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Benoît Mariage • Director

"Learning how to let go"


- Cowboy reunites the director of The Carriers Are Waiting with his faithful sidekick, actor Benoît Poelvoorde, as they join forces to make this touching and meaningful comedy

Cinergie: The release of Cowboy [+see also:
film review
interview: Benoît Mariage
film profile
, coincides with the distribution of your documentary, about Michel Strée’s hostage-taking of a school bus in 1980. This real-life event is also the subject of your feature film. Which project came first and how did the two feed into each other?

Benoît Mariage: The initial idea was that of a personal investigation on Michel Strée. When it was the fiftieth anniversary of the RTBF (Radio Télévision Belge de la Communauté Française), I saw those scenes again (NDLR – The hostage-takers brought the bus and its passengers to the car-park of the RTBF) and I felt it was a shame that nobody had since traced Michel Strée, to find out what had become of him. I decided to track him down myself; I managed to find him and the former hostages and even the bus. But they didn’t really want to talk about the events and relive them; I found myself faced with a non-event that didn’t correspond at all to the idea I had formed in my mind of this documentary and how I expected it to turn out. This disappointment was the starting point for the feature film. Obviously, I then had to rework the story in order to create a drama, and reinvent a character, who wasn’t Michel Strée, and who would clash with Piron, enrage him in his moment of failure. Writing the screenplay enabled me to unleash my imagination and explore beyond the real-life event. Having worked on "Strip-Tease" (NDLR – series of televised documentaries) for several years, I was also able to draw on my own past experiences and emotions.

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Piron (Poelvoorde’s character) realises, as he films them, that he doesn’t like people and the fact he has to reach out to them. Is this aspect autobiographical?
Making a documentary poses a dilemma. You have to go towards others and reach out to them, but the film itself remains a highly personal creation reflecting one’s own personality and talents. And so there is a risk that you’ll end up exploiting people for your own ends. In the film, Daniel Piron thinks he can relaunch his career by making a documentary but he has to deal with the contradictory experience of documentary filmmaking, which can induce feelings of unease and doubt. When you make a documentary, there are people you can empathise and identify with, and those whom you can merely observe, that is to say you remain detached from them. And you can’t identify with other people if you’re not entirely at ease with yourself. When making "Streap-Tease", I sometimes suffered a mental block. I felt uneasy about making a particular film as I found it unethical, and that’s why I started making narrative films. Without being an effort at redeeming myself, Cowboy is inspired by my reflections and impressions at that time. In the film, the paradox of the character of Daniel Piron is that he wants to make a film about solidarity, even though feelings of solidarity and emotional expression don’t come easily to him. He still claims to be a Marxist, but all his relations with others are based on power and control.

In the end, the hostage-taking is just the backdrop to Cowboy.
The true subject of the film is this man who comes up against a barrier and the options available to him in order to overcome this barrier. It’s about how he copes with failure and letting go. I think learning how to live is about learning how to let go. This reminds me of the realisation I made when I reached forty, with which Ben too could identify. The documentary will reconcile him, Michel Strée, with the life he leads at present. I’ve changed elements of his past, with his permission, but I wanted to do him justice.

As the story unfolds, the film changes tone, and even subject. Without giving too much away here, the moving final scene sums up the entire film. Where did the idea come from?
I wanted to express the idea that when you’re depressed, when you’re experiencing a period of intense failure, this can be an opportunity to discover your deepest self. I wanted to express this notion "dramatically", through contact. I discussed the matter with Benoît when we were doing retakes (NDLR – shooting new scenes after the initial editing process) and we came up with the idea of a choir. The sound of people singing together arouses in me a deep and intense feeling of solidarity. In terms of the mise-en-scène, I was interested in showing Piron no longer positioned above people, judging them, but amongst people instead.

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