Rappeneau returns to his roots

Director on family secrets and the global village.

by Richard Mowe

Jean-Paul Rappeneau:
Jean-Paul Rappeneau: "The idea here was that there would be autobiographical elements even if the story was completely imaginary.” Photo: Unifrance

After a hiatus of more than 10 years, veteran French director Jean-Paul Rappeneau has returned to film-making with Belles Familles / Families, which received its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. In the period of his absence from the screen he worked on the development of a contemporary spy film, Affaires Etrangères, which eventually fell through. Following a period of introspection Rappeneau, 84, was persuaded to return to work by the idea of a film which enabled him to return to his roots in Auxerre in Burgundy where he lived with his parents for the first 18 years of his life, before moving to Paris to continue his studies and eventually move in to the film world. His memories of his childhood and adolescence in the provinces inform Belles Familles - especially the large rambling house that becomes the centre of a family dispute as skeletons roll out of cupboards. It is his eighth film in a career that has been characterised by an emphasis on quality rather than quantity - from La Vie De Chateau starring Catherine Deneuve to his major international success Cyrano with Gérard Depardieu, The Horseman On The Roof with Juliette Binoche and, most recently, Bon Voyage with Isabelle Adjani.

Mathieu Amalric:
Mathieu Amalric: "He recognised that in his character there are parts of me …” - Jean-Paul Rappeneau Photo: Unifrance

Richard Mowe: Was it comforting to go back to a subject and location close to your roots after the stresses and strains of a super-production which foundered?

Jean-Paul Rappeneau: Yes exactly … my father rented a house just like the one seen in the film. He was a country man before turning to engineering and I think he did it to impress my mother who had dreams of going to Paris which they did when I was 17. When I went back the house had been razed to the ground and an apartment block stood in its place but the rest of the town, especially the old part, looked pretty much the same. The original owner of the house sold out to developers after my father died. I’m not the only film-maker who has gone back to their beginnings - Bertrand Tavernier returned to his home town of Lyon for his first film L’Horloger De Saint Paul and Arnaud Desplechin went back to Roubaix with My Golden Days. The idea here was that there would be autobiographical elements even if the story was completely imaginary. And as the house had been destroyed it only now existed in my head but I had all the details including the number of steps between the first and second floors.

RM: You take your time between projects - is this because you invest so much of yourself in each one with a meticulous eye for every detail that you need time to recharge?

Marine Vacth: “As well as her beauty there is also a mystery about her …” - Jean-Paul Rappeneau
Marine Vacth: “As well as her beauty there is also a mystery about her …” - Jean-Paul Rappeneau Photo: Unifrance

J-P R: I have said that each of my films feels like a ‘mini-life’ and I become totally absorbed in each one. It is like a kind of madness that drives me forward - I am like the pilot of a jet who is revving up before take-off and then whoosh and we’re away! There was a Making of … at the time of the shooting and when I looked at it I seemed like a crazed person!

RM: How did you choose Mathieu Amalric for the part of Jérôme Varenne, who returns to Europe after years in Shanghai on business - and with his Chinese wife in tow?

J-P R: I have wanted to work with Mathieu for a long time. I originally thought of him for my previous film Bon Voyage but the producers said he was not famous enough at that time. But when I began thinking about the character of Jérôme I realised that the time had come to work with him. He can express thoughts by just his presence - and he is fast-moving but also can pause for moments of reflection. He recognised that in his character there are parts of me and when he read the script he said: ’So at last you are talking about yourself.’ Belles Familles certainly is my most personal film - and it was also the least expensive to make.

RM: Jérôme is entranced by a beautiful stranger, played by Marine Vacth, who has lived in the house in his absence … how did you find her?

J-P R: I had seen her in François Ozon’s film Young and Beautiful and thought she would be perfect for the part of Louise. As well as her beauty there is also a mystery about her which gave the part an added allure.

RM: It’s a film about families and their secrets so perhaps it was natural that you should involve your son Julien on the scrip,t along with Philippe Le Guay and also your other son Martin on the music score. How did the familial collaboration work?

Karin Viard and Mathieu Amalric in Belles Familles
Karin Viard and Mathieu Amalric in Belles Familles Photo: Unifrance

J-P R: I had previously worked with Julien on Bon Voyage so I knew we would work together just fine and he has just finished his first film as a director Rosalie Blum. On the music side despite controlling all the other aspects of the film it is an unknown quantity and I am always on tenterhooks to hear what a composer will come up with. We installed a piano in my office and Martin would come in each day to play certain themes - some I liked and others not so much and he got rid of them right away. Others we would adapt together right away. There were no ego clashes - we went forward together right to the final recording of the soundtrack in London.

RM: An underlying theme of the film deals with globalisation - was that element always present?

J-P R: I liked the contrast between the small-town life of the provinces and the character of Jérôme who is out in the wide world but is drawn back by the bonds of family. The world is increasingly a global village I wanted to reflect that and the producers allowed me to shoot in Shanghai, and London as well as France. The character’s journey is also a reflection in some way of my absence and return to film-making. I have long wanted to create a love story which derives from strange paths - and now I’ve done and I’m happy about that. As for moving forward to the next film I am superstitious enough given my experiences last time around not to talk about it - but I do have a project in mind!

Belles Familles / Families - repeat EIFF screening on 25 June 15.30, in Cineworld.

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