When I catch up with the twinkly and enthusiastic director Christian Carion ahead of the film’s screening in Edinburgh and Aberdeen as part of the French Film Festival, he says: “Everything starts with emotion.”
He adds: “If you don't feel anything, by reading the story or just with the paper, it doesn't sound good. Because it's difficult to make a movie. AndI always think about my first emotion. When I read the script, I cried. And I always said to myself, ‘Will be will I be able to feel the same emotion by watching and the end? Will I lose something in preparing or casting?’ This is the most difficult, to keep the first primitive emotion of a project. And in this one, it was very emotional for me because I lost my mum just two years before. And so I was very in the memory of all of that and Line Renaud was kind of mum to me, too.”
Renaud, who was 93 when she shot the film and is now 95, has had a remarkable career, not just in terms of acting roles but as a chanteuse and dancer. She was so well-loved in Vegas, in fact, that they named a street - though as Carion notes regretfully, not a boulevard - after her. She is magnetic in the film and her chemistry with Boon - who has starred with the actress before and, like Carion views her as a sort of mother figure, is one of this drama’s constant delights.
Casting her wasn’t easy, however, because of the problems thrown up by the Covid pandemic, which because of various complications - not least the cost of insurance - stalled the production for a year.
He explains: “Because of the pandemic, we had to imagine another way of shooting, in the studio. We did it for Line, because when we shot she was 93, so she was very precious. Everything was around her, the schedule, everything. Dany is a huge actor in France, much more famous than Line but he is only 50, so he's a young guy. And I said to Dany, ‘We have to build our work around her.’ And he was a very good soldier, helping me to protect Line as much as we can.Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas). So I know him very well. And I know he could be very dramatic, very emotional, not only funny. And second, because he knows Line very well so the relationship between these two actors are very important. So I based all my work on this connection between the two.”
Carion talks about this as though it’s a simple thing but I suggest what he achieves isn’t easy at all, given that one of his actors is sitting behind the other in a car. It turns out he had a surprising film inspiration.
He admits: “First of all, shooting in a car is a nightmare because of the reflections and the size, even if you take a big car. And so I rewatched with my crew a very important movie to me, Duel, from Steven Spielberg. I love this movie. It's a very important movie. And he shot it when he was just 23. It's a masterpiece of how to shoot in a car. I know the movie by heart, but I showed it to my crew who knew it by heart. And just thinking about what is interesting for us in the preparation of our own movie, you know, first of all, and second, you're white with the thing that when you're from the point of view of Line Renaud, you just see a back the back of Dany Boon. But the back can be very emotional because you listen to the voice of Leni telling her telling us a story, her fight against the violence of a man. And when you watch the back of this guy, in fact, you can feel his emotion by listening to her. So back can be very interesting in cinema.”
Talking about the film’s more brutal moments, which it would be wrong to spoil, and which add an astringent note to the film that stops it from becoming over-sentimental, Carion notes that he “believes in oppositions”.
He adds: “An old lady must fine, she must be lovely. Yeah. But before being an old lady, she was a young lady and she had terrible destiny. And she fought, with violence. And an old lady can hide violence. I love this idea. That looking at someone, you can say well, it's obvious she's fine, she's lovely, she's very full of love. But no no no, there is a history, there is something like the flipside and this is why she is interesting.”
In terms of setting the shoot, it will come as a surprise to many that have seen the movie - which drinks in the streets and moods of Paris - that it was shot entirely in a studio. In one part of it was the set-up for the flashback sequences, in which Madeleine is played by Alice Isaaz, and in the other was the car we see her in as an old lady. Flashback scenes were shot in the morning, with Renaud arriving each afternoon to shoot for a few hours.
Shooting footage in Paris is a nightmare, quite aside from the pandemic, but Carion took an innovative approach to the film adopting a method his cinematographer Pierre Cottereau had previously used on a TV series. Instead of using green screen, they instead projected actual footage of Paris on large screens surrounding the car, a technique which not only feels true to life to the viewer but also helped the actors enormously.
“We had two big screens, eight metres and three metres. Very big. And when we were inside the car and watching the actors and the big screens, I really thought I was in Paris. The illusion was perfect.”
He says this in turn “contaminated” his actors. They didn’t use artificial light so that the light and energy of the city was generated.
This is a film all about connections, not just the actors to the city but the present to the past and it’s not so easy to match someone to Renaud because her eyes are such a startlingly unusual shade of blue.
“It's also a movie about blue eyes,” Carion notes. “The blue eyes of Line Renaud, to be honest they’re very special. Alice doesn't have that kind of blue eyes. And I remember I was at dinner because Line didn't know Alice. So she said, ‘Yes, she's great. I think she will be great for us. But she doesn't have my blue eyes.’ I said, ‘Line, no one has your blue eyes so we will try to do something in post production, but it will never be your own eyes. Because it's yours’. She said to me, ‘Yes. It's not a movie just on my blue eyes’.”
Beyond any post-production trickery, it’s the costuming that becomes crucial in terms of connecting the two eras, as the colour blue is used in scarves and outfits, helping the younger Line to reflect the spirit of her older incarnation.
Carion adds: “It's a key to go to the past. And also because I remember when my mum was getting old, it was difficult for her to make a difference between her past and our nowadays. There was a kind of mix of time and old people are like this.”
He says this is why he loves a moment where the two versions of Madeleine meet one another, adding: “It's exactly the mood of my own mum, when she was not able to remember what happened yesterday but was so precise about what happened in 1942?”
Now as the film makes its way around UK cinemas, Carion is being courted to make an American remake of the story, but he’s still undecided about that.
“They asked me to direct it. I said to them, “Hoestly, first of all, let’s write a better story than the French one. In the US, in New York, or in LA, I prefer New York. If we have a very good story, and an exciting cast, let's see. Because when you rethink about the story, you reboot the story with new actors, then well, it's another movie. Let’s see, because this story, I can tell you from travelling around the world with it, is so universal.”
Driving Madeleine screens at Cineworld Aberdeen tonight, November 23, at 8pm, as part of the French Film Festival and with Carion in attendance. It is also on release elsewhere in the UK. For more details about the French Film Festival, visit the official site.