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The profound truth of cinema, its true nature as an “industrial art form”, is expressed through genre, Pierre Salvadori tells Bernard Payen, talking about his romantic comedy, Beautiful Lies (Australian release July 21, 2011).

Q: How did the story of Beautiful Lies come about?
My co-writer, Benoît Graffin, and I, often proceed in the same way - to start things off, we get together and tell each other stories from our lives. Suddenly, something private and personal, something we’re dealing with that affects us, seems to be material that’s ideally suited to comedy. We develop it, situations grow out of it, and then sometimes themes appear. With Beautiful Lies, that’s exactly how it happened. There’s someone close to me who I described to Benoît, and he described someone close to him. We said to ourselves that these two people might make good characters, and that if we added a guy in the middle, it would perhaps make a good story. And that was it. Then the nightmare began!

Q: Why “the nightmare”?
It wasn’t easy to keep such a story believable. 
The writing was a long and difficult process, because I wanted to stay inside the basic situation to the end, and above all for a series of lies to lead to the truth. When you tell that to a scriptwriter at the beginning, he says “Right, great!” Then he hates you for a year!

Q: Like a lot of characters from your previous films, the three characters in the film share a lack of self-confidence…
Very learned people are sometimes impressed by self-taught people, and self-taught people can get quite hung up about people who have had a lot of education: this twin attitude is effectively one of the themes that propels the story. It’s true that it’s something that recurs in practically all of my films. Films resemble the people who make them, and for a very long time I was pathologically timid, very unsure of my own tastes and as a result rather tongue-tied. It was from being suddenly sure that I liked a particular film for the right reasons - Heaven Can Wait by the good doctor Lubitsch - and being able to say that - I gradually started to gain a bit of confidence. That film freed everything up for me, including my voice. 

Q: Depending on what happens to them, and what happens around them and between them, the characters are by turns soft and loving, or else cynical and nasty…
Characters that are too monolithic are tedious. It’s better to try to give them complex, paradoxical emotions, especially in a comedy. I like it when a character, who on the face of it is good or generous, harbours bad urges that lie dormant until a situation brings them to life. At the beginning of the film, Jean is a character who is almost irritatingly nice, and then at the end he in turn becomes agitated and lashes out. As for Emilie, who loves him and wants to save her mother, she ends up turning Jean into a cynic and her mother into a manipulator! This contagiousness of bad behaviour was also part of the initial project.

Q: From the outset, you define each character in a very telling way: Emilie with her client’s lock of hair, Jean watching Emilie from behind the coloured squares of glass, or Maddy drinking her scalding-hot tea in one gulp…

I love exposition in film. Most of the time, everything about a character and what might happen to them is told to us in two or three scenes. It’s the start of the film, you’re not weighed down yet by the plot and it’s a time when you can try to be as cinematic as possible, to set the tone stylistically.

Q: How did the scene where Emilie confesses to Jean in “shadow theatre” behind the curtain, under the eyes of Maddy and Paulette, come about?
It wasn’t the same in the initial shooting script. Nathalie was going to discover the truth by hearing the conversation behind a latticework screen. I wasn’t happy with the arrangement of the set and the scene was veering towards vaudeville. It was my director of photography, Gilles Henry, who reminded me of the shadow theatre effect we’d used in Après vous (After You). From that point, it all came together. 
I said to myself that if the two characters were projected in that way behind the curtain, we maybe needed to take the level of artifice a little further. So I put Nathalie Baye and Judith Chemla (Paulette) in the foreground, sitting them side by side like two spectators watching a film. Straight away that introduced an element of distance and irony into the scene and allowed me to discreetly evoke everything we are talking about – the taste for cinema, for genre, but also the importance of artifice, which is inherent to fiction. In fact it was a difficult scene to put together. In spite of everything, we still had to preserve the emotion, maintain a level of immediacy.

