All to play for

Melvil Poupaud on André Dussollier, Jacques Lacan and The Great Game.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Nicolas Pariser, Alice Winocour, Melvil Poupaud, Mathieu Lamboley, uniFrance President Jean-Paul Salomé
Nicolas Pariser, Alice Winocour, Melvil Poupaud, Mathieu Lamboley, uniFrance President Jean-Paul Salomé Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Melvil Poupaud walked the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema red carpet with The Great Game (Le Grand Jeu) director Nicolas Pariser, Disorder's Alice Winocour, Julie Delpy's Lolo composer Mathieu Lamboley, Bang Gang's Eva Husson, A Decent Man's Emmanuel Finkiel, John Waters, Cindy Sherman, James Ivory, Angélique Kidjo, Aurélia Thiérrée with Guillaume Nicloux and his Valley Of Love star Isabelle Huppert.

Joseph Paskin (André Dussollier) Pierre Blum (Melvil Poupaud)
Joseph Paskin (André Dussollier) Pierre Blum (Melvil Poupaud)

Oscar Isaac in JC Chandor's A Most Violent Year, Alain Delon in Valerio Zurlini's Indian Summer (Le Professeur), Benoît Jacquot's Closet Children (Les Enfants Du Placard), Marguerite Duras, Eric Rohmer, Xavier Dolan, Justine Triet, Fan Bingbing, and his Great Game co-stars Clémence Poésy and André Dussollier - these and more entered into a kind of Lacanian conversation with Melvil Poupaud at the Parker Meridien in New York.

Nicolas Pariser in his debut feature manages to create a mood of sea change not unlike that Michel Houellebecq conjures up on the pages of his novel Submission. Has-been one-book literary darling, Pierre Blum (Melvil Poupaud), on a casino balcony during a wedding he attends, encounters a man named Joseph Paskin (André Dussollier is wonderful and very different from his roles in Volker Schlöndorff's tense Diplomacy and Arnaud Desplechin's witty My Golden Days), who asks a lot of questions and describes his own job as doing favors. "I connect people," he says and "there are many of us - the Republic functions that way."

Pierre is to become ghostwriter of a book called Insurrection and part of the puzzle of surveillance, manufactured opinions, and threats of a world already or almost at war. Pierre, perpetually wrapped in his camel coat, not only learns that "the public space doesn't exist," he also falls for Laura (Clémence Poésy), an activist living in a commune on a farm, and realises that he has to make some uncomfortable decisions.

Isabelle Huppert with Guillaume Nicloux, Aurélia Thiérrée, Melvil Poupaud, Mathieu Lamboley, Nicolas Pariser, Emmanuel Finkiel, Alice Winocour, Eva Husson, Jean-Paul Salomé
Isabelle Huppert with Guillaume Nicloux, Aurélia Thiérrée, Melvil Poupaud, Mathieu Lamboley, Nicolas Pariser, Emmanuel Finkiel, Alice Winocour, Eva Husson, Jean-Paul Salomé Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Pariser's intricate political thriller feels very much of the post Charlie Hebdo present as it looks back to the activism of the Nineties and the rapidly unfolding times ahead.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Watching The Great Game, I remember thinking that French cinema is going through a change. There is something in the air that wasn't there before. What stage of filming were you at when Charlie Hebdo happened?

Melvil Poupaud: Charlie Hebdo happened during the shoot. One day we were going to the countryside for those scenes that happen in that community and on the radio we heard the tragic news. We spent the whole day trying to film the movie but everybody was on their iPhone trying to get some news and being completely freaked out by the situation. We tried to do the scenes but it was a very slow day, I must say.

AKT: There is a heightened sense of danger in the film.

MP: Maybe. But then Nicolas Pariser wrote the script a long time ago and we had started filming. He wanted that sense of danger. A dark situation with manipulation and politics involved. I wouldn't know. Things have changed, that's for sure.

AKT: Let's talk about your character from the outside in. For most of the film you are wearing the same camel coat. So does Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year, by the way.

MP: It came out after we made our film. Our reference was Alain Delon in an Italian movie called Le Professeur [Indian Summer] by Valerio Zurlini, from the Seventies. For once, Alain Delon plays an intellectual, a philosophy professor, philosophy teacher. So that was the idea for the character.

On André Dussollier: "I could feel that he was willing to play with me. He was looking deeply in my eyes"
On André Dussollier: "I could feel that he was willing to play with me. He was looking deeply in my eyes"

The idea was to have this character who used to be elegant and maybe he had some money when he was successful. But it's been ten years and all his clothes are falling apart. It's a nice coat but it's aging and a bit off now.

AKT: I remember wearing a gray cashmere crew neck like his with a camel coat in the Nineties. It really works perfectly for something equally timeless and out of time.

MP: That's cool because the character is stuck in the Nineties. He is stuck in his twenties. The idea was to give the sense of someone who is falling apart. He doesn't take good care of himself.

