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Between Tourneur and Buñuel: Serge Bozon on Don Juan

Tahar Rahim in Don JuanTahar Rahim in Don Juan

Five years after upending the gender dynamics of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the Isabelle Huppert-starring Mrs. Hyde, French director Serge Bozon has returned with a modern spin on the legend of Don Juan. Like his early features Mods (2002) and La France (2007), Bozon’s Don Juan is a musical of sorts: characters often break into song—not in joyous expressions of amour fou, but rather in pained soliloquies of regret and heartbreak. 

Starring Tahar Rahim and Virginie Efira, the film opens with Efira’s Julie no-showing at the couple’s wedding, an act of self-possession that leaves Rahim’s coquettish Laurent, a stage actor preparing to play the famous seducer, reeling. Literally seeing Julie in every woman he meets, Laurent is summarily rejected, despite his best melodic efforts, by a succession of these would-be lovers, all played by Efira in an array of different fits and hairstyles. Meanwhile, Laurent’s co-star, Marina (Louise Ribière), quits the play, only to be replaced by Julie, whose ghostly presence in her former partner’s life—like that of a mysteriously grieving father played by singer Alain Chamfort—becomes a waking manifestation of Laurent’s guilt and self-absorption.

As they’ve previously done with the war (La France), detective (Tip Top, 2013), and fantasy (Mrs. Hyde) genres, Bozon and his regular co-writer Axelle Ropert have now inverted the romance tradition, playfully turning the tables on the Don Juan persona in a way that grants power to the women in the story without feeling opportunistic or reactive. Ever the cinephile, Bozon has clear fun conceiving economically scaled evocations of classical Hollywood musicals that nonetheless feel appropriately melancholy for a tale of such unrequited passion.

Bozon and I sat down following Don Juan’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to discuss classical Hollywood, the temporal dimensions of musicals and gender roles in genre cinema.

Filmmaker: The first thing that struck me about Don Juan is how quiet it is, especially for a musical.

Serge Bozon: Yes, exactly. I would never compare myself to Jacques Tourneur, but I wanted to do something similar to what he might have—a kind of haunted musical. Something dark, somber, a little threatening—like the main character. Is he dangerous, or is he just sad? How can we know? Can we trust him? In contrast to the usual kind of musical, where there’s a collective joyfulness, I wanted to search for a kind of intimacy, an interiority. I tried to do this through voiceover, which can tell us not only what the main character thinks, but what he feels, and what he doesn’t understand about what he feels.

Filmmaker: How does that compare with how you conceptualized the musical components of La France? Was it different?

Bozon: Completely. La France is more joyful. You can even have a little laugh, because it’s pop music, and the actors are sometimes singing out of tune or in high voices. Here it’s more dark, influenced by late German Romanticism—not visually, but on the musical side. Songs can engage a temporal and aesthetic dimension that words can’t. Simply spoken, a line of dialogue like “I still think about her” or “I miss her” takes maybe three seconds; in a song, you can draw out additional dimensions over time, like an echo chamber that reveals the characters’ darker feelings. 

Filmmaker: This quiet, melancholy quality is felt across all aspects of the film. The Alain Chamfort character is even named “L’homme tranquil”—the Quiet Man. 

Bozon: But in fact he’s not so quiet! In the beginning he seems like a guy on vacation or something, having a coffee and talking to everybody. But eventually something about him becomes menacing or threatening. What I like is that when the film begins you think it’s about things like, “How can I trust my lover?” or “When should I give up that trust?”—conjugal questions. But Alain’s character brings another kind of sadness to the story through a father-daughter relationship, which unlocks perhaps an even stronger sorrow related to death and suicide. So, there’s a kind of extra somber darkness that gradually comes to the fore. My dream was to make a film that begins with Molière and ends with Mozart—two “Ms.”

Filmmaker: This is the first time you’ve worked not only with Chamfort, but also Tahar Rahim and Virginie Efira. What was it about these actors that made you want to work with them?

