Playing games

Stéphane Demoustier on sport and family breakdown in 40-Love.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

40-Love (Terre battue) director Stéphane Demoustier: "Olivier Gourmet has this bulimia about filming. He doesn't know how to stop."
40-Love (Terre battue) director Stéphane Demoustier: "Olivier Gourmet has this bulimia about filming. He doesn't know how to stop." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Sauvage family in 40-Love (Terre Battue), portrayed by Olivier Gourmet, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Charles Mérienne build tennis suspense in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train. Stéphane Demoustier spoke with me about comparing the role of shoes in Paolo Virzì's Human Capital (Il Capitale Umano), working with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, an equally "danger-free" experience to that Cédric Kahn had with them producing Wild Life (Vie Sauvage) and where the fascination with shopping malls originated.

Demoustier, who also co-wrote the screenplay (in collaboration with Gaëlle Macé), makes poignant choices with his debut feature in what he lays bare and what he leaves to our imagination. The when and how of people's communication is crucial and the mis-matched couple's state of mind is distilled in attentively constructed interactions.

The Sauvages - Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (Laura) Olivier Gourmet (Jérôme): "First of all I think the word is beautiful in French."
The Sauvages - Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (Laura) Olivier Gourmet (Jérôme): "First of all I think the word is beautiful in French."

Gourmet gives a mindful portrayal of a very ordinary man named Jérôme Sauvage at a crossroads. He loses his job, his 11-year-old son Ugo (Mérienne) could be a tennis prodigy, and his wife Laura (Bruni Tedeschi) could leave both of them forever for another man.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your choice to have a small town shopping center aficionado as central character in a film is unusual, even when you have the excellent Olivier Gourmet play him. Where did this character spring from?

Stéphane Demoustier: Well, the character was inspired by my father. My father spent his entire life working in commercial centres and large scale shopping centres. It was his passion and he thought it was just the most wonderful thing. I'm using the past tense just because he is retired now. When we would go on holidays, we would make stops at shopping malls. He was an autodidact. And when I wrote the character, it's a transposition but the beginning point was the image of my father - this man who was just so passionate about shopping malls. Beyond that, what interested me, was to show a character who is really inhabited passionately by what he's doing. It could have been something else but in his case it's the shopping malls. It was also a directing challenge that I set myself to sort of look at shopping malls through his gaze.

Charles Mérienne as Ugo: "I wanted tennis to refer to something bigger than that, to the world in which we are living."
Charles Mérienne as Ugo: "I wanted tennis to refer to something bigger than that, to the world in which we are living."

AKT: I felt you made a film about passion and competition. Those two.

SD: Absolutely. It's a film about success also - that goes hand in hand with competition. I also absolutely wanted to have tennis, because when I was young, I used to play tennis. And I wanted tennis to refer to something bigger than that, to the world in which we are living. The competition is present in the sport but also elsewhere.

AKT: In the father's world also. That is why when the big surprise occurs, which we won't discuss because we don't want to spoil it for anyone who has not seen the movie, everything falls into place. To stay with tennis for a moment. You show a match that is the most suspenseful since Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train.

SD: Oh thank you so much.

AKT: You give the family the last name Sauvage - to go with the competition?

SD: First of all I think the word is beautiful in French. It's actually a name that's common in the North of France, where I come from. That's where the story is set and it's also a region where there's a whole tradition of shopping malls. So I picked a name that comes from the north that kind of echos also the world in which we live with all the savagery going on.

Laura with Ugo: "It was important for the relationship to reality to be right on target so that a certain truth would come out of it."
Laura with Ugo: "It was important for the relationship to reality to be right on target so that a certain truth would come out of it."

AKT: There is an interesting composition that introduces us to Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's character [Laura, the mother] She dominates the right of the screen and her husband [Gourmet as Jérôme] is slouched at the counter on the left. Whenever the two of them are in a shot together, they seem to battle about space. They are never really able to share a space.

SD: It's interesting that you noticed that scene. It happens to be one of the very few scenes that we re-shot. I hadn't yet found the right representation of the relationship between the two characters. You mentioned space and it's true that they are both moving in spaces and are not really succeeding in meeting one another. The father at the inauguration is slightly uncomfortable in that beautiful new building. It's a space he is incapable of inhabiting. And when she enters the shopping center, she doesn't know how to inhabit those spaces. It's true, they kind of echo imaginary places of dream, and they no longer share the same imaginary and the same dream.

AKT: She has a panic attack and starts crying in the aisle, which is so powerful and works on a deeply emotional level, without a word of explanation. Another one of those moments is the one in the bathroom, that I think many people will be able to relate to. She comes out of the shower and that is the moment he picks to tell her of a big change for their lives. It is the last moment you want to get this kind of information, no?

Olivier Gourmet as Jérôme: "I think it's because he is a great actor and also because he is incredibly humble which makes everything so simple."
Olivier Gourmet as Jérôme: "I think it's because he is a great actor and also because he is incredibly humble which makes everything so simple."

SD: I think bathrooms and kitchens and these kind of non-places are where a lot of things happen. And the breakup voluntarily takes place in the kitchen. People think a lot in their bathrooms and people talk a lot in kitchens.

