Playing with expectations

Pascal Bonitzer on Léa Drucker, Olivier Rabourdin, Last Summer and Auction

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Aurore (Louise Chevillotte) with André Masson (Alex Lutz) at Scottie’s in Pascal Bonitzer’s mysterious and witty Auction (Le Tableau Volé)
Aurore (Louise Chevillotte) with André Masson (Alex Lutz) at Scottie’s in Pascal Bonitzer’s mysterious and witty Auction (Le Tableau Volé)

Catherine Breillat’s incomparably daring Last Summer (L’été Dernier with songs by Kim Gordon and Bill Nace’s Body/Head, Sonic Youth, and Léo Ferré) starring Léa Drucker, Samuel Kircher, and Olivier Rabourdin has received four César nominations: Best Director and Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Léa Drucker), Male Revelation (Samuel Kircher in competition with his brother Paul Kircher for Thomas Cailley’s The Animal Kingdom). In the first installment with Pascal Bonitzer, we start out discussing his work on Last Summer which is based on May el-Toukhy’s 2019 film Queen of Hearts (Dronningen, co-written with Maren Louise Käehne, starring Trine Dyrholm, Gustav Lindh, and Magnus Krepper) and then delve into his latest film, Auction (Le Tableau Volé, a highlight of the 29th edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York).

Pascal Bonitzer with Anne-Katrin Titze on Scottie’s in Auction: “It’s an allusion to Vertigo because it’s a great movie. Scottie’s, yes, it’s Sotheby’s, it’s Christie’s, it’s a big auction house.”
Pascal Bonitzer with Anne-Katrin Titze on Scottie’s in Auction: “It’s an allusion to Vertigo because it’s a great movie. Scottie’s, yes, it’s Sotheby’s, it’s Christie’s, it’s a big auction house.”

Pascal Bonitzer, who put a Henry James ghost story to the screen with Spellbound, knows how haunting words can be. “I admire you, but I don’t respect you,” we hear in Auction, or that “being hated is good for the neurons.” He introduces us to the world of high-price art auctions by way of a very telling scene. A wealthy woman refuses a cup of coffee, says she is blind, and explains that she wants to sell her artwork so that her daughter doesn’t inherit it, because of her lifestyle.

What follows is a tirade of racist bigotry, which lets Aurore (Louise Chevillotte) take note. She is the new intern working for art specialist André Masson (Alex Lutz) at Scottie’s, an auction house modeled after Sotheby’s or Christie’s. Scottie’s recalling Jimmy Stewart’s name in Vertigo, gives a nod to Alfred Hitchcock, the master of all cinema auctions with Cary Grant unforgettable as Roger O Thornhill in North By Northwest. The stolen painting of the French title, Le Tableau Volé, is a work depicting sunflowers by Egon Schiele, that had gone missing in 1939 and was thought to have been destroyed. When it shows up at a factory worker’s house in Mulhouse, Masson and his ex-wife and colleague, Bertina (Léa Drucker), see it as a great chance on several levels.

Mysteries abound as the lives of the protagonists unfold in precise and often comical and touching scenes. Aurore, we soon find out, is a compulsive liar, who cannot even tell the truth about the handsome vintage jacket she buys on a whim at an auction nearby. Masson himself knows he is an impostor with a provincial background less fancy than he would like, a fact that he tries to make up for with expensive watches [which he ritualistically puts to bed each night in their special box, as if they were little birds] and pricey whiskey.

From Paris, Pascal Bonitzer joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi, good afternoon!

André Masson (Alex Lutz) at Scottie's
André Masson (Alex Lutz) at Scottie's

Pascal Bonitzer: Good morning, Anne-Katrin!

AKT: We have a lot of snow this morning [February 13], the first big New York snowstorm in two years. It looks beautiful.

PB: That’s nice. In Paris it’s rainy and a little cold, not very cold.

AKT: The name of the auction house, Scottie’s, that’s Sotheby’s by way of Vertigo?

PB: Ha, yes! It’s an allusion to Vertigo because it’s a great movie. Scottie’s, yes, it’s Sotheby’s, it’s Christie’s, it’s a big auction house.

AKT: Auctions are very cinematic. Again Hitchcock comes to mind.

PB: North By Northwest.

André Masson (Alex Lutz) with his ex-wife and colleague Bertina (Léa Drucker)
André Masson (Alex Lutz) with his ex-wife and colleague Bertina (Léa Drucker)

AKT: Exactly. You told me you are not very good with numbers and passwords, but your auction scene is beautiful! Some films unnecessarily complicate it or make it too banal, yours is exactly right. We know what the price was supposed to be and can follow perfectly. Did you go to many auctions in preparation?

PB: Thank you. I went to some, of course, and I interviewed many auctioneers and owners of art galleries. Not me, but Iliana Lolic, who is my collaborator on this film. She did twenty interviews and I extracted this story because it’s basically a true story, the story of the finding of this painting.

AKT: The painting in the film is the actual Schiele painting? Not the painting itself, of course, you know what I mean.

PB: Of course. It’s the painting which in real life was found about 15 years ago in Mulhouse. The conditions of the finding are basically the ones that I depict in the movie.

AKT: Just this January, a Klimt thought lost was discovered and the story was all over the newspapers.

Anne (Léa Drucker) nose-to-nose with her husband Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin) in Catherine Breillat’s Last Summer (L’été Dernier)
Anne (Léa Drucker) nose-to-nose with her husband Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin) in Catherine Breillat’s Last Summer (L’été Dernier)

PB: Yes, there are still many paintings stolen by the Nazis that are found every year.

