How did you come up with the idea for your film?
A Belgian friend showed me some images of the reenactment that takes place every year at Waterloo, near Brussels. I was immediately fascinated by this incarnation, or rather reincarnation, of history embodied by people from all walks of life. That particular year marked the bicentennial of the fall of the Napoleonic Empire at the terrible battle of Waterloo. It’s an amazing backdrop, a sort of immense carnival, with this one particularity – that the theme is always specifically about the war. The most important feature of the reenactments is the place that weapons and war have. Above and beyond the folklore, encampments and costumes, all of the “re-enactors” are focused on the main objective of the grand battle. We’re talking about adults who play at hypotheticals. That scope was what drove the project and the character of private Bébé, played by the actor and co-scriptwriter Jonathan Couzinié. We had the feeling that these people who pretend they’re Napoleon do more or less what we ourselves do when we create a fictional film. We pretend to make something real.
Do you like period costumes and the groups that engage in historical reenactments?
I did want to make a period film one day. I also knew that it would be very expensive and complicated. Hundreds of extras to manage, technical procedures that nowadays would be beyond my reach, and immense historical research. In 1969, Kubrick tried to make a film about the Emperor. I looked at a miniscule part of his preparatory work, and it was simply colossal, a madman’s endeavor. The film was never made but it did show just how enormous a task it entailed. I opted for a very simple idea that could be made with limited means, where the costumes and the reenactment would be relegated to their primary function as scenery.
Did the figure of the Emperor and the Napoleonic period in themselves have a particular significance? Does this fascination say something about the character? Could you have made the same film about a reenactment of the life of Caesar?
We probably could have used another context for the project, anything is possible. But it turned out that Napoleon resonated with our desire for history. He incarnates the patriarchal, totalitarian ideology that feeds the character and the couple in the film. Private Bébé behaves as if he is all-powerful. He has absolute command over his wife; she is his only army. He brings her along on his warring madness and loses his bearings. In this sense, there is something Napoleonic about him. I needed to assume the figure of the Emperor in order to for his fall to interest me. It’s like a message addressed to men who think that they are “by nature” superior to their wives or girlfriends, or to women in general. This cultural, historical legacy is a like a shadow dogging our heels. And if you want to be rid of a shadow, you just have to shine a light on it!
In the film, you tackle the topic of recognition and the quest for a “family” that is based on common dreams rather than on descent. What interested you about this theme?
The very basic idea that we are nothing on our own. That’s the Emperor’s paradox. In the film, Bébé’s need to be part of an army is clearly motivated by his need to belong to something larger than himself. His dream is to become a “a soldier like everyone else” and to join the Grand Army. I like the idea that we can reinvent ourselves at any point in our life. I like film characters who stubbornly pursue their desire to become, who never throw in the towel with the excuse that dreams belong only to childhood. But beyond that, family defined solely in terms of marriage and descent is terribly frightening. That confers on the notion of family a static inbreeding, a shackle on the freedom to be oneself. Bébé wants to choose his own family and I wanted to follow him in that quest.
You also ask questions about balance in relationships, dependence, domination, the space for compromise… What interested you about examining the romantic relationship between the two characters?
All of that interests me: dependence, domination, the space for compromise. What motivated the film is for me to be satisfied with precisely that. I wasn’t looking to have external events intervene in the relationship, no secondary characters, no drama or twists. Just putting a man and woman face to face, a leader and a follower, and create a situation where the substance of their balance gets flipped. You can’t dominate if the other is not dominated. The day that Ludo decides she’s had enough, the old charade crumbles. The image in my mind was of the film Dolls (by Takeshi Kitano, 2002 – Editor’s note.), with the two heroes who are joined forever to each other. I wanted to find my own way of describing how those images affected me at the time. The idea, in fact, that relationships are built over time – all romantic relationships, I mean. I’m not interested in marriages and divorces, but all those other moments that don’t have names but that make up the bulk of the story.
Any cinematic coups de cœur in the past year you’d like to tell us about?
This was a peculiar year for me: I had a child, which kept me from going to the cinema. As a result, I took advantage of the situation to catch up on the classics, like Ettore Scola’s A Special Day, Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Army of Shadows, Come and See by Elem Klimov – which is without a doubt the craziest movie I’ve yet seen – Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, which led me to discover the screenwriter and novelist Larry McMurtry’s amazing literary work (such as Lonesome Dove and Dead Man’s Walk). I could name many more, but those are the ones that come up right off the bat.
If you’ve already been to Clermont-Ferrand, could you share with us an anecdote from the festival? If not, what are your expectations for this year?
I’ve been here twice. Ton cœur au Hasard [Your Aimless Heart] won the Grand Prix in 2015, as well as the Adami Award for best actress for Julie Chevalier. Jonathan Couzinié also received a Special Mention from the Jury for his role.