Thriller with added sparkle

Director Eric Barbier on love, diamonds and Berénice Bejo.

by Richard Mowe

Eric Barbier, director of The Last Diamond: "This is the kind of film that has not been made for a long time. In France we have done quite a few of these heist movies in the past, but suddenly we seemed to have stopped doing them. I find the a bit sad."
Eric Barbier, director of The Last Diamond: "This is the kind of film that has not been made for a long time. In France we have done quite a few of these heist movies in the past, but suddenly we seemed to have stopped doing them. I find the a bit sad."
Although director Eric Barbier has signed an elegant and sophisticated thriller The Last Diamond his start in the business was with a very different proposition: Le Brasier, made in 1985 and set in the coal fields in the north of France in the Thirties. It was an expensive production which was so shunned by the public and some the critics that it took him a long time to get back in to the fray. It had consumed almost ten years of his life. He burst back with Toreros, set against the world of bullfighting and dealing with a relationship between a father and son (actors Olivier Martinez and Claude Brasseur) and then the highly successful thriller The Serpent with Yvan Attal and Cloves Cornillac, adapted from a novel by the British writer Ted Lewis. With The Last Diamond he upholds an honourable French tradition of a heist film in the mould of Rififi, The Red Circle and Mélodie en sous-sol. He talks about the film at the 18th Rendezvous with French Cinema in Paris.

RM: What is it difficult to get the chemistry right - the tension and the interaction of the characters as well as the love story? It seems to exist on the same kind of sophisticated plain as The Thomas Crown affair, for example.

EB: This is the kind of film that has not been made for a long time. In France we have done quite a few of these heist movies, but suddenly we seemed to have stopped doing them. I find the a bit sad. After the 1970s we seemed to forget completely about this style of cinema. These are the kind of films that don’t necessarily have a sense of purpose but are fun to watch and enjoy. That was one of the motivations for doing the film was to make something entertaining and to play around with gadgets with a love story at its core. I was also interested in the chemistry between the two actors - Yvan Attal and Berenice Bejo. We tried to find a story that would combine all these elements.

RM: You had already worked with Yvan Attal on your previous film The Serpent but this was the first time you had made a connection with Bérénice Bejo. How did the casting coming about?

Bérénice Bejo and Yvan Attal as sparring partners in The Last Diamond
Bérénice Bejo and Yvan Attal as sparring partners in The Last Diamond Photo: UniFrance
EB: I first talked to Bérénice about the project at the time of The Artist, which I had seen. We met and talked about this film. I think she wanted a change of register and to do a film that would be fun - and built around a gems theft. She was pleased to take on a light-hearted role just after she had worked on the war story The Search, which was a much more complicated and harder film to do. She was also happy to work with Yvan - they knew each other beforehand and were keen to collaborate together. And she had never done anything like this before although she played comedy in the spy spoof OSS 117 [a sort of French James Bond comic clone].

RM: You started your career with a very different kind of film Le Brasier [starring Jean-Marc Barr] which was social drama set in the coal fields of the North of France. What prompted that particular start to your filmography?

EB: I was young and wanted to make my mark. The film took a long time to put together - in all around ten years of my life so that was partly why it was a tough project to take on. It certainly made an impression on me and it is true that it has nothing in common with The Serpent or The Last Diamond. It’s curious though that the next film that I am preparing to do which is based on a novel by Romain Gary called The Promise Of Dawn (La promise de l’aube) I am returning more to the those of Le Brasier although it has nothing particularly in common with it - the story of a mother and her son which starts in Lithuania in 1922 and ends up in France in 1945. This will definitely mean a return to a very different kind of film.

RM: You started at the same time as such directors as Arnaud Desplechin and Eric Rochant - are you part of any particular “family” of film-makers as a result?

EB: Yes, that’s right - we were all at the same film school (L’Idec) in Paris and we all know each other very well and continue to make films. It is not exactly a clan because, in the French way, if we were together too much then we would all start to argue so we keep our distance. I think in Anglo-Saxon you would find more solidarity between people in the same job but we tend to get along. There is rivalry and jealousy.

RM: You tend to take your time between projects. Is that a question of choice and you want to purge the current topic or is it simply because it so difficult to get a production under way?

Barbier on Bejo: 'I think she wanted a change of register and to do a film that would be fun - and built around a gems theft'
Barbier on Bejo: 'I think she wanted a change of register and to do a film that would be fun - and built around a gems theft' Photo: UniFrance
EB: It is partly because I make films that seem to be a bit complicated from an economic point of view. They are bit on the expensive side for this kind of film whereas the funders could get their back on a comedy which would be cheaper. Also I take quite a lot of time to write the script, especially for The Last Diamond where there is much detail in the narrative and all the elements of surprise. I wrote it in collaboration with two other scriptwriters which was a big help because they can call in to question some of the suppositions I had suggested.

RM: Were you happy with the way the new film was received by the French public?

EB: The box office was OK but it seems that in France people will go and see an American heist movie with enthusiasm but not necessarily a French one. That is partly because we have stopped making them and we should really start to bring back the genre to these shores.

The Last Diamond is on selective release in the UK from Friday 22 January.

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