Bozon: In the script the main character, Laurent, could be monolithic—always sad, always looking at the girls with his sad eyes. There’s something monotonous about him. But I thought Tahar could bring a strange innocence, a useful ardor to someone that is so blocked inside. He gives a kind of secret life to the character. 

Alain is, of course, a singer and musician, but for me in his few acting roles he’s like Christopher Walken or something—an actor from an earlier era. He has a chic, 50s-style of playing—smooth, ambiguous, beautiful eyes, very calm.

With Virginie, I wanted to do something different with her than the kinds of roles she usually plays, whether with Verhoeven or Justine Triet or whoever, where she’s crying a lot, making love, etc. We tried to find an interrogative mood for her character—someone who isn’t sure, who’s asking questions like, “Shall I trust him again?” I felt she could express these unspoken questions through her eyes, her gestures—in the way she walks. 

Filmmaker: Were they aware of your work?

Bozon: Virginie, yes. She really liked Tip Top and had seen Mrs. Hyde and La France. Tahar I don’t think had seen any of my movies. But what’s strange is that we ended up developing a very brotherly relationship. It was the first time I’ve had this kind of really open and trustful and happy relationship with an actor. We grew quite fond of each other. He was never afraid to be ridiculous—I could ask him anything, He was always trying to find a new way to do things. For me, it was a dream way to work with an actor.

Filmmaker: What about Louise Ribière, who plays Marina? It’s a small role but she’s very memorable. 

Bozon: What my producer and I noticed and liked about her is that she talks like people from the suburbs of France. She doesn’t talk like a classical actress, or like someone with an elite cultural education. There’s something proletarian in her way of speaking. Usually in musicals everyone belongs to a chic milieu, but I liked that she could bring this strange proletarian feeling to the story. It’s not realistic, but I don’t care. She also has a stereotypical “bimbo” look to her, which is like candy for me as a director. But she’s also very fragile. In the one scene where she’s ask to do a line reading four times, it’s very moving by the end. Her last reading is very beautiful.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about working with Axelle Ropert again and how this collaboration has developed over the years? From what I understand she had the initial idea for the film. 

Bozon: Yes. As you know, I’ve made all my movies with Axelle. She’s the mother of my children, even if we’re not together anymore. It’s hard to explain—it’s still sort of a daily relationship, we talk about movies everyday. There’s no fake modesty on my part when I say she had the main idea for this film, that the characters would be actors working on a stage production of Don Juan, and that the main character would be abandoned in the very first scene. I’m much more excited by directing. For me, writing is a very difficult process. I don’t think I’m very good at it, to be honest.

Filmmaker: Is this why you never help write her films?

Bozon: Yes, she doesn’t need me—at all! [Laughs] I’m much more dependent on her.

Filmmaker: Where does your interest in inverting gender roles and dynamics come from? Most of your films feature this idea in some fashion. 

Bozon: I don’t really know. A lot of press people are trying to tell me that this film is some sort of response to #MeToo, but La France did similar things and that was way before #MeToo. I think I like movies where the female characters are essential, even if it’s not a “women’s picture.” Like with La France: making a war movie with a female lead is usually impossible. In French movies in general, it tends to be the same. That’s why in Tip Top I wanted to use a female lead, since detectives are never played by women. Same with policemen, mafia guys—guys, guys, guys. I take a certain pleasure in putting women at the center of attention in movies. 

If I can say something polemical for a second: one of the bad things about #MeToo is that now you read a lot of negative things about the classical era of cinema, about how it was a misogynistic era for movies. It’s completely false. The best female characters come from that era. There were many roles out there for women—and not just the kind played by Monica Vitti or Anna Karina. Just to take one example: Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942), by Irving Rapper. She can play the old maid, the beautiful girl and the repressed daughter. She’s allowed a tremendous range.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you bring up classical Hollywood. In the press notes for the film you mention how you have no affinity with modernist European cinema, for the Michelangelo Antonionis and Alain Resnais’s of the era—influences that I rightly don’t see in your work. What’s funny, though, is that after seeing Don Juan a friend mentioned to me that it reminded him of Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. 