AKT: The room where it is hung it in your film, on a bright yellow wall, and especially funny, next to a darts board!

PB: That’s my imagination.

AKT: They are smoking right next to it and you make us fear for the painting! There is a lot done with editing there!

PB: I wanted that suspense about the destiny of the painting. Because it’s a masterpiece in the house of the young man who doesn’t know the value of the painting.

AKT: I don’t think I have ever seen a clothes auction scene depicted in a movie.

PB: Drouot, which is very famous in France, they auction almost anything, clothes too.

AKT: Clothes brings me to Last Summer. When I spoke with Catherine [Breillat], we talked about how Léa Drucker is dressed like a Hitchcock heroine. The Hitchcock feel makes hers so different from the Danish film.

PB: I don’t know the Danish film, I haven’t seen it.

Aurore (Louise Chevillotte) in her new vintage jacket bought at a clothes auction
Aurore (Louise Chevillotte) in her new vintage jacket bought at a clothes auction

AKT: How did you work with Catherine on the script for Last Summer?

PB: It was very simple because the script was already written and I just had to make some corrections to the dialogue, to propose some cuts. I just wrote some modifications in red and sent back the script and, well, Catherine was happy, was okay, basically. It was simple. We had no confrontation.

AKT: Had you worked together before?

PB: No, absolutely not, but I knew her when I was a movie critic. I wrote a critique of her first movie, Tapage Nocturne. She knew I admired the movies she makes, so it was easy. She has a reputation of being a little tough sometimes but it was very nice to work for her.

AKT: Two of the actors are in both films, Léa Drucker and Olivier Rabourdin.

PB: Yes, I can’t say it’s a total coincidence because the two movies are produced by the same producer, Saïd Ben Saïd. He pushed me to have Olivier Rabourdin, for instance. I saw Catherine’s film and I thought it was a good idea. He has a big role in her film, not in mine.

Snow storm in NYC on February 13, 2024
Snow storm in NYC on February 13, 2024 Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

AKT: But he’s important.

PB: Yes, he’s important because he’s the boss in my film, he has to be powerful.

AKT: Powerful and at the same time oblivious.

PB: Yes.

AKT: An interesting combination, that is not unlike Last Summer. In Auction, the moment when André Masson returns home and puts his watch “to bed” in the case where keeps all his precious watches, I realized how much yours is also a film about objects. I was reminded of something Pierre Bergé said in a documentary about Yves Saint Laurent [Pierre Thoretton’s L’Amour Fou], when the contents of their apartment were auctioned off. He likened the objects to birds that had to find a new perch. The objects are birds, we humans the mere perches.

PB: In my mind it was a kind of ritual. He has many watches because it’s a symbol of money, of power. He has a box and every night when he comes back from the auction house he puts the watch in that box.

AKT: A bit like Alain Delon in Le Samouraï.

PB: Ha, he didn’t come to my mind!

AKT: He has his rituals, Léa Drucker’s character has her bath rituals.

PB: Yes, it came to my mind. We don’t know who she is in the beginning. It was a way without dialogue to give some information about her. She takes baths. When I put this first scene with her in the bath, I thought all her appearances in the film she is going to take a bath or has come from just having taken a bath.

2024 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York runs from Thursday, February 29 through Sunday, March 10.
2024 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York runs from Thursday, February 29 through Sunday, March 10.

AKT: I noticed something structurally, that is, I think three times you have scenes where something doesn’t happen and we expect this to be the end if it. And then the thread is taken up again and what didn’t happen before does actually happen.

PB: For instance?

AKT: I am about to tell you. The scene with the father with the “forgotten” key. He leaves, we think this is it, we were meant to understand that she lied and nothing more. But no, the bell rings, the father is back. Another example: Léa Drucker in the bath hangs up on Masson, we think that’s it.

PB: And she calls back.

AKT: Right. Masson’s fight with Aurore, he doesn’t want her story, her suggestion, but then he is at her door. He comes back.

PB: I like to play with expectations of the audience. I like some events not to be expected or expected but not exactly how it happens. It’s part of the game. The game of storytelling.

AKT: The game of cinema also. It shows how well you know it.

PB: Sometimes I don’t know. For instance the bath, I had no specific idea, it became a character trait.

Le Tableau Volé poster
Le Tableau Volé poster

AKT: I have to think of Henry James, who in the preface to Portrait Of A Lady wrote that the character of Isabel Archer was there and all of a sudden took over. She, the character, told him what she wanted to do. Nothing you can do when the Léa Drucker character wants to take a bath!

PB: Absolutely.

AKT: Thank you! You are coming to New York?

PB: Yes, I am coming at the end of the month. I am very happy to do this. Thank you for the interview!

AKT: Maybe see you in New York!

PB: I hope so!

AKT: Say hello to Catherine if you speak to her!

PB: Absolutely!

Coming up - Pascal Bonitzer on the opening scene of Auction exposing a certain world, an intern as our guide, working with Laurence Côte since Jacques Rivette’s La bande des quatre and his own first film Encore, Spellbound, the ghost stories of Henry James, memorable sentences overheard, and lies that go too far.

Auction screens in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema on Friday, March 1 at 9:00pm followed by a Q&A with Pascal Bonitzer and on Sunday, March 10 at 6:30pm - Walter Reade Theater

The 29th edition of Unifrance and Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs from Thursday, February 29 through Sunday, March 10.

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