back to a law that was put into effect in 1945. Each time a right-wing government comes into power, they’re looking to cut back on what the system allows and doesn’t allow. The tendency there is to try to make it into a more repressive system, so while the system as we have it now dates back to 1945, there’s always going to be some kind of variation depending on which government is in power.


DT:  What inspired you to make Standing Tall?


Catherine Deneuve as “Judge Florence Blaque” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Lunch at a juvenile rehabilitation camp. Catherine Deneuve as “Judge Florence Blaque” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

EB:  It dates back to a childhood memory. My uncle was a counselor and educator for delinquent youth. When I was eight years old, I spent one day in one of the juvenile rehabilitation camps that was close to where we spent our summer vacation. It was then that I realized there were kids who didn’t have the advantages or the liberties that I did. It probably came into my mind then, so it’s been a maturation process over a long time.

The departure point for making this film was a discussion I had with my uncle when he talked to me about how he had formed a very close relationship with one of the delinquents. It was a relationship that lasted over ten years and also involved a woman judge who was approaching retirement. It was this triad of the adolescent, my uncle, and the judge that formed the basis of the triad in Standing Tall.


Rod Paradot as “Malony Ferrandot” (left) and Benoît Magimel as “Yann” (right) in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Rod Paradot as “Malony Ferrandot” (left) and Benoît Magimel as “Yann” (right) in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group


DT:  So your uncle was Benoit Magimel?

EB:  Kind of, but less handsome.


DT:  For me, your amazing performance in Mon Roi [for which Bercot won Best Actress award at Cannes] resonated with Rod Paradot’s performance in Standing Tall. I felt like there was a certain crossover in the performances, since you were working on the two films at basically the same time.

Rod Paradot as “Malony Ferrandot” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Rod Paradot as “Malony Ferrandot” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

EB: There’s very little connection except for the fact that I began working on Standing Tall the day after I finished Mon Roi. Maybe the connection was the fact that I had been pushed so hard and so far in Mon Roi that that in turn enabled me to push Rod further, but I think that’s the only connection.

DT: That’s a big connection. That’s exactly how it seemed.

EB:  Then yes.


DT: Because of Catherine Deneuve’s persona when she was younger, I was surprised to find that she has such an affinity for working with children, which also came out in On My Way, your previous film. Can you talk about working with her, especially in the context of working with kids.

EB:  She has a very maternal side, which she shows not just to the children but also to other adults. Maybe it’s not the first thing you think of with her, but I think that many actors never lose the part of them that is a child. They continue to play—acting is play—and maybe this is what’s connecting them.

Also, the three adults all started acting at age thirteen—Benoit Magimel, Sara Forestier, and Catherine Deneuve—and perhaps because they themselves started so young, they tended to look out for the younger actors, because they knew what they were experiencing.


Rod Paradot as “Malony Ferrandot” and Sara Forestier as “Séverine Ferrandot” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Rod Paradot as “Malony Ferrandot” and Sara Forestier as “Séverine Ferrandot” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group


DT:  Rod Paradot reminded me of a young James Dean, not in looks but in the physicality of his rage. How did you find him? What kind of work did you do with him?

EB:  We found him doing street casting. He was at a trade school studying carpentry. We did a lot of tests over the months, because he was very far from the character I wanted him to portray, and I was really looking for a kid who would be much closer to the character of Malony. I kept looking, but I couldn’t find anybody. It was a month before the shooting was going to start, and I realized I would have to take Rod. I wasn’t really convinced. We did a lot of work on the side. Very hard.

DT:  How was he different from what you imagined?

EB:  He had nothing in him in common with the character as it was written. He was the opposite of everything I wanted. He was very polite, very warm, very social, very well brought up, very calm. But primarily he didn’t have that violence I was looking for.

DT:  So what kind of work did you have to do with him?

EB:  It was very different from the kind of work I normally do with adolescents. Normally I just put the camera in front of them and ask them to act like themselves. With Rod, it was as if I was his acting teacher at the same time I was the director. I had to bring him to the point where he could actually put this character together, compose his character, which is something that is very rarely asked of brand-new actors.  And it was necessary to push, push, push until he gave me what I was looking for.

DT: What did the pushing consist of?

EB:  It was more a question of creating an emotional state, and I had to push him into this state of anger and rage. I was obliged to be a little cruel in order for him to produce the kind of characterization I was looking for, so that what you see when you see the film is really his rage and his anger against me.

DT:  How did Deneuve and Magimel respond to your pushing Paradot in this way?

EB:  She didn’t like it at all.

DT:  I don’t imagine she would.

EB:  I think she thought I was too harsh, too hard. While I was trying to destabilize him, she was trying to console him behind my back. Benoit Magimel was also very protective of him, probably because he had started acting at the same age. He really identified with Rod. In his case, it was more a question of identification. With Catherine, she was more like a grandmother figure—the parents are harsh while the grandparents are indulgent.


DT:  That’s funny. The film is often compared to the Dardennes’ social realist films, and I was wondering if you looked to them as a model.

EB: Oh yeah. I love their films, but it’s not exactly comparable. They inspire me because they have this realistic approach, but their way of looking is very different: they do lots of shots, I do lots of cutting, so it’s a completely different way of working.

DT:  How about Ken Loach?

EB:  Ken Loach is my favorite filmmaker.

DT:  Which film?

EB:  Sweet Sixteen.  It was very close to me—not my story but character, even the link between the child and his mother. But I love all of Ken Loach’s films.

DT:  Me too. My Name Is Joe is my favorite. Can you talk about how you researched the juvenile justice system for Standing Tall?

Catherine Deneuve as “Judge Florence Blaque” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Catherine Deneuve as “Judge Florence Blaque” in Standing Tall directed by Emmanuelle Bercot.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

EB:  At first I read tons and tons of books on the subject because I really wanted to become imbued with that whole universe before I actually went out into it. Once I had done the reading, I observed judges’ office, juvenile courts, and some juvenile detention centers, so I had that whole experience around me. I really had to become very, very familiar with the penal code as well, because when I was writing I wanted it to be truthful to the actuality of the penal code.


DT:  A lot of the reviews I read began with “Standing Tall was an unusual choice to kick off Cannes.” Do you agree, and how do you feel about that?

EB:  It’s true. This film is the opposite of what we’re used to seeing on the opening night at  Cannes. Opening night is a big gala night. It’s sequins and dresses. Even I myself hesitated, because this is a film on a very serious subject, and it didn’t seem to jive with all the fancy dresses and the sequins. I hesitated, but when I discussed it with Thierry Fremaux, he said this is an opportunity for a film like this to be highlighted so that more people will know about it.


DT:  After the press screening, a bunch of us were talking about the film. Some people thought it was a very hopeful ending and that Malony would take great care of his kid. Other people thought it was horrifying and that he’d beat the kid the first chance he got angry. I was wondering if you thought the ending was ambiguous.

EB:  I honestly don’t have a specific way for it to end. I didn’t want it to end on a completely pessimistic note because I think there really is hope. I have my own idea about how it ended, but I wanted to see other people’s ideas as well.

DT:  What is your idea?

EB:  I think that for a lot of people, becoming a parent is something that enables them to change their lives around, and I think that in the case of Malony, it might be just the trigger he needs.  He may end up being a good parent.

DT:  I agree.



Copyright © Director Talk 2016