Making a scene

Pascal Bonitzer on ghosts, Henry James, Encore, La Bande Des Quatre and Auction

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Auction director/screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibition Look Again: European Paintings 1300–1800
Auction director/screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibition Look Again: European Paintings 1300–1800 Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

On the afternoon of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema première in New York of Auction (Le Tableau Volé, a highlight of Unifrance and Film at Lincoln Center’s 29th edition), starring Alex Lutz and Louise Chevillotte with Léa Drucker and Olivier Rabourdin of Catherine Breillat’s incomparably daring Last Summer (L’été Dernier, written in collaboration with Pascal Bonitzer, featuring two songs with Kim Gordon), the director/screenwriter joined me at The Metropolitan Museum of Art to check out Women Dressing Women at the Anna Wintour Costume Institute, before we strolled through the visionary exhibition Look Again: European Paintings 1300–1800.

Inês de Medeiros with Laurence Côte in Jacques Rivette’s La Bande Des Quatre, co-written with Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent
Inês de Medeiros with Laurence Côte in Jacques Rivette’s La Bande Des Quatre, co-written with Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent

In the second installment with the prolific and acclaimed director, screenwriter, actor, and former film critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, we discuss working again with Laurence Côte (seen as Ginette Kolinka in Olivier Dahan’s all-embracing portrait Simone: Woman Of The Century, starring Elsa Zylberstein as Simone Veil) after Jacques Rivette’s La Bande Des Quatre and his own first film Encore; Bonitzer’s Spellbound (Les Envoûtés) and the ghost stories of Henry James; the opening scene of Auction exposing a certain world; memorable sentences overheard; an intern as our guide, and lies that go too far.

At Hunter College the day before our visit to The Met, Kelly Anderson (Chair of the Film & Media Department) and Sam Di Lorio (Associate Professor from the from Romance Languages Department) hosted a discussion with Pascal Bonitzer on his distinguished career and multifaceted contributions to French Cinema.

From Paris, Pascal Bonitzer joined me on Zoom (before coming to New York for Rendez-Vous with French Cinema for an in-depth conversation on Auction.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I loved how at the start of Auction you introduce the job of the art specialist.

Pascal Bonitzer up the steps inside The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Pascal Bonitzer up the steps inside The Metropolitan Museum of Art Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

Pascal Bonitzer: With the woman?

AKT: Yes, with the “aunt” who says, I don’t want coffee, I am blind, I am selling the artwork so my daughter doesn’t get it! Before we get to know the people, we get the idea of the job. Can you talk a bit about this scene?

PB: Well, the problem is when you want to expose not only a story but a situation, a job, a world, you have to inform the audience, but you don’t want to inform the audience with information. You have to make a scene. It’s a comedy, it’s a comic scene with a comic character, this woman.

The irony of this situation exposes everything, the kinds of people this auction house are linked with, etc. Of course I needed a character that kind of introduces the audience to the job, the character of Louise Chevillotte, Aurore, the intern. She’s young and she doesn’t know all the codes of the job.

AKT: You have a long history of working with Laurence Côte. I remember her in Rivette’s La Bande Des Quatre, where she was so wonderful.

PB: Yes! That was my first encounter with her. In my first movie, Encore, I chose her for one of the characters. I love her, Laurence. She’s a great one.

AKT: There is so much backstory you can feel from her performance. There is so much more than what is spelled out.

PB: That was a challenge for me because they play people I am not used to depict in my movies. There are two worlds I wanted to confront in this film - the young worker and the world of money, which is the world of the auction house.

André Masson (Alex Lutz) at Scottie’s, an auction house modeled after Sotheby’s or Christie’s in Pascal Bonitzer’s Auction.
André Masson (Alex Lutz) at Scottie’s, an auction house modeled after Sotheby’s or Christie’s in Pascal Bonitzer’s Auction.

AKT: There are a number of characters we only see for brief moments that carry a ghostliness with them. Your previous film, Spellbound, was based on a Henry James story. I was thinking about that Henry James quality in the context of Auction.

PB: Thank you!

AKT: It felt a bit as though the ghosts were mingling and some interactions could be in the characters’ imagination. Henry James is important to you?

PB: Of course, I love the writer. I didn’t read all of his books but many of his short stories, mainly the ghost stories. I love ghost stories, especially those by Henry James, that’s why I had wanted to adapt it into my movie. With this one, I didn’t think of James specifically or anybody. I just wanted to tell the story and tell it in a way which could be pleasant.

AKT: There are sentences that stick with you. “I admire you but I don’t respect you!” Or “Being hated is good for the neurons.”

Pascal Bonitzer at the Anna Wintour Costume Institute Women Dressing Women exhibition
Pascal Bonitzer at the Anna Wintour Costume Institute Women Dressing Women exhibition Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

PB: I heard this sentence in a real conversation and I picked it to put it in the dialogue because it says something about the character of André Masson, who is the “hero” of the story in Auction.

AKT: Another scene I particularly liked is the buying of the jacket at the auction house. First off, the atmosphere of the scene is wonderful and makes me want to go and buy vintage clothes at auction. Secondly, it’s beautiful how it plays in with Aurore’s lies. With this lie about the jacket we are in on it, with her other lies we don’t know.

PB: We suspect she lies about everything until she stops to lie because she has gone too far and her father is very wounded and hurt by these lies. So in the last part of the film she becomes a normal girl.

Read what Pascal Bonitzer had to say on Auction, Léa Drucker, Olivier Rabourdin, and working with Catherine Breillat on Last Summer.

Read what Catherine Breillat had to say on Kim Gordon and the music for Last Summer, her star Samuel Kircher and his brother Paul Kircher of Thomas Cailley’s The Animal Kingdom, Léa Drucker, Hitchcock’s Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren.

The final screening of Auction in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema is on Sunday, March 10 at 6:30pm at the 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.

Auction opens in France on May 1.

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