Binoche’s object of desire

Newcomer François Civil talks inspiration, secrets and working with a legend

by Richard Mowe

François Civil as he appears in Who You Think I Am opposite Juliette Binoche. Civil: 'Safy is someone who is very precise and very visual'
François Civil as he appears in Who You Think I Am opposite Juliette Binoche. Civil: 'Safy is someone who is very precise and very visual' Photo: Unifrance
You might expect youthful actor François Civil to be fazed about appearing opposite such a legend of French cinema as Juliette Binoche in Safy Nebbou’s online hit Who You Think I Am, which is currently screening at Curzon Home Cinema.

He admits he has been fan of her since he became interested in a career in cinema. “I didn’t think of her as some kind of legend but rather simply as an actress that I admire right from the time I began to be interested in cinema," he says. "She’s someone who is very inspiring either on or off the set. She works so much for each role and invests so much in her character that it was a wake-up call for me and I learned a lot from watching how she works. She does such a lot of preparation that by the time she arrives on the set and it’s ‘Action’ she proceeds flawlessly. And I also noticed that no shot is ever the same … she never repeats herself. So for an actor like me she makes me up my game."

It may have helped that eight years ago, he played her adolescent son in Elles by Malgorzata Szumowska. How times change … now he’s the subject of her desires on social media where Binoche’s 50-year-old lecturer pretends to be Clara, a 24-year-old blonde.

Like Binoche, Civil tends to prepare a lot. “Each actor has their way of working. For me each film is a journey of discovery and I learn new things. We seemed to connive together to get the right result and we sprung surprises rather than repeating ourselves. We were very conscious of the other’s input and didn’t want to trip up.”

François Civil and Josephine Japy step out in Love At Second Sight
François Civil and Josephine Japy step out in Love At Second Sight Photo: Unifrance

Nebbou dissuaded Civil from reading the original book by Camille Laurens, on which the film is based. Civil says: “In fact, he did not want us to meet at all until the moment in the film when they actually meet. There were no read-throughs so that helped to keep the sense of suspense. In the scene where she is seen on the end of an erotically charged telephone call I was on the set but hidden in a small room. Safy went backwards and forwards to direct us both but at the end of the day I left under cover. It was all done in secret. I think that helped Juliette to become Clara and it also help me to fantasise about someone.”

Civil is aware of the pitfalls of social media. Apart from his Instagram account, he steers clear. “Being all over the internet is contradictory to my craft as an actor. I like to be as anonymous as possible and to observe people from the outside. Instagram, though, allows me to interact directly with people who follow my work, and that can be useful,” he said.

His burgeoning career appears on an upward trajectory. A year after Who You Think I Am he went to work for the second time with Cédric Klapisch on Someone Somewhere (Deux moi), which coincidentally also deals with social media. “The approach is different but it is true that Cédric's film also talks about a potential love story between two people who do not see each other directly. Social media as a background preoccupies quite a few directors these days.” His character Rémy struggles to meet anyone at all, while Melanie (played by Ana Girdardot) embarks on hopeless date after hopeless date via her online accounts.

As an actor he appreciated the contrasting approaches of the two directors. “Safy is someone who is very precise and very visual. Cédric is much freer in the way shoots and directs and is driven by the characters,” said Civil. He had worked with Klapisch previously on the family winemaking drama Back To Burgundy (Ce qui nous lie). He could not believe his luck in working with one of his “heroes” whom he had followed since the time of 1994’s cult hit Good Old Daze (Le peril jeune) and Pot Luck (L’auberge espanol) in 2002. “I had been a fan of his films and here I was actually playing in two of them. It felt unbelievable,” he said. Civil notes that Klapisch is faithful to his actors such as Romain Duris, and he hopes that he may have become “part of the family”.

François Civil looking for love in Cédric Klapisch’s Someone Somewhere
François Civil looking for love in Cédric Klapisch’s Someone Somewhere Photo: Unifrance

Civil admits he seems to have been spoilt for choice recently. He appears in a lead role opposite Josephine Japy in Hugo Gelin’s Love At Second Sight (Mon inconnue) as a man trying to make his wife fall in love him again and as a submarine’s sonar officer in Antoine Baudry’s action thriller The Wolf’s Call (now available on Netflix).

Now 31, he fell into acting almost by chance but concedes that he relished playing “the class clown".“I was scouted by a theatrical casting agent and began little by little with small stage roles, TV series, and shorts. I got an agent when I began to get really passionate about it. I like the collective aspect of creating something out of nothing with other people. Although I started in theatre I find it difficult to handle the stress of a live performance because if you make a mistake or misjudge it, then you do so in front of everyone!” Cinema, mercifully, gives him a safety net.

  • Read what Juliette Binoche told us about Who You Think I Am?

  • Richard Mowe interviewed François Civil at the Unifrance Rendezvous with French Cinema in Paris in January.
  • Curzon Home Cinema chart has Who You Think I Am leading the way ahead of second-placed Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Truth (which likewise stars Juliette Binoche), and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire in third.

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