A film about words

Olivier Peyon on adapting the work of Philippe Besson in Lie With Me

by Jennie Kermode

Lie With Me
Lie With Me

Some directors seem incapable of making disappointing films, and Olivier Peyon is one of them – but with Lie With Me (aka Arrête Avec Tes Mensonges), which was at Flare earlier this year and is currently screening at Newfest, he faced an additional challenge. The film, which tells the story of a writer who returns to his hometown and meets the son of his secret teenage lover Thomas, is an adaptation of a book which has many adoring fans. That book is also a deeply personal work, as he explained when we met a couple of weeks ago to discuss his work.

“The novel is the memories of the writer, Philippe Besson, and it was about his first big love story when he was a teenager. And so most of the novel is about that. It is about the past, about memories, about this tragic, this strong love story. But the part that interests me the most was the second part, which was the encounter between the writer and the son, Lucas. I thought it was really original, so that's why I wanted to do it for cinema. When you want to adapt a novel, you meet the writer and you tell him why you love his work and what you're going to do.

“So I told Philippe Besson, ’You made a story about the past, and I want my movie to develop the present.’ I was really touched, of course, by everything, but especially by Lucas, the son of Thomas, because he suffered so much from the silences of his father. I thought this character was really original, so that was the point of departure.

“The movie is all developed around this couple, about the writer and the son, and more in the present. And finally, the past, which is of course important, is more like flashback. But in the novel, it's not a flashback at all. More than half of the novel is about the past. The novel and the film are built very differently.”

I tell him I find it interesting that he talks about Lucas and his father's silences because Lucas himself is silent for a lot of the film. Early on, we don't know what he knows or what he's thinking. Was that a deliberate thing?

“Yes, of course. For the first part, I wanted the audience think that Lucas is naive. We are in the skin, in the mind, of the writer. It's his point of view. And when he suddenly understands who Lucas is, he doesn't know how to react. He doesn't know what he has the right to say or know. It was quite funny, in a sense.

“I asked Victor Belmondo, who plays Lucas for the first part of the movie, I asked him to play it in a very nice way, a very innocent way. I told him ‘You really don't have to give the audience clues.’”

We talk about the character of Gaëlle (played by Guilaine Londez), the agent who accompanies the reluctant writer (Guillaume de Tonquédec) as he returns to the town.

“I wanted the audience be like the writer at first when you arrive in the little town and he doesn't want to be here,” he says. “Of course, he doesn't want to confront his ghost, but he doesn't know it yet. And so the the woman, she's a little bit like that at start, like she's just here to get some fun in the movie. Okay. It's quite funny, but she's perhaps a little bit ridiculous. And suddenly we will discover that she's really smart and profound.

“This character doesn't exist in the novel. In the novel there's just males. There is no woman at all. But there is a theme, a subject that’s very important in the novel. It's about the relation between countryside and big town and ideas we have, because the writer left his little town because he didn't feel comfortable. All this relation between do you have to live when you're different, do you have to stay? It’s in the novel, in every page. But I needed to invent a character to go with this purpose about that. That's why I invented Gaëlle Flamand.”

I venture that perhaps because people are more accepting now of gay men, they don't understand how difficult they made the writer’s life in the past, and that his feelings about the town are still influenced by that. Olivier shakes his head.

“Those people don't think about that because they don't really know what homosexuality is even now, you know what I mean?” he says.

We agree that attitudes to Stéphane specifically have also changed because, of course, he’s famous now, and is seen as an asset to the town.

“He's an artist. It's always the same. And he can write what he wants. We forgive everything for people who are famous. But I don't know, because, for example, the character of Gaëlle Flamand, she doesn't need to be a writer to live her life. I don't know. I don't think like that about that story.”

There is a careful balance of scenes from the past and present in the film. How did he shoot those so that we would immediately sense the difference but they would still flow together well?

“Usually I hate flashbacks in movies,” he confides, “but this time it helps, because there are things said in the past and not in the present, and things said in the present and not in the past. But in fact, I didn't shoot the past so differently from the present except that I decided to shoot the flashback at the end of the summer because it's about memories. I mean, the fact it's a beautiful love story, and because these are the memories of the writer. I wanted this kind of really melancholic colours, very golden colours, you know what I mean?

“That's why we decided to shoot it at the end of the summer because in a way, it's more warm. It's a warm love story. At the start it's difficult, but step by step, it's a beautiful love story. So that's the big difference I wanted between the present and the past. But for the way I wanted to shoot, I decided to shoot the same way, except the colour, because I wanted us to go from one to another in a very fluent way. I wanted the path to be really strong and present, in a sense because it’s the memories of the writer, it's in his mind – but when you think about that, it's his present. You know what I mean?