Q: Your film is built around a series of rebounds. Perhaps the least expected of these is Maddy’s revenge, which is almost amoral: she doesn’t hesitate to seduce the man she knows her daughter is in love with. What were your intentions in taking her revenge to that point? 
I wanted the mother to be able to have her revenge as well, to be able, at a given point in time, to hate her daughter and get some benefit from a situation that was not from the outset in her favour. I wanted at all costs to avoid the “mater dolorosa” who is prepared to do anything for the happiness of her daughter, the woman who is sanctified simply in virtue of being a mother. I always find that a bit irritating and simplistic in films. And then because it raised questions that interest me: “Can you help someone and at the same time betray them?”, “Can you love someone and in the same spirit betray them?”

With the situation being between a mother and daughter, it seemed even more exciting to me. Finally, I felt that the mother needed to have a small victory for the reconciliation to be possible. In more simple terms, these things are sometimes decided by instinct or by default, to avoid excessive sentimentality. Comedy has to have an element of cruelty as well.

Q: What made you want to work with Audrey Tautou again?
Because she has incredible technique and enough ability to let go for the technique not to get the upper hand. She has the control needed to be funny without being comical. And the lack of vanity. To play comedy, you have to put your pride to one side and not show, even in a subtle way, that you’re smarter than the character. You have to be very “true” in very improbable situations. And then above all I think that, once again, we had the same film in mind. By understanding exactly where I want to get to, I think she helps me make it happen. That’s also what leads me to go back to particular actors like Marie Trintignant or Guillaume Depardieu. They become my allies inside the shot. And then there’s the fact that Audrey and I get along well. Films are so hard to make, speaking for myself, that I like the set to be a pleasant place at least! 

Q: Was the role of Maddy written for Nathalie Baye?
Yes. I needed that element of strangeness and openness, that dash of madness and that quickness, in order for this woman to be touching and funny. Nathalie has an amazing gift for the comic and burlesque: only she could follow Sami Bouajila like that in the street, in full daylight, in that extraordinary outfit, walking in a bizarre way, with her back hunched over, scorching her feet. Once I started writing with her in mind, everything came together. The dialogue came more easily, the situations took on a new shape. She was very inspiring even before I’d met her, which is after all the ideal role of a muse. Nathalie isn’t afraid to let herself go either. At one point in the film, she’s really defeated – by life, by people, by events. That had to be played with a certain rawness, bordering on the pathetic. It needed that so she would be disarming and moving, and so that later on she could be hard without being cruel... Or simply to be funny. I think you need a lot of freedom to give yourself over to that, a solid grounding in yourself, and once again considerable lack of vanity. I think comedy is the genre that demands the greatest amount of submission, humility or self-effacement in relation to the story. The situation must always win out over the performance. That’s what this sort of actress knows instinctively. 

Q: And Sami Bouajila?
In 1992, I saw Anne Fontaine’s film, Les histoires d’amour finessing mal... en général (Love Affairs Usually End Badly), which he was fantastic in. I’d met him and told him I hoped we could work together one day. He also knocked me out in Ouida Tlatli’s Les Silences du palais (The Silences of the Palace), where I found him mysterious, ambiguous and beautiful. I wondered if he could act in a comedy with the same level of judgement and restraint and I suggested he do some tests that lasted five minutes. In this story, Sami is the victim, the one who doesn’t know, who doesn’t understand. In a comedy, the effect comes more often from the reaction than from the action and Sami, who understood this very well, knew how to work that aspect wonderfully. He never does too much, he trusts the spectator and that’s what makes him so effective. He has expressions of astonishment that are so perfect, sighs and looks that are so sincere and surprised that sometimes I didn’t know how to edit them any more: to focus on whatever absurd thing Audrey was throwing at him or Sami’s completely stunned reaction.

