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on Dec 7, 2011

Over the past two decades, French filmmaker Cédric Klapisch (L’Auberge Espagnole) has distinguished himself as a writer-director of mature, well-balanced social dramas with a comedic edge. Films like Russian Dolls and Paris (both featuring heartthrob actor Romain Duris, who has made six films with the director) explore the emotional dynamics of ambition and disappointment, love and family relationships against the backdrop of Europe’s ever-shifting cultural identity in the 21st century. Now Klapisch wades into the waters of world financial distress with a snappy satire about haves and have nots that in some respects channels the sentiments of Zuccotti Park’s most recent inhabitants, dramatizing the hubris and lack of accountability of the financial-services industry.

My Piece of the Pie tells the story of laid-off factory worker France (Potiche’s Karin Viard) who, as a divorced mother of three in the blue-collar port town of Dunkirk, chooses to enroll in a housekeeper training program rather than join her co-workers in fighting for wages they’ve been denied. Installed in the ultra-exclusive Paris apartment of Steve (Gilles Lellouche, the ever-hirsute star of Point Blank and Tell No One), a cocksure trader recently relocated from London, France dutifully presses shirts and tidies up, while hardly registering as a human presence to her strikingly handsome employer, a shark who hunts a fashion model (Marine Vacth) with as much zeal as a weak currency. When Steve’s ex drops off their toddler-age son Alban for a month long reprieve, he hires France to be their live-in nanny, and the work-for-hire relationship begins to soften into something more like a tentative friendship. She dispenses advice on women; he gives her a quick-and-dirty lesson on short selling. If the match-up between a fortysomething menial laborer and a pitiless power broker seems too good to be true, it is. Klapisch establishes the basic class dichotomy between Steve and France, peppering the drama with moments of crisp humor (Steve can’t seem to understand why he should read his son a bedtime story) and goofy levity (France concocts a cartoonish Russian accent to ward off the resentment of her fellow trainees, all immigrants), and then twists the knot on this odd couple, drawing out the real-life consequences of Steve’s virtual business practices.

Filmmaker spoke with Klapisch about income disparity, Chaplin’s comedic genius, and why he can’t be mean to Romain Duris. My Piece of the Pie opens Friday at IFC Center in New York.

Filmmaker: Did My Piece of the Pie grow out of a sense of frustration at what was happening in the world after the financial meltdown?

Klapisch: It was the opposite of frustration, really. We live in a time where we’re been very passive with what’s happening in politics or the economy. Now people [are becoming] more active. It’s something you see in Arab countries today, and in America. People start to realize they had been trusting their banks, their government, and the people who represent them in political life. So it’s the end of frustration, realizing you need to be active, to protest, to react to the fact that you’re not only a customer in a bank or a victim of society. When people were kicked out of their house because they took on toxic credit, it became dramatic and heavy. We can’t be as passive as we were five or ten years ago.

Filmmaker: In that sense, the film resonates with the Occupy movements and that welling up of resistance and popular outcry we’ve seen blossom in the past few months.

Klapisch: Which is strange, you know, because I wrote this story a year and a half ago! The crisis was supposed to be finished when I wrote this script. But we realize today that it’s not finished. It’s a long-term thing and we’re probably going to go through a bad period.

Filmmaker: A lot of filmmakers have set out to explain the rise of the financial services industry to the rest of the public, who have mostly been in the dark about the derivatives market and other obscure trading instruments. But you’re a narrative filmmaker who primarily crafts character studies, and in this case, France the laid-off factory worker and Steve the trader are polar opposites who inhabit completely different worlds. How did you arrive at the precise psychological profile for these two types?

Klapisch: I thought very often that the news tells you there’s no link between Wall Street and Main Street. The fact that there’s unemployment and poverty on one side and very strong wealth and riches on the other, [is represented as] normal. So I tried to show there is a link, of course, and that when you buy shares and stock options, there is a consequence in real life. It’s not just money traveling in the air. I wanted to depict two human beings who have two ways of thinking and living that don’t really connect anymore. The concept of the 99 percent, which was only created two months ago, does tell us something about the world. For me, it’s funny that someone like Bill Gates and others—there are many billionaires in the U.S.—want to pay more taxes, which is the opposite of ten years ago, when the idea was to reduce taxes as much as possible. Perhaps those people feel guilty about the fact that their wealth became absurd. That’s today’s world. So either you [depict it as] horrible, and it’s a drama, or you make fun of that world. That’s what I tried to do in this movie.

Filmmaker: How did you figure out what the right tone would be for telling a story about wealth and inequality?

Klapisch: Chaplin was a really great example for me. I really love how he dealt with Hitler – he put the complexity of that period into a very simple story. We can laugh and also think. It’s the same with Modern Times, which is even better than documentaries that speak about being a slave in the factory because he’s making fun of it all. Very often, being fictional and funny can be [more effective] than documentary.

Filmmaker: Speaking of which, you’ve always fused elements of documentary with a more stylized approach to narrative filmmaking. In this case, you’re dealing with Dunkirk and the factory workers in the ports and also the Paris-London investment banking world. Did you immerse yourself in those cultures to some extent?