AKT: It's a decision he made, isn't it?

MP: Yeah. Anyway, he is a guy who doesn't make a lot of decisions, so it's hard to say.

AKT: During the wonderful scene when you meet André Dussollier's character on the balcony of the casino it is great to watch how he is testing you, playing with you. You don't understand anything at first but you're trying to catch up with this cat and mouse game. Did you rehearse the scene?

Pierre Blum: "I think the suspense of the movie comes more from what people say to each other and how they respond …"
Pierre Blum: "I think the suspense of the movie comes more from what people say to each other and how they respond …"

MP: No! It was fantastic. It was the second day of the shoot. First day was introducing everybody to the crew and the second day was already that big scene. We didn't even rehearse one time before we did that take. I could feel that André Dussollier was very fit, ready to shoot. He drew me into his path, his will of playing. I've never done theatre but he is a great theater actor, too.

So I could feel that he was willing to play with me. He was looking deeply in my eyes, he was meaning every word of it, he had a lot of fun playing those scenes. I could feel that he was not testing me but he wanted me to be playing with him. It was almost like two tennis players. The first ball was the good one. Nicolas was very happy - I could feel him behind the computer, behind the screen - to see what he had written for years finally taking place, becoming flesh.

The whole film was a pleasure playing together. Also with Clémence Poésy with whom I have a very long scene in the countryside. We really enjoyed those exchanges and those long scenes, the dialectic sense of it. I think the suspense of the movie comes more from what people say to each other and how they respond than some action or traditional thriller thing.

AKT: You said, you never did theater. Would you like to?

Laura Haydon (Clémence Poésy): "We really enjoyed those exchanges and those long scenes, the dialectic sense of it."
Laura Haydon (Clémence Poésy): "We really enjoyed those exchanges and those long scenes, the dialectic sense of it."

MP: No.

AKT: That's a quick response. Why not?

MP: I started acting when I was nine years old. I kept on doing movies till now. I have never been a fan of theater, even as a spectator. I don't go to see plays. Each time I go, I'm a bit disappointed and a bit bored. I play music. I'm on stage with my band.

AKT: I read that you sat on Jacques Lacan's knees as a child. What was that like?

MP: It's a small story. I was so little. But my mother was close to Jacques Lacan. She worked in the cinema business, she was a PR and for one movie she wanted Lacan to see that film because it dealt with psychological trauma.

AKT: Which movie was that?

MP: It was a Benoît Jacquot movie called Les Enfants Du Placard [Closet Children]. So she contacted him, he saw the movie, he wrote an article and, supposedly, he fell in love with my mother. But I think he was falling in love quite easily with women.

Le Grand Jeu poster
Le Grand Jeu poster

AKT: That wasn't by chance nine months before you were born?

MP laughs: No, no, no. That was before - no, after I was born. I have few memories of him coming to my house or saying hello to my mother in his office. That's it. I was too small. But he was so impressive and my mother kept on talking about Jacques Lacan forever, quoting his lines. I have a book that he dedicated to my mother.

AKT: Do you have a favourite line of his?

MP: Yes. Le nom du père. [Respectively spelled: le non du père and les non-dupes errent - translated as the name of the father, the no of the father and the non-dupes err]. That's tricky, but I'm not a big Jacques Lacan fan. He is almost like a guru, hypnotizing people with words.

AKT: When I read Lacan, it changed the structure of how I was dreaming. You call Lacan hypnotic - there is some of that in the scenes with Dussollier in The Great Game.

MP: Of course, that's why it works. There is also this father and son relationship. I think at first my character is a bit freaked out by this weird guy but then he has a lot of tenderness for this character. He might not be as important as he pretends, he might not be at the center of it all. Even though he drowns him into a very dark and dangerous situation he keeps having feelings for him.

AKT: To get back to the start of our conversation and that impressive questioning you go through at the beginning of The Great Game: "Are you an alcoholic? Are you Jewish?" Did you speak with Nicolas Pariser about this dialogue?

Joseph Paskin with Pierre Blum: "He drew me into his path, his will of playing."
Joseph Paskin with Pierre Blum: "He drew me into his path, his will of playing."

MP: In fact, I think it's the first scene he ever wrote. All of the movie came from that initial scene. He had in mind this encounter of an old guy and a young guy. The manipulation and this questioning. At first he had in mind the same actor to play the young and the old one. Those questions - it's like a game, fantasising about cinema.

AKT: Asking questions, you wouldn't really ask?

MP: In France people are very direct.

Coming up - Fashion in the Nineties, Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways, Eric Rohmer, Conte D'été (A Summer's Tale), working with Clémence Poésy, a Marguerite Duras inspiration, Victoria directed by Justine Triet with Virginie Efira, and starring with Fan Bingbing in Charles de Meaux's The Lady In The Portrait.

The Great Game will be screened on July 17 and 19 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.

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