Bozon: Really? Well, I respect Resnais, of course. He has a significant body of work. But even from the beginning—I don’t like Hiroshima mon amour (1959), or Last Year at Marienbad (1961). They’re too theoretical for me. I’ve always been drawn to the B-movie, not because there are guns, or a lot of westerns, but because there’s a kind of haunted feeling at the core of these movies, a stripped-down despair, or anxiety, that you get in every Tourneur movie and every Ulmer movie. I think Tahar can tap into these same feelings—feelings that you get in a film like, say, Detour (1945). 

Filmmaker: Were you looking at specific movies or musicals for inspiration for this film? I’m curious about this specifically because I’ve also read that you don’t really consider the film a musical. 

Bozon: When I start on a film I try not to think about specific references. I’m not Tarantino. I respect Tarantino, but I’m not trying to make referential films. Of course I like many classic Hollywood musicals, but there are many different styles of musicals: Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the MGM musicals, etc. I love them all. But for me my movie doesn’t really belong to this tradition. I don’t think I can name one classical musical that resembles my movie. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see it. And that’s OK. Jacques Tourneur never made a musical. For me the film is closer to Luis Buñuel. The characters in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) and El (1953) are close in a sense to Tahar’s character in Don Juan, but Buñuel didn’t explore them musically. 

Filmmaker: It seems you were more interested in this film as a love story. 

Bozon: Yes, this is my first love story. At first I wanted to make a melodrama—a real melodrama, where the girl loses her husband before the child is born. But my producer said no, that people would laugh. Even when you go to the Cinémathèque Française and see a Douglas Sirk movie, half the audience is laughing all the time. So we decided instead on a love story, but not a happy love story. From there, I wanted to limit myself, to keep it to a minimum, to the bones: a girl, a boy, a father; no subplots, no surprises. I wanted to find a kind of obsessive way to tell a very simple story, because if I were to describe the plot I could do it in one sentence. To be honest I was a little anxious about it. But at the very least I think I’ve succeeded in making a love story.

Filmmaker: What about the singing? Was it recorded live?

Bozon: Yes, everything was recorded live. Not that I’m the new Straub or something—this isn’t Moses and Aaron (1975). Honestly, I don’t think 90% of the audience would know the difference if it wasn’t recorded live, but I think you feel something different when it’s live—there’s something true, something fragile; these are actors, not singers. There’s an adrenaline that comes with the risk they take singing live, especially as I’m usually shooting everything in one shot. It’s like a Marcel Pagnol movie; take Angèle (1934), for instance: when Fernandel makes his long monologue, it’s all in one shot. You feel like the actor has no room to escape. There’s no insert shot. He has to do it directly. I think the audience feels that engagement, that danger. It’s very difficult to pull off. Tahar, for example, doesn’t consider himself a talented singer. He took like 55 singing lessons for this movie. Virginie, too: she doesn’t play piano, so she took many lessons to learn. I like the way even a star actor can tremble in these instances. They become beginners again, in a sense.

Filmmaker: Did this approach require a lot of takes?

Bozon: No, because we shot on film. It’s expensive. Not everything is one shot—I’m not Éric Rohmer or Philippe Garrel. But I tried to cover every scene in just 2-3 shots—maximum ten. 

Filmmaker: It seems the final dance scene was conceptualized the same way?

Bozon: Yes, same idea. If you’ve seen The Band Wagon (1953), with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in Central Park, dancing in the dark, they begin by kind of floating around each other, barely caressing each other, as if asking if they can come closer. So for this scene I thought, “Perhaps we don’t need what comes after. Maybe we could do the whole scene like this: just the approaching, just the floating, no touching.”

I told my choreographer, Christian Rizzo, to watch this scene, and asked him, how can we employ this idea without moving into a kind of retro ballet? How can we distill this idea of tentatively approaching a caress? It’s the same thing in the first scene of the movie, with Tahar in front of the mirror, moving his hand to signal different music cues. There’s a discreet relationship to dance even in this moment. There’s no dialogue in this scene, just music and movement. I think the audience will know what they’re going to get just by watching this first scene. 

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