Klapisch: Of course, because I’m not a banker or a union worker. How do you speak about trade and globalization? For me, this port in the north of France was a visual way of talking about how the world is changing, in China and America. And the [shipping] container is for me the key image of how goods travel around the world. The financial world is really secretive, so I had to really do some detective work, talking to people, reading books. And I had to inquire as a director to see how they speak and behave, what clothes they wear, where they go at night, everything that was helpful to me to feed the actor with. Gilles Lellouche came with me to London to speak with people, to observe them closely so he could act somewhat like them. But I also had to document in a more global way, in a more philosophical way what the financial world has become in the last ten years. It’s not like in the “golden boy” era where it made everyone dream about [being a trader]. Because of the electronization of the market and globalization, this world has become a bubble, a world in itself that doesn’t have a link with real life anymore. That was very interesting to observe.

Filmmaker: It must have been hard to find a way to represent someone like Steve, who’s arrogant, dogged, pitiless, competitive, and deeply selfish, without turning him into a simple villain. He has sympathetic aspects, even if he exhausts our goodwill.

Klapisch: I think he represents what we all think about money. That world makes us dream. It can give you whatever you want. But it’s frightening at the same time. So I tried to put that into his character: He’s very seductive, very attractive, very funny — and hateable. [Laughs] I understood that he had to be like Don Juan in the Molière play, because he is attractive to every woman, very playful and vivid, and also atrocious. He’s really a mean character. The fact that Steve has those two sides is interesting.

Filmmaker: Gilles Lellouche plays him beautifully, in all those respects. Had you thought first of casting Romain Duris in this role, since you’ve enjoyed such a strong collaboration with him?

Klapisch: Of course I thought about him. We made six films together. But in a sense, I worship Romain too much. [Laughs] I couldn’t really see him as negative as I wanted him to be, though he probably could have acted this character. I needed to make a movie without him – it was important for me not to work with him on this one. I allowed myself to be meaner to the character with Gilles, and I think he really enjoyed being mean. Whenever he was being selfish, competitive, or authoritative in the film, it created comedy. And I don’t think I could have done that with Romain. I like him too much.

Filmmaker: Karin Viard’s character France is more noble, obviously, but also a kind of martyr. She’s in a suspended state by the end of the film, and the resolution of her situation is ambiguous.

Klapisch: That was tricky for me, since My Piece of the Pie is really about the present. I don’t really have an ending because the story hasn’t ended yet in real life. It’s really about the fight between these two worlds, and the fact that she’s obviously a victim of society. She was kicked out of her factory and now she wants to react to what’s unfair. But she’s not allowed to, which is why she’s a victim twice over. And it’s what happened to the people who subscribed to subprime mortgages – they were a victim of the system. It’s hard to fight back, it’s hard to be legitimate. So what’s happening now with Occupy Wall Street and even in the Arab countries is that you have to be against the law to be truthful about something you feel is no longer legitimate.

Filmmaker: Her situation does set the stage for a moment of solidarity.

Klapisch: Yet it’s not really clear who wins. France has lost a lot but she’s not alone. And she doesn’t lose her dignity.

Filmmaker: You shot half of My Piece of the Pie in 35mm Scope and the rest on a Canon EOS-1D. Why did you mix formats?

Klapisch: I think we were the first to use the Canon in a feature film. We made some tests and realized it was much better for the night shootings. Every night shot is with a Canon, because the [shutter speed] is 1/16,000 second—it doesn’t exist on film. Steve lives in a skyscraper, and we needed to see the view of the city at night [through his windows]—we wanted to use that. And at the end of the film, we wanted to use location lighting in Dunkirk, and that was only possible with those cameras. When we saw that we could mix very heavy-duty equipment in Cinemascope with those tiny cameras, it was crazy to see it was possible.

Filmmaker: What semantic purpose did you want the music to perform in the film?

Klapisch: I’ve made ten feature films, and this is the sixth time I’ve worked with Loïk Dury, my composer. We talk a lot about the meaning of the movie before he chooses a texture or a genre. For instance, in my heist movie Ni pour, ni contre (Not For, or Against), we dealt with jazz because we felt that heist films of the ’50s related to jazz. And in this movie the basic music was blues, because it’s the music of people who suffer. Yet in blues you feel the strength of the people who suffer. The music [suggests] that even if you’re a victim, you’ve got power somewhere.

Filmmaker: I read that Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit was also part of your research for this film.

Klapisch: Yes. But you know, everything is useful. You can also read an advertisement in a cheap magazine or a blog about Occupy Wall Street. Afterwards, you mix everything up and try to see what the connection is. With Hegel, there’s a text where he speaks about the master and slave, which influenced Marx to talk about the class struggle. You see how the master is more powerful because he’s got an employee working for him, but less powerful because he doesn’t do the job himself. And the slave has control over the tools he’s using. That gave Marx all the ideas to speak about social struggle. For me it was just helpful to see, okay, that someone who employs another person [to do labor] is both powerful and weak. And that was the basis for the conflict between France and Steve.

Filmmaker: What have you refined about your filmmaking process over the years?

Klapisch: I’ve developed two opposite [impulses], which is both to trust the script—because you have time to think when you write—and to trust more and more the instant when I’m shooting. That means I like using what’s there in the instance. Very often when you’ve worked a lot on the script and know exactly what you want to do with the film, then you can change drastically your idea as you’re shooting because you know what the actor will bring you that day, what the location will bring you that day. When you trust the instant and it’s filled with all the work you’ve done beforehand, it creates something. It’s a strange combination between deep preparation and deep improvisation.

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