Naming the unknown phenomena

Antonin Baudry on Bertrand Tavernier and Quai d'Orsay, Reda Kateb, Paula Beer and The Wolf's Call

by Anne-Katrin Titze

François Civil, Pierre Cevaer, Sébastien Libessart, Omar Sy and Reda Kateb in Antonin Baudry's The Wolf's Call (Le Chant Du Loup): "I wanted to put these people in situations where they didn't have a simple way to answer the situation. They really have to rely on their conscience."
François Civil, Pierre Cevaer, Sébastien Libessart, Omar Sy and Reda Kateb in Antonin Baudry's The Wolf's Call (Le Chant Du Loup): "I wanted to put these people in situations where they didn't have a simple way to answer the situation. They really have to rely on their conscience."

In the second half of my conversation at Lincoln Center with the screenwriter/director of The Wolf's Call (Le Chant Du Loup), Antonin Baudry, aka Abel Lanzac, discussed with me the influence Bertrand Tavernier had on him during the filming of Quai d'Orsay (The French Minister), sacrifice in the work of directors Tsui Hark, Johnnie To, and in John Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled.

Antonin sees the Golden Ear Chanteraide (François Civil) in The Wolf's Call going through an "Orphean trajectory". He talked about colours with cinematographer Pierre Cottereau, and noted the importance of Claude Lanzmann's support.

Antonin Baudry on his autobiography Quai d'Orsay (The French Minister) and Bertrand Tavernier: "I was always invited on the set and he was always explaining to me everything he was doing. I learned a lot watching him."
Antonin Baudry on his autobiography Quai d'Orsay (The French Minister) and Bertrand Tavernier: "I was always invited on the set and he was always explaining to me everything he was doing. I learned a lot watching him." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The high stakes French Navy nuclear submarine thriller The Wolf's Call is a reflection on chance, codes, and human responsibility under pressure. Chanteraide is trained to recognize and identify the unknown phenomena heard in the ocean. Commander Grandchamp (Reda Kateb) and his second-in-command D'Orsi (Omar Sy) face making timely decisions that could affect the entire world. Suspense and cogitation aren't mutually exclusive as bonds are being tested.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Did your work with Bertrand Tavernier on The French Minister help you with this film?

Antonin Baudry: You know that the story of Quai d'Orsay was my autobiography.

AKT: Of course. I was wondering if what he did with your story then could turn out helping you with your directional debut?

AB: I learned so many things from Bertrand. When he shot Quai d'Orsay I was always invited on the set and he was always explaining to me everything he was doing. I learned a lot watching him.

AKT: I was thinking of the scene of the urgent phone call and the thank-you-for-waiting music comes up.

AB: This is something I lived personally. You've got an emergency, you are trying to call someone very important, even the President. You know, the President, he's just another human being who has two hands, so he cannot be on the phone. Five lines, so you have to wait, even if it's very urgent. It's something we all can relate to.

Chanteraide (François Civil), the "Golden Ear" being tested by the ALFOST of the French Navy (Mathieu Kassovitz) and D'Orsi (Omar Sy)
Chanteraide (François Civil), the "Golden Ear" being tested by the ALFOST of the French Navy (Mathieu Kassovitz) and D'Orsi (Omar Sy)

AKT: It got a lot of laughs last night at the FI:AF première. Everybody could relate. You show that these are regular people, which makes it also scary.

AB: It is.

AKT: Because it makes it very clear that the world could blow up by accident.

AB: Yeah, at the end of the day, it's all human beings and consciences. It's what really interested me. I mean, I love the submarines for the shape or what they symbolize. But more than the machines, what fascinates me is the human conflicts inside. I love Greek tragedies. I wanted to put these people in situations where they didn't have a simple way to answer the situation. They really have to rely on their conscience.

AKT: Their conscience and their instincts against the protocol.

AB: Yes and the whole systems and machinery. For me human systems, like, say, diplomacy or alliances and the machine world, the algorithms and computers and sonars are kind of the same. They're in the same realm. The only thing that's different is really the human soul, I think. I wanted to have this kind of division between these two things. But they are always and constantly interacting.

AKT: Sacrifice, the idea of sacrificing yourself for others, does hold a great fascination. Sometimes dangerously so. All the Veit Harlan films. I don't know if you are familiar with them?