“The colours are really different. The past is more golden. And we shot the present part in November and December so the colours are a little bit colder. But for the way to shoot the character, I decided to shoot the same way with long sequences. I let the actors play, and I use this process in the past and in the present.”

I tell him that I love the relationship between the two boys in the past because there's a lot more going on than just the romance. Stéphane, the writer-to-be, seems overwhelmed that a boy who is as popular as Thomas is giving him any kind of attention. There's a lot there about status as well.

“Yeah. In fact, in the novel it's supposed to be not really beautiful. It's supposed to be the intellectual. It's a little bit of a cliché, but it was written like this. So he doesn't understand why the most beautiful guy in the high school could meet him. And I think that's the question all over the movie: ‘Does he really love me?’ In fact, the writer doesn't know.

“He was so stuck with his life. He wasn't capable of love because of that, because he thought he was not loved at all. When you think you are not loved, well, he doesn't know how to love because of his first love story. And the son is going to give him answers. On the other side, the son suffered so much from the silence of his father and he needed also to know what happened. So at the end, each of them have the pieces of a puzzle, you know what I mean? And at the end, they can understand everything and they can go on with their lives.

“That's why I think it’s a happy ending. Philippe Besson told me ‘I wrote a book about the silence and you made a film about the words.’”

Olivier’s films are always very beautiful. Is that important in bringing people into them emotionally?

“Yes, of course. But you cannot decide it, you know what I mean? When I'm making a movie, during the shooting, it's just about my emotions. It's just about my trust and my work with the actors. We try to do our best to make the best film, but for ourselves. If the film meets the audience, I'm really happy, but the first emotion I try to give in my movie is the emotion I feel. For example, during the shooting, we started with the scenes of the end of the movie. That means that we started with the big scenes, very emotional scenes – because with the schedule, we didn't have the choice.

“So for two weeks, were working on these emotionally big scenes. And in fact, I was always crying because they were so great. They were so emotional. And as a director, I could see that, okay, these scenes will be good. And it was funny because when I didn't cry, the actors thought they were bad.” He laughs.

“My talent is trying to put all these pieces all together and suddenly I can feel my emotion. Then if the audience loves the movie and feels the same emotion, okay, I'm really happy about that. But you cannot decide. Each person who watches your movie comes with his own life, his own experience, and you cannot fight with that. You cannot force people to cry on your movie. It's an issue too big for that, so first I try to work on my own emotions.”

So how did he find the actors for this – people who could take on characters whom many viewers already felt they knew from the book.

“It's always a long process. When you write a script, it's like one year of work or two years. It depends. And I try to be open when I start the casting. I try to be surprised, you know what I mean? For example, Thomas, the father of Lucas in the book, is supposed to be a big farm guy from the countryside, so I met lots of young actors who were like that. And when Julien [De Saint Jean] arrived for the casting, he was not like that, but he was great. So I met him a second time. I met him three times. And suddenly when we put the actors together, it was so obvious, the chemistry between Julien and Jérémy Gillet . Finally I decided to choose them because of this chemistry.

“During the casting, you have to let yourself be surprised. I don't want to be stuck on my idea. I didn't have the idea at first and now, I cannot imagine the scene without him, for so many reasons.

“To make a movie is always a process like this where you don't know. In fact, you have inside you the heart of your movie. You know what your movie has to be, but you don't know how to get it. So every step of the work, you have to be open to the surprise of life and of reality.”

He’s delighted by the way that the film has been received.

“The film was released in France last February and because it was after Covid and the situations of the cinemas in France were really bad, I decided to accompany the film to lots of screenings in France. I went to lots of festivals in France because people seemed to love the film. I was not surprised but touched by the reaction of the audience. In France it was really special because Guillaume de Tonquédec is really famous, so there was a lot of people who came to the cinema to watch him. They didn't know at all what they were going to see. They were straight, sometimes they were old also, and at the end of each screening they were a little bit shocked with the sex scenes, you know what I mean?

“They came at the end and they told me things. ‘I was really surprised.’ ‘It's really moving.’ ‘Now we will understand them better.’ ‘Their love story is the same as ours.’ Suddenly some straight people discovered that love between gays or lesbians could be the same. Suddenly I realised I did a queer movie for straight people. It was quite a pedagogical film in a way, although that was not my purpose.”

The film was sold in more that 20 countries, he tells me, which is rare these days, due to the effects of Covid.

“I'm lucky because the reactions were quite the same. I think there is something universal in the novel and also in the movie. Now the movie goes to festivals and wins awards and all this kind of stuff. Suddenly I feel that the emotion we had on the shoot is the same in the theatre. It's the best gift I could get.”

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