The minimalist delicacies of manipulation
by Fabien Lemercier
- Interview with a director and musician, a master of the genre film and thriller
An outstanding filmmaker in French cinema, who moonlights as a conservatory teacher, Denis Dercourt tells Cineuropa why he decided to take the leap to make The Page Turner [+see also:
interview: Denis Dercourt
interview: Michel Saint-Jean
film profile], his first large-scale production. The director has met the challenge successfully to create a low-key thriller, in which he does not lose his sense of originality as an unconventional artist.
Cineuropa: Why did you choose the theme of revenge as a narrative line in The Page Turner?
Denis Dercourt: I wanted to make a quite physical film with two women, and revenge is a theme often dealt with in cinema. I wrote the script while I was in Japan, with such films as An Actor’s Revenge by Kon Ichikawa (1963) and Japanese aesthetics in mind, both of which are tense and violent. I set my story in the world of music because I know it well, but that wasn’t the most important thing. It was the idea of revenge that interested me the most.
For your first feature in the world of suspense, you paid particular attention to the rigorous development of the story.
That was a must. First, the story about a very methodical revenge required a very rigorous approach because the audience is linked to the character. And when we play music, we don’t leave anything to chance. The script reflects this, with very little padding. But the writing was really great because everything about manipulation is very amusing to write. Is what Mélanie (Déborah François) says meant to be taken at face value or does it have a hidden meaning? Is it said by accident or is it premeditated? This is why I filmed different points of view which, when it came to editing needed to swing constantly between the objective and the subjective. This is a rule of a quite coded genre where the choice of the point of view is very important. When we read the interviews of Hitchcock, we realise that he was obsessed by the subjective and the objective. This is my first thriller and I realised that the rules of writing are very similar to those of music with suspense oscillating from being tense to relaxed, then starting all over. All of this is made in a linear format because I wanted the film to be quite simple. It was necessary to establish from the outset that Mélanie has a potential to be dangerous from the scene where she locks the piano keyboard shut on her fingers and again in the scene with the cello spike, after which the audience is always on their guard. It is minimalist, but I tried to keep the tension and suspense by introducing micro-events, such as the soundtrack, which plays an essential role.
How did you choose your two actresses?
Catherine Frot normally plays very controlled roles in comedies but in my film, she plays a character that loses control. Then she becomes really overwhelming. Moreover, she has a lot of respect for music and was trained to succeed in performing with reality everything on screen (even if it isn’t the final soundtrack). I give a lot of importance to this almost documentary-like aspect in the filming of the music. I didn’t know Déborah François, however. It was my producer who told me about her. I had seen The Child [+see also:
interview: Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne
film profile], we did an audition and it didn’t take long to be convinced. She is an unbelievable actress. We worked a lot on her smile, this enigma, the opacity of the character. Finally for Pascal Greggory, even if his role is more of a supporting one, we needed an actor who had a very strong presence to portray the importance of the absent husband.
How did you work for the visual plan?
I wanted to have both Catherine and Déborah in the same field because there was a strong tension between them. My way of filming is a type of captation, a cold and distant style of directing. The fluidity of the camera movements comes from references to genre cinema. I have always had snake-like movements, but it has been linked somewhat to the subject. There is no violence. I wanted the audience to have a tune that continues buzzing in their head after seeing the film.
Why did you accept for the first time to make a classical production?
At the beginning I wanted to make a film alone with a small team using a Russian camera that I had bought and upgraded to Super 16. I sent a few pages to Michel Saint-Jean with a view to getting the film distributed and because I really trusted his opinion. He suggested that I write a normal screenplay and then he would produce the film. I never did that. The directing was much tougher than what I had been used to, but it was a good experience and it was necessary to a degree, because we needed very good camera work with quality actors and attractive female characters. Everything that is in colour is well thought out so that the audience sees a discreet effect where a certain amount of monochromy has been used without it being repetitive. And all that requires time and money.
You often film stories about music, which is your job at the conservatoire. Are your films directly linked to these themes?
I like showing what we know and I think a subject has more universal appeal when we talk about one’s own area, contrary to what we may think. And then, I film more the work of the music that the music itself. I find that fascinating with the hours of practice and this magnificent auditory framework. There is constraint, beauty, ideas that are ever present. On a personal level, I have directed young professional musicians and the time I spend with them is like training in comparison to my work with actors. As a musician, one is also very sensitive to the relationship with the audience, to the management of time.