Antonin Baudry on Chanteraide (François Civil) with Diane (Paula Beer): "She totally changes his trajectory in a way that is not conscious, neither for him nor for her."
Antonin Baudry on Chanteraide (François Civil) with Diane (Paula Beer): "She totally changes his trajectory in a way that is not conscious, neither for him nor for her."

AB: Not very much.

AKT: Opfergang and Kolberg and all of these Nazi films are playing with sacrifice and showing that this is the way to be. It's almost a matter of shame to say today that sacrifice touches you - because of these associations.

AB: The way I went to this sacrifice thing was more the Hong Kong films. Tsui Hark and Johnnie To. But John Woo would be probably the first one to come to mind with The Killer. Enemies who've gone out to fight together and sacrifice for each other whereas they were enemies before, like in The Killer for example or Hard Boiled. It moves me extremely. It's through the action Hong Kong films that I was in touch first with this emotion of sacrifice between friends and enemies.

AKT: The idea that the "Golden Ear" can do something that we can't do - there's a bit of Sherlock Holmes syndrome to it. That we love as audiences to watch someone who has these abilities that are so beyond us.

AB: I was fascinated by this Golden Ear character. It's so complex. It's very young people, like kids, supersensitive to the sounds. They are supersensitive, so they are fragile psychologically. They have on their shoulders all the weight of the life and death of the whole team, the whole crew.

And they have this poetical role to name the unknown phenomena surrounding them. Actually the trajectory of Chanteraide in the film is like an Orphean trajectory. An Orphean theme, like, state of innocence in the beginning.

Titan submarine second-in-command D'Orsi (Omar Sy) with his commander Grandchamp (Reda Kateb)
Titan submarine second-in-command D'Orsi (Omar Sy) with his commander Grandchamp (Reda Kateb)

AKT: And then he descends to hell.

AB: Then he descends to hell. And then you're brought back to the surface but you're not innocent as in the beginning. That's why he becomes deaf. You cannot pretend you are the same. You learn something.

AKT: And Paula Bear's character's part in this journey?

AB: Yeah, in a blink of an eye there's this relationship that is created. The life of this guy is really that everything happens in the blink of an eye when they're on land because they're so little on land. But Paula's character leads him to the solution of his inquiry. She's the one who mentions the database archives. Without knowing it she leads him to the solution. And then also she is the one who prevents him from embarking. So she totally changes his trajectory in a way that is not conscious, neither for him nor for her.

AKT: I like the idea that the solution is the opposite of what she is talking about. The book is in the database but the actual book isn't there. And that gives him the idea of the opposite - that the submarine is actually there. It's a nice cracked mirror.

AB: Exactly. And I think it's very often the way it happens in life. Meeting someone changes your life in a way you don't really realise in the first place. She or he doesn't realise it either. It's hard to do in a film, because in film things have to be sometimes really obvious.

Submarine Commander Grandchamp (Reda Kateb)
Submarine Commander Grandchamp (Reda Kateb)

But this one couldn't be obvious. Some people will understand it, some people will not. It wouldn't be clear for the characters what is going on, but it would be clear enough. Sound helped me for that. The way I could introduce mental sounds.

AKT: Several times I took note that we are on land but we hear the submarine.

AB: He's still in the submarine, yeah totally.

AKT: Reda Kateb's character's wife is mentioned as someone who wanted to keep him on land and there's a little dog roaming in his apartment, which is the first hint that he is living with someone. The dog would be dead if he weren't. Was there ever a wife cast? Or were you keeping her as a phantom always?

AB: In the end I thought what the film was really about was their family as a crew. Their real life was in the boat. Everything else would be a distraction. But I wanted us to feel like it existed, that was important also. They are human beings, they have friends, they have families.

AKT: And there is again the animal stand-in. The dog signalling a life.

AB: Exactly. You have very good eyes.

Antonin Baudry at Lincoln Center in sneakers gifted to him by Omar Sy: '"For some reason shoes, for me they're really a part of our identity. You can't escape that."
Antonin Baudry at Lincoln Center in sneakers gifted to him by Omar Sy: '"For some reason shoes, for me they're really a part of our identity. You can't escape that." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: One super silly thing I have to tell you. Since we've had that conversation on square-toed shoes when we talked about The French Minister ...