Q: The performances of Judith Chemla (Paulette) and Stéphanie Lagarde (Sylvia) are also very memorable!
I must have seen 30 or 40 people before meeting Judith Chemla for the character of Paulette. She’s an extremely interesting actress, whose face can be disturbing or completely open, with her big round blue eyes. She has a dancer’s body, which she can easily turn to the burlesque. She’s elegant and funny. Diaphanous, sweet and sometimes almost unsettling. That physical ambiguity and control gives me an enormous amount of belief in her. I saw Stéphanie Lagarde, who plays Sylvia, a long time ago in Marivaux’s L’Île des enclaves (Slave Island). I wanted to use her in Hors de prix (Priceless), to play the call girl at the end of the film, but she had become pregnant in the meantime. The casting director of this film reminded me of her for this one, we did some tests and picked her! 

Q: The sets of the film are very important to heighten the sense of artificiality... 
Yes. The hairdressing salon isn’t too realistic, there had to be nooks and crannies, panels you could open to survey the scene or close to be alone, windows for spying through, a courtyard to escape into or argue in and a central room so there could be naive onlookers and surprised reactions. Public places, hotels and restaurants, are ideal places for comedy, the characters have to keep up appearances and behave themselves, even though they’re going through difficult situations. It’s like they’re “on stage”. And in fact I had little red curtains with tassels placed in Maddy’s house to give the sense that the confrontations between mother and daughter were happening on a theatre stage. That kind of decision that’s made at the time of shooting encapsulates some small irony, some pleasure that isn’t necessarily defined by the spectator, but which helps to accentuate the artificial or poetic aspect of the narrative. In real life, no one has ever discovered the truth via shadow theatre projected onto a sheet, they find it rummaging through drawers or telephones. That’s what I try, as a director, to avoid at all costs.

Q: Even so, I get the impression that with every film you keep going further in the exploration of your themes, your obsessions or in the definition of your characters...
I don’t know whether I go further but I try to go as deep as possible, to go even further inside the fiction, to have a narrative that’s even more rigorous, for the characters to pursue their own faults, violence, and complexity to the end. The character of Jean is completely lost at the end of the film, when we see him in reflection in the train window, vague and blurry, as if he has been damaged by the story.

Q: Your films often give the impression of using comedy to address themes that could be treated in a more serious genre. What themes inspired you during the writing of the film?

First of all I think that comedy is a very serious genre, or to be more precise, that it must be taken in a serious way. It’s an ambiguous and fragile genre because it’s overexploited and underestimated: it’s always been the case that people who want to make money in film think that they have to make people laugh at any cost, and often if possible at the lowest cost. That has ultimately given an image of comedy that’s quite ambiguous and undignified, because it can quickly become distorted. Its essence is often forgotten – ellipsis, irony, verisimilitude, the importance of the way it’s told, style, the characters – just to get to the result: laughs. That’s what often produces cynical films or simple parodies. 

Secondly, if I treat certain more or less serious subjects through comedies, it’s quite simply because I choose the genre first. The choice of comedy comes before the choice of the story, and then the themes emerge. 

Q: You choose the genre before you choose the theme?
Yes. It’s very important to me to proceed in that way. Genre is what keeps cinema going. I think that’s the intuition of those who industrialised cinema: the idea that genre was essential to its survival. That is, I think, its profound nature, both constraining and uplifting. What is outside of genre is experience, which can be more or less captivating. But for me the profound truth of cinema, its true nature as an “industrial art form”, is expressed through genre. I personally have trouble imagining any other approach to cinema. I also feel like I am only creative or inventive if my work is constrained by certain narrative rules. When it comes to fiction, if everything is possible, nothing happens. A little while ago, I reread a piece that Serge Daney wrote when François Truffaut died. He ended it with: “He strived to turn his passion into a trade by thinking in a positive way and respecting the rules of putting on a show”. That sentence put me in a very good mood for the whole day.

Published July 14, 2011

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Pierre Salvadore

Beautiful Lies
Australian release date July 21, 2011

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