AKT: True. The adults do. And children pick the in-between places such as doorways and staircases for themselves. But that has nothing to do with your film. The Dardennes co-produced your film. A few days ago, I spoke with Cédric Kahn and his producer Kristina Larsen about Wild Life (Vie Sauvage), also co-produced by them. Kristina said " there is no danger with the Dardennes," danger of them manipulating or interfering. How was your experience having them on board.

SD: They stay really at a distance with total respect for what we are doing. At the same time, I did have a lot of exchanges with them. They were very present. Not at the writing stage, they came on board when it was already written. I was the one to seek them out because I admire them a lot and I love their work. I think you should really shy away from emulating them because that would be the end of you. In the casting of the child, I asked for their advice. They were very present but no danger of them interfering because they take all precaution as they are themselves film directors. So they know what's involved. They fully play their part as allies or big brothers without being dogmatic.

AKT: Can you talk about the casting of the boy [Mérienne as Ugo]?

Ugo in competition with Jérôme: "His character, his energy was the right one."
Ugo in competition with Jérôme: "His character, his energy was the right one."

SD: I looked for him among this whole group of children tennis players. I saw more that 350 all over France. I went to regional centers where you'd have the best players of the region. I found him at the French championship for the 10, 11 year olds. Right away when I saw him it was obvious. His character, his energy was the right one. He had no experience in acting, obviously. I did a few workshops with him to also see if we could work together and if he trusted me. Soon enough, I told myself he's perfect.

AKT: He has these lovely moments early on in the movie where he feels slightly superior to his beloved father and speaks under his breath. He hates the T-shirt his father brings him, which connects him to the mother, who clearly hates the shoes she gets. Did you have these items the father brings home in the structure of the script?

SD: For me the shoes were a manifestation of the excessive side of that character. Someone who works in wholesale distribution would also express his love for his wife through objects. He could have this little fetishism with shoes. And very selfishly, I do really like women's shoes and was eager to film some.

AKT: I interviewed Valeria [Bruni Tedeschi] last year at the Tribeca Film Festival for Paolo Virzì's Human Capital. She is wearing some killer shoes in that one and she said that the shoes helped her find the character. It's funny how she rejects the shoes in your film.

Ugo and Jérôme: "Yes, it is also a transition when the son becomes more adult than the father."
Ugo and Jérôme: "Yes, it is also a transition when the son becomes more adult than the father."

SD: I wasn't aware of the fact that the father brings the shoes and then he brings the T-shirt so you kind of have this repetition of objects. The T-shirt for me was about fascination and also frustration because he doesn't bring the right T-shirt. It's the T-shirt of a champion and in sports we have this sort of idolatry. The child wants to be a champion and he wants to dress as a champion and it's part of his obsession.

AKT: Did your room as a boy look like that?

SD: No. Yes. Here we reproduced identically the boy's own bedroom with the posters and all that.

AKT: It looks so real, there is nothing fake about that room. Many movies get that wrong.

SD: It was important for the relationship to reality to be right on target so that a certain truth would come out of it. For the sets and that's also why I wanted a child tennis player. It was impossible to fake that. And I also wanted to film tennis.

AKT: Tell me about your work with Olivier Gourmet!

SD: Actually, I didn't do any preparation because he was on another shoot up to three or four days before our shoot began. Olivier Gourmet has this bulimia about filming. He doesn't know how to stop. He accepts any project. I was never able to rehearse with him. It was kind of scary but at the same time, his bulimic side went perfectly with the character of the father - this guy who doesn't know how to stop. I had written the script for him.

He is a real professional. He worked on his own prior and arrived every day with a very strong suggestion how a scene could take. So either I agreed with it and we'd shoot it or we adjust things a little bit or more drastically sometimes. He has so much flexibility and so much capacity to listen, and to never take things personally when you challenge his own suggestion. I think it's because he is a great actor and also because he is incredibly humble which makes everything so simple.

AKT: I was thinking about the scene when he gets out of the car to look at this - my apologies to your father - really ugly shopping center and it fills him with bliss. That is great acting, he almost convinces us of its beauty.

SD: That's an actor's secret. Maybe he transposes a feeling of love within himself and convinces us that he is really fascinated by the landscapes that are actually far from joyful.

AKT: When the father and his friend go on the drunken nightly spree with the son, is that the turning point of the story, where the film transitions into darker territory?

SD: Yes, it is also a transition when the son becomes more adult than the father. There is an overall trajectory to the film where the son takes on the role of depository of the family success. It's a pivotal scene although I wasn't really aware of it at the writing stage. But it's true, the scene marks a rupture. It's funny and anxiety producing.

AKT: What is your next project? Will it be about fathers and sons again?

SD: I'm writing and it's nowhere near finished. It's not a father son story, not a family story. And its a story that will take place in Paris. I grew up near where this film was shot, in the suburbs of Lille, very very far from New York. And when I was 18, I went to Paris. The next film is not going to be auto-biographical but I'm talking about the fascination of discovering Paris, the big city, for a person who comes from elsewhere. There's no sports and it will be funnier. This one has humour but it's also very dark.

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