By Tom Ue.
My Life with James Dean finds Géraud Champreux (Johnny Rasse), the film’s central protagonist, presenting his first feature film – also titled My Life with James Dean – in Normandy. His box office may be pitiable, but this screening proves life changing. This comedy is Dominique Choisy’s third feature, following Confort Moderne (2000) and Les Fraises des bois (2011). Choisy is also a teacher in cinema at a university in Amiens, where he lives. He studied cinema at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (which is the ancestor of the La Fémis). In what follows, Choisy and I discuss this inspiration behind his comedy, how the film came together, and the kinds of lives he sees his characters living.
It has been six years since your last feature: what inspired this film?
I don’t really know! I always thought I would never make a movie about cinema. I was working, at the time, on a script that was to take place in Buenos Aires, with an important part for Johnny Rasse. But he was fed up with waiting, and he told me, “It will take years to produce your Argentinian movie! I don’t want to wait! Why don’t you write a simpler story, something that we could shoot right away…. At the time, I was touring in cinemas in France with Les fraises des bois, and I told him, as a joke: “You don’t want me to write you a movie about a filmmaker who goes around the country for Q-and-A’s with his movie?” And he said “Why not?”
Later in the conversation, he said that, when he was younger, he used to go to Le Tréport (the city where we shot the movie) with his friends to bars and behave like a bad boy, and they used to call him “the James Dean of Le Tréport.” I have no idea why, but the two ideas mingled. I went back home, and the same night, I stopped writing the Argentinian movie, and started to write My Life With James Dean.
Are there any autobiographical resonances?
As far as traveling around cities with a movie, yes… Meeting owners of cinemas, having no audience to watch the movie, feeling alone and lost in cities you don’t know…. But that’s all. I never met people like the characters, although I witnessed a real coming out that was triggered by Les fraises des bois…. Awkward moment, but lovely!
The film’s rhythm recalls that of so many French comedies. What are some of your influences?
What we all had in mind while shooting the movie was more Lola (1961), directed by Jacques Demy, because of its rhythm, of the way he writes the dialogues, and because of the mind-blowing performance of Anouk Aimé; that is, the ways in which she jumps from one thing to another and moves as if she were walking on a tight rope. There was also Le Bonheur (1965) by Agnès Varda, because of the lightness she puts in a real drama, and because of the colours and how they tell a story of their own, a story which is not quite the one that’s in the script. And also The Man Without a Past (2002), by Aki Kaurismäki, because of its precision, of the rigor in the way it is shot, and of the way it deals with reality and puts it nicely on the side, putting it off….
In what ways has James Dean inspired your film?
It’s funny, because I’m not a great fan of James Dean. I know how important he is as far as acting goes: he really invented a way to move and to talk. He somehow invented a special kind of silence between words. James Dean is really in the movie because of Johnny being the “James Dean of Le Tréport,” which I thought was funny and a bit odd, and since My Life with James Dean is in many ways an “homage” to cinema, I thought that James Dean was a great tutelary figure, that it was safe to sit on his lap, and that he would be kind and good to us.
The cast works so well together: tell us about your decisions here.
I tend to work with actors I already know or I feel like working with. I never make a casting: I think it is so artificial, and such a difficult and rude moment for the actors to go through. I go around, watch plays, movies, go to acting schools, and if I see someone I really like, who inspires me, I write a part for this person. For instance Balthazar exists because I met Mickaël (Pellisier) in a theater course at the university where I teach. I knew I needed this character, Balthazar. But I had no idea who he is or how he would talk and behave. It’s after meeting Mickaël that Balthazar began to really exist, that he began to have a mind and a body, that he began to move, and speak.
I tend to work like in theater, with a “troupe,” and I love to work many times with the same actors, and try to give them parts that would surprise them, give them a chance to experiment something new and different. And also, I like the actors to be like musicians playing in an orchestra. They have to take charge of a musical line, they all have their own music, but they have to play it together. In that way, I really pay attention to the sound of each actor’s voice. They have to sound good together, really. When I say good, I don’t mean “nice.” I mean that the sound of the voices has to add something to the dialogues. The sound of the voices has to put us in a certain mood that prepares us to accept and understand what each character has to say.
Géraud’s film My Life with James Dean is shown and mentioned only in passing: what do you think this film is about?
What I had in mind was some kind of gay Badlands (1977), by Terrence Malick. Two boys going around in empty houses, breaking in, stealing things, cars, being wild… It’s funny but sometimes I feel like writing this story… Maybe I will… It was also a way to salute independent movies, with their radicalism and their boldness, as if they where inventing cinema again and again, at the risk of being naïve, at the risk of falling apart. I love movies that are a bit awkward, that sometimes miss their goal, and that try but not succeed. It’s so moving, much more than sheer beauty or total control.
Géraud’s film is poorly attended because it is neither a comedy nor an American action film, though everyone who has seen it seems to like it. What is your commentary here?
I just mean that it’s almