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"It has the feel of a thriller"

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Hubert Charuel • Director

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- CANNES 2017: We met up with French filmmaker Hubert Charuel, who unveiled his feature debut, Bloody Milk, as a special screening in the Critics’ Week

Hubert Charuel  • Director
(© Aurélie Lamachère/Critics' Week)

Presented as a special screening in the Critics’ Week of the 70th Cannes Film FestivalBloody Milk [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Hubert Charuel
film profile
]
is the feature debut by Hubert Charuel, who has crafted a nail-biter of a film about the daily life of a farmer willing to do anything to save his herd of cows threatened by an epidemic.

Cineuropa: It’s quite unusual to see the rural environment represented in French cinema. You come from a family of farmers, but just because you come from a certain milieu, it doesn’t necessarily mean you make a film on it. What made you choose this setting?
Hubert Charuel: First of all, it was something personal that I carry around inside of me. I’m the son of a farming couple, and even though I wouldn’t take over my parents’ farm, making a film about this milieu was very necessary. I needed to get this story out there, as well as recount the life of the character of Pierre: it’s the life that I would have had to live if I hadn’t decided to make films, and especially if I hadn’t got into La Fémis. Then, in the screenplay that I wrote with Claude Le Pape, there was a desire to talk about this world from the inside and, at the same time, shy away a little from naturalism and inject some genre and some fiction. In the end, what I was most interested in was talking about the very specific relationship that people have with animals in this environment. When I was around ten years old, there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and we were watching the news on TV as they explained the basic principle of culling: one sick animal meant the whole herd had to be culled. And then my mother said: "If that happens here, I’ll kill myself." For me, there was a bit of everything in that episode; from my point of view as a ten-year-old, the end of the cows meant the end of the world.

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How did you manage to avoid slipping into a documentary while staying believable?
We worked a lot on that at the writing stage. Very early on, we decided to make a thriller set in the farming world, and we worked on the writing accordingly – it also came about necessarily as a result of the life-and-death stakes surrounding the animals, because they have an identity and you can’t just do whatever you like with them. The element of suspense arose through the emotional attachment that the main character has with his cows, which he is forced to kill himself. And getting rid of a dead cow is even more complicated than it is for a human body, because it weighs 900 kg.

How did you handle filming with the animals?
It wasn’t easy, but the actor handled the animals very well. Swann Arlaud was totally committed to the role: he did a training course, he came to live with my parents, and he lived like a farmer. I had to be able to believe in the actor’s gestures and movements, otherwise it would have been impossible for me to tell this story. A week before the shoot, he came to take charge of the herd. I was also very familiar with bovine psychology. The crew turned up, and the cows got used to the crew and vice versa. This preparation process was exceedingly important because you can’t rock up and shoot just like that in a dairy barn, and there had to be an adjustment period for the humans and the animals.

You also deal with Pierre’s loneliness, and particularly his relationship with the outside world via the internet and his handful of friends.
I’m the son of a farming couple, but my friends from the surrounding area listen to hip-hop, use Facebook and have access to the internet. That’s not something you imagine right away when you’re talking about the countryside, and it was important to represent this aspect of modernity. And so that also plays a part in the solitude of this character, who withdraws into himself more and more. It was also vital to show that the times when Pierre is the most comfortable socially are when he is with his cows. It’s also his social interactions that move the story forwards, and there’s a whole set of smoke screens that contribute to the feel of a thriller: he has to put on a brave face and pretend that everything is fine, whereas the situation on his farm is truly dire. Things are going smoothly with his sister, but that’s because she’s a vet and she’s taking care of the cows. On the other hand, having dinner in a restaurant with a girl or spending an evening with his mates – that’s not really his thing. It’s a love story between a man and his cows, and any external element unnerves him and therefore also leads him right back to his solitude.

What were your intentions on the visual side of things?
I wanted there to be a gradual shift, to start off with a naturalistic look and gradually edge towards a thriller. The opening dream sequence serves to underline the fact that the cows are at the very centre of Pierre’s life, including in his dreams, but also to set the tone right from the get-go, by hinting that the movie will not only be naturalistic and that at a certain point, things will start to happen more in the character’s head. And with my DoP, we wanted to slip gradually from a very naturalistic, sunny world to something much more industrial, bathed in tungsten light, working with interiors and nighttime, and playing a lot more with contrast...

(Translated from French)

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