‘Home Front’ Director Lucas Belvaux on Tackling Trauma Head On
With 2017’s “This Is Our Land,” director Lucas Belvaux examined the ways in which far right movements attract, recruit and reformat new converts, curdling contemporary anxieties for acrid political goals. With his follow-up, “Home Front,” the Franco-Belgian auteur explores the roots of those prejudices. The film, which was part of Cannes’ selection last year, is screening this week at UniFrance’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in Paris (Jan. 13-15).
Adapted by Belvaux from Laurent Mauvignier 2009 novel “The Wound,” the film follows two working-class cousins as they fulfil their colonial military duties in 1960s Algeria and as they nurse their scars and traumas in Burgundy of 2003. While the more cerebral Rabut (Jean-Pierre Darroussin in modern times, Edouard Sulpice in flashback) has tried to forge ahead, his cousin Bernard (Gerard Depardieu now, Yoann Zimmer then) remains a livewire, looking for any provocation to snap back into violence. Local draw Catherine Frot rounds out the cast.
Synecdoche and Artemis Productions are producing. The Party Film Sales in partnership with Wild Bunch International are handling global sales, while local distributor Ad Vitam will release the title onto French screens in early 2021.
Do you see this as a kind of follow-up to your previous film, “This Is Our Land,” which explored the lure of the modern far right?
Indeed, this film is almost a companion piece to “This Is Our Land.” They’re two currents in the history of France, because we know that the birth of the National Front was directly tied to the Algerian colonialist movement. So on a personal level, it made sense to continue examining this topic. Whereas on a social level, we’ve seen a real move to revisit this period that French society had such trouble digesting. We’ve seen [several examples over the past few years]. There needs to be a kind of truth and reconciliation commission, like there was in South Africa. We need that in France, to reflect what really happened in Algeria. So for all those reasons, I’d say this film arrived at the right time.
The film is divided into two timelines, following the characters in Algeria in the early 1960s and in France 40 years later. Only that also makes it something of a period piece, as the “present tense” is still set nearly two decades ago. Was it easier to make this film with that additional distance?
We could have made a version of this story in 2003, but it would have been more complicated. For one thing, the book itself hadn’t been written at that point. Laurent Mauvignier built on the histories of his father and uncle, who both fought in Algeria. Neither of them would speak about it for years; it was like that for many families – either the veterans would never speak about it, leaving their children and grandchildren to piece their stories together, or they would only reveal their stories very late in life. Indeed, the children of those men also suffered from their fathers’ PTSD, so today it’s more often the grandchildren – who are more distanced from the firsthand and secondhand trauma – that are really approaching the subject with a fresh look.
Though you’ve already written and directed several literary adaptations, “Home Front” has a novelistic structure – more so than in any of your previous work. How did you approach this particular adaptation?
We often say this or that book was made to be a film, but in practice that’s not often the case! Even books by [bestselling mystery writer, and creator of the Detective Maigret series] Georges Simenon, which feel self-evidently cinematic on the page, can be difficult to actually adapt. In this case, the source text was very literary, marked by very precise language. [Rather than inhibiting our work] that allowed for interesting cinematic translations. We had to take the structure he created and find cinematic equivalents. By definition a book doesn’t have voice-overs – it’s all monologues or soliloquies. With a film, you can build on the texts, multiplying the voices and playing them off another.
The film has an almost musical structure. In music we use the term “counterpoint,” where two melodies play off one another. We tried to create a similar effect in the film, letting the soundtrack and dialogue recount a different story than the visuals. The visuals could be in the 1960s while the voice-over anchored in the 2000s. Literature has episodic novels, Russian nesting doll constructions where one story leads into another, and that’s something I wanted to evoke. We see that some of the most deplorable characters from the 1960s segments will pay for their sins for the rest of their lives. And that would not have been possible had we anchored the narrative to any one timeline.
The film was selected by Cannes, which couldn’t go on as planned, and then had to reschedule its release when France went back into lockdown in October. What is it like releasing a film in such uncertain times?
In the end, we were lucky in our misfortunes. The second lockdown hit several weeks before the film’s release, so we didn’t pass the deadline. Posters had yet to go up, and we could still postpone plenty of press and promotional aspects. Which was not the case for several films that only saw two days of release before everything shut back down. We just pushed the release a few months without losing much. I’m still impatient of course! I want the film to get out, for it to be finally seen. But I’ve lived through worse.
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