Understanding Céline

Emmanuel Bourdieu on Denis Lavant, Grégoire Hetzel and Louis-Ferdinand Céline

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Emmanuel Bourdieu on who could play Louis-Ferdinand Céline:
Emmanuel Bourdieu on who could play Louis-Ferdinand Céline: "One is Denis Podalydès, who is my best friend. And the other was Denis Lavant whom I knew only as a fan." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Emmanuel Bourdieu, director and co-screenwriter of Louis-Ferdinand Céline (based on the book The Crippled Giant by Martin Hindus and starring Denis Lavant), spoke with me about the casting of the lead role, shooting in Belgium with cinematographer Marie Spencer and screenwriter Marcia Romano and editor Benoît Quinon on board, working with composer Grégoire Hetzel on creating a tune for a William Blake poem to characterize Philip Desmeules' portrayal of Hindus, and how Géraldine Pailhas helped with the costumes for Lucette (designed by Florence Scholtes and Christophe Pidre).

Denis Lavant as Louis-Ferdinand Céline with Bébert:
Denis Lavant as Louis-Ferdinand Céline with Bébert: "He could change the mood very very fast. And Denis knows how to do that."

In 1945, Céline (Lavant) fled France to Denmark together with his wife, Lucette (Pailhas) and their cat Bébert. A young professor from America, Milton Hindus (Desmeules), came to visit them in 1948. Right away, the two men engage in a sort of storytelling competition. "Henry Miller had to rescue me - he was beaten up," Hindus explains the outcome of their defense of Céline at a conference in America. Céline is so flattered by it that he has a hysterical laughing fit, that Bourdieu elegantly meshes with the sound of the coots on the river in front of them. "That you, a Jew, came to my rescue, that means something", Céline mischievously comments.

Céline tries to dictate to the young man with the notebook what he wants to be known about himself. That literature is "the opposite of truth," that the fashion of fringes for women is to "hide intelligence", that "Adolf Hitler was a fraud," who "did not write a single line of Mein Kampf," and was a "cataclysmic clown." Hindus, at first in awe, slowly begins to see a different man from the one he imagined. He receives stitches from his idol (who was also a physician), gets to jump rope and take a bath in a trough outside of their house in the forest, and finds out more about himself and the boundaries of male bonding.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Denis Lavant gives Céline a fantastic unpredictability. When he collapses on the street, I had to think of his creation M Merde, the character he plays in Holy Motors and the Tokyo! short. Was it clear to you that he would be your Céline?

Martin Hindus (Philip Desmeules) with Lucette (Géraldine Pailhas) and Céline (Denis Lavant)
Martin Hindus (Philip Desmeules) with Lucette (Géraldine Pailhas) and Céline (Denis Lavant)

Emmanuel Bourdieu: It's very strange. I had two ideas, two Denis in my head. Two actors that I heard reading Céline. One is Denis Podalydès, who is my best friend. And the other was Denis Lavant whom I knew only as a fan. I love this actor. There were two versions possible for Céline. It was important for me that it was literature first, that he was a writer, that he loved books. At the same time a very eruptive man, very unpredictable and very physical.

At the end, I've chosen Denis Lavant and even Denis Podalydès told me "It's him, it's him!" We worked a lot with Denis Lavant on the idea of unpredictability and constant change from opposites. Céline was like that - at this time especially because he was in crisis. On the street sometimes it was awful for Hindus who was very shy.

Sometime he saw a little boy and he began to shout and five minutes later he told him not to speak so loud. He seemed mad and it was very violent. Five minutes later he was very affective, almost tender, almost in love of Hindus. We wanted those contrasts without transitions between them, almost unreal. But I think Céline was like that. He could change the mood very very fast. And Denis knows how to do that.

AKT: Céline used this as a weapon, I think.

Denis Lavant in New York:
Denis Lavant in New York: "It's funny that you compare Céline and M. Merde. Because Leos Carax is a big fan of Céline." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

EM: Yeah, to destabilise Hindus. He is manipulating him like a puppet, like a marionette. Sometimes it's like electricity it is giving him.

AKT: The pair playing and singing - that was quite a scene. First Céline plays and then Hindus does his song. Is that realistic? Is that an actual song that was performed somewhere on Broadway, as he says?

EM: The first one is a song Céline composed himself. It's really a song he composed. I've discovered that Hindus composed a song on this poem. It's an English poet, very well known who is a painter at the same time [William Blake]. So I knew he wrote a song on this poem and I asked Grégoire [Hetzel], because it was too complicated to find the score. At the same time I wanted to characterise Hindus through his song. With Grégoire, I asked him to compose an absolutely non-Jewish song.

AKT: That was your instruction?

EM: A very WASP tune. He tried something. Very naive, I'm afraid, but I never wanted to make fun of Hindus. Because Hindus, that's me. I like this man and many people said, especially in France, he was naive, he was stupid, he did not understand anything about Céline. It's not true. He is very naive, very sincere and I like the way Denis Lavant listened to his song. We don't know exactly if he wants to laugh or he is touched. We can't say. There is something very ambiguous.

AKT: And Lucette tells him "Don't go there, for once." I liked the costumes chosen for Lucette. They were on the one hand a little theatrical and on the other, you wanted to touch the fabric. Same for the things that surround them.

Lucette (Géraldine Pailhas) with Martin Hindus (Philip Desmeules) :
Lucette (Géraldine Pailhas) with Martin Hindus (Philip Desmeules) : "We wanted Lucette to be wonderful but with simple things."

EM: For this film I had to work in Belgium for a co-production between France and Belgium. Many problems.

AKT: Nobody is financing a film on Céline in France?

EM: No, no. Nobody is financing anything in France. No, because you don't pay taxes in Belgium so much as in France. That's the real reason why all French films are shot in Belgium - tax credits. I always work with the same crew. Because of the co-production I had to choose other persons. The only persons I kept were my scriptwriter [Marcia Romano], my editor [Benoît Quinon] and my DP [Marie Spencer]. The others were Belgian.

The costumes, I loved to work with them. We wanted Lucette to be wonderful but with simple things. The fabric is very beautiful. Our principle for costumes was - just silhouette, very simple silhouette and no accessories. Nothing added on the silhouette. Géraldine Pailhas helped a lot because she knows very well what fits her and she knew very well the character, Lucette Almanzor. It's a part of the artistic work I love the most maybe in the film.

Emmanuel Bourdieu's Louis-Ferdinand Céline at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Emmanuel Bourdieu's Louis-Ferdinand Céline at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The visual counterpoint is the woman in the hotel with her embroidered jacket that works very well with the painting on the wall behind her. These are lovely details that tell us, for them in Denmark, the war is already gone, for them it's over. But not for the ones living in exile in the forest.

EB: Exactly. I love in cinematographic crews when everybody works not only on each their side but together. The set designer who chose the painting knew about the costume. He proposed me both ideas together. It's not one idea and the other, it's just one. It's very important.

Denis Lavant is performing in Samuel Beckett's Cap Au Pire (Worstward Ho) through January 14, 2018 at the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet

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