AB: I remember that.

AKT: Every time I see a man with square-toed shoes that resemble those, I think of you. And I know you hate them and hope they never come back in style. And it's so funny, in The Wolf's Call you have that scene with the yellow sneakers. What is it with you and shoes?

AB: I know, it's my obsession with shoes. For some reason shoes, for me they're really a part of our identity. You can't escape that. You could go barefoot, but even that would be such a statement. You cannot avoid the shoes thing. You can wear jeans and a shirt, all very neutral, as I, but with shoes we always indicate something more.

And the fact that you cannot escape that is really funny to me. The more people try to make a statement with their shoes, the more it's funny. The less they try to make a statement with their shoes, the more it's funny as well. I can't help watching shoes.

AKT: It's true. I agree with you. In this case, he also has a yellow watch. Because of Yellow Submarine?

AB: No, maybe just because he's a weirdo. Yellow shoes, yellow watch, maybe he just doesn't have a lot of taste.

AKT: What I learned from that Jacques Cousteau film with Lambert Wilson was that the colour you see best, deepest in the ocean, is yellow.

AB: Absolutely. You're totally right. It's the colour you really see in the water. Exactly, that's how I thought of it.

Antonin Baudry on The Wolf's Call (Le Chant Du Loup): "In the end I thought what the film was really about was their family as a crew."
Antonin Baudry on The Wolf's Call (Le Chant Du Loup): "In the end I thought what the film was really about was their family as a crew."

AKT: So it's not just that he has no taste?

AB: No, I was working with my DP [Pierre Cottereau] and we were talking about colours and colours under water. And then I had to choose Chanteraide's outfit and I thought, yeah, he should have something yellow. And also there's this golden theme - Golden Ear - so it related to that.

AKT: The film screening was introduced by Marie-Monique Steckel [President of the French Institute Alliance Française in New York], and she said that the events could have happened yesterday …

AB: … without us knowing it.

AKT: The state of the world is at stake. Were you at all concerned, that this is your first film? You didn't want to start smaller than the fate of the world?

AB: I didn't think that way. When I was at my desk writing, I was just envisioning images, hearing sounds and following them. And trying to think for each character, even the small characters: What would I do if I were him? Then while doing the film and writing and shooting I discovered what were my obsessions really.

President of the French Institute Alliance Française in New York Marie-Monique Steckel introducing The Wolf's Call (Le Chant Du Loup)
President of the French Institute Alliance Française in New York Marie-Monique Steckel introducing The Wolf's Call (Le Chant Du Loup) Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: So actually Claude Lanzmann's enthusiasm helped to push it forward?

AB: Yes, he was very supportive. Everybody was saying it's totally stupid to make a submarine film in France. No one did that before, there's a reason for that. And Claude said [in Lanzmann voice, growling]: "Of course you must make this film!"

AKT: That's what you need. No film I can think of recently has affected me more than one of The Four Sisters, The Hippocratic Oath.

AB: Wonderful film.

AKT: His legacy is humanity laid out for us. To have somebody like that, well there is nobody like that.

AB: I miss him so much. I miss him so so much.

AKT: It's not even a year. It was last July that he died.

AB: He did see the first 20 minutes of the film. And he loved them. But I'm so sad, actually, I had the disk of the final editing of the film with me when I saw him for the last time. He was yelling at me weeks before "I want to see your film!" I was hoping I could show him. It was too late.

Retired US Navy Rear Admiral Ken Perry at the French Institute Alliance Française première of The Wolf's Call (Le Chant Du Loup)
Retired US Navy Rear Admiral Ken Perry at the French Institute Alliance Française première of The Wolf's Call (Le Chant Du Loup) Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: We have come back full circle to the master, Claude Lanzmann. Thank you. I have to stroll over to meet the Italian delegation [for Open Roads: New Italian Cinema] now for lunch.

AB: Thank you so much, that was great, really great. You understand film so well and in such a personal way also. It's impressive.

Read what Antonin Baudry had to say on Claude Lanzmann, Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot, making mistakes, ambiguous sounds, and The Wolf's Call (Le Chant Du Loup).

The Wolf's Call (Le Chant Du Loup) became available on Netflix on June 20 after a première in Paris on January 17 and a theatrical release in France on February 20.

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