"What is this disintegrating society?"
by Fabien Lemercier
- Pierre Schoeller – former screenwriter for Erick Zonca, Jean-Pierre Limosin, Alain Gomis, Eric Guirado and Brice Cauvin – looks back at the inspiration and film shoot for Versailles
Having penned the screenplays for Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels, Jean-Pierre Limosin’s Carmen [+see also:
film profile], Brice Cauvin’s Hotel Harabati [+see also:
film profile], Alain Gomis’ L’Afrance and Eric Guirado’s Quand tu descendras du ciel, in 2002 Pierre Schoeller directed the TV drama Zéro Défaut. Versailles [+see also:
interview: Geraldine Michelot
interview: Pierre Schoeller
film profile] is his directorial feature debut.
Cineuropa: What made you choose the subject of poverty?
Pierre Schoeller: The original idea was to look at the social ties and fabric that hold society together, to show the misconceptions of these people who lack something (a fixed abode, home, employment). But we had to create a fair representation of this mother who lives on the street with her child and this man who lives in the woods. The term poverty actually describes very diverse situations. But I researched photos and sculptures and found that these attitudes span centuries. Somebody sleeping on a bench or the appearance of rags: these images are enduring.
This dimension led me, in a way, to silent cinema, a type of film in which the image speaks for itself. The woods, a hut without electricity, a man and a child who live there: this is at once timeless and uniquely contemporary and urgent. And with the darkness of night, the scene became almost ancient: a stage, a fire, a few trees and some characters who are talking. This opens up an imaginary and story-like aspect that emerges simply from the elementary side of the situation and of what’s said.
Did you do documentary-style research before writing the screenplay?
I bring together real but disparate elements. The writing is a constant back-and-forth process: I incorporate real-life elements into the story, then the story leads me to another character and I see how that goes. The idea for Versailles emerged from my discovery that a man had died in the woods during the violent storm of 2000, just next to the Palace. There was a symbolic dimension with the contrast of the severe poverty of those who have dropped out of the social system. The title has historical and political resonance. And showing these poor people living amidst wealth and luxury left an impression on audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, which is a little like the Versailles of the film world.
Why did you choose a child as the protagonist of your film?
The child is at the heart of the question: what is this disintegrating society of which we see a few fragments and put them back together? And how does he come through this experience; what mark will it leave on him? The child embodies the future: what kind of society will we build for him? He is in a very vulnerable situation, but he still demands care, emotional contact and attention. This is his world and because of this we look at what we see in a particular way.
This is also a family story with a generational element: the child opens the eyes of those around him and spurs Damien into action, just as the old people help Nina change. It’s always members of the previous or future generation who influence the characters and help them achieve things they would never have attempted alone.
Was the casting process straightforward?
For Guillaume Depardieu and the wide range of emotions and expressions he can convey, there was a very strong connection with the character and the film. The role played by Judith Chemla was more difficult to cast: she had to be young, so that viewers could immediately identify with her situation and the fact she sleeps on the streets with her child, without it looking contrived.
As for the child, we had to find the right balance between someone who looked very young on screen but was physically strong enough to cope with the film shoot. There are three characters, with almost three separate points of view and three narrative threads. I didn’t want to merge them all together and I followed my instinct for each scene by trying to be as direct and honest as possible.
How did you achieve the chiaroscuro cinematography?
I wanted to create very dynamic images with the idea of being on the edge and the character for whom darkness is a shield. We also had to give viewers the impression that he lives outdoors. The film is characterised by an intimacy with the street and the woods, and the physical sensations that accompany this (materials, open spaces and draughts of air…).
The cinematography work with Julien Hirsch blended in with this aesthetic. We constructed the film by taking the naturalistic locations as a point of departure. The tension in the images is created with HD technology: we used a lot of low lighting and then worked on the digital harmonisation. During the transfer from video to film we introduced twilight and dusk lighting effects. But it took us a long time to form a clear vision of the film. This only began to emerge during the initial editing phase. Before that, it was a patchwork of lots of different scenes, jump cuts, ages and seasons, with the focus on the child’s unknown fate. This involved constant risk-taking.