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Thomas Cailley • Director

"When you have strong characters, you can get away with doing anything you like"


- Cineuropa met up with a young filmmaker who managed to make a very successful breakthrough at Cannes with his feature debut, Love at First Fight.

Thomas Cailley  • Director

Young French director Thomas Cailley was a true revelation at the Cannes Festival Directors’ Fortnight this year with his feature debut, Love at First Fight [+see also:
film review
interview: Thomas Cailley
film profile
, which won the Fipresci Prize in the parallel sections, the Europa Cinemas Label, the SACD Prize and the Art Cinema Award. Cineuropa met him in Paris in the run-up to Haut et Court releasing his movie in theatres on 20 August.

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Cineuropa: How did you come up with the screenplay for Love at First Fight?

Thomas Cailley: I had just made a short film, a “buddy movie” with two characters – one who was on quite an abstract existential quest and the other with some very specific problems. There was a way of doing comedy there that I thought it would be interesting to carry on with. In terms of the theme, Love at First Fight owes a lot to the survival programmes that I used to watch on TV quite a lot, which I found pretty fascinating. It’s all a little ridiculous and even a bit pathetic, these guys who are parachuted into these intolerable places, eating hideous stuff – but at the same time, it’s actually quite sublime: there’s a fearlessness there that’s not so obvious, teetering between a poorly formulated suicide attempt and the existential quest, as if survival were worth more than life itself. I wanted to explore this terrain by shattering the idea of solitude, with a personal approach and a love story.

What about the film using the army as a backdrop, which is very unusual for a French movie?

Much as fiction depicts the army very rarely, it’s actually represented a great deal in society. It’s the second-biggest recruiter in France; it’s everywhere and enjoys a very high level of trust amongst the public. Today, we're also seeing the Boot Camps thriving, those survival camps for young people. What do they go there looking for? That's the question that I was interested in exploring. The portrait of the military way of life, or even criticising this institution, was not important for the film. Rather, the question was: how does this kind of thing become appealing? Why do people want to go into the recruitment centres? My producer sent me to the army for around ten days, to follow the goings-on in the camp that you see in the film. A lot of young people turn up there with dreams that have absolutely nothing to do with day-to-day life in the army, dreams fuelled by fiction, by video games and also by the emptiness that they feel in their lives.

Why did you set your plot in the provinces?

They are landscapes that I know well. The film is not psychological, and the setting allows the viewer to delve deeper into the characters, to have something that's more introspective. This is all the more important given that the film is written a little like a journey in three stages: first of all, there's the world of Arnaud's character, then the fantasy world of Madeleine's character (the warlike world, the army, etc) and finally a world that they have to invent for themselves because the other two have turned out to be unsatisfactory: the forest and this kind of slightly utopian interlude.

A romantic plotline, a generational portrait, an adventure film and even a disaster-movie sequence... Why this blend of genres?

When you have strong characters, you can get away with doing anything you like. I hope the film works on the unexpected level and the viewer never knows where the characters are going to set foot. From that point on, there's an unbridled freedom. There's an underlying principle of a romantic comedy with the meeting of two characters who have nothing in common and who are attracted to each other, but if that propels them into adventure-film territory, I think that's great to be able to adhere to the codes of that genre, to be able to mess with them to take them to another place and to think that in the end it will be a sci-fi film or what have you.

What about the spectacular wildfire scene?

Right from the moment when one of the characters believes in the end of world, we had to show it. The idea was to work on a disaster-movie sequence that was a little like a poetic clip. One of the aims of the film is to constantly shift from reality to fiction, as in the case of this ordinary young man with this girl who hurtles into his world like a comet and thus gives rise to fiction in his life. In this sequence, reality is represented by the arrival of a catastrophic event filmed with a kind of realism (some wide shots, a terror you have to be able to believe in), and then we quickly dive into fiction, from the characters' points of view, with some rather abstract and tightly framed shots of the smoke, the halos of light, the slow motion, the silhouettes. The "how do we do it" was more fraught. Initially, we planned to do everything on the shoot, but handling smoke on set is very complicated. So we made the ash while shooting and the smoke in post-production.

What projects have you got coming up?

I have several screenplays in the pipeline. Right now, I'm waiting for feedback from the audiences about my film in order to take stock and find out if I feel like forging ahead or refocusing a bit on new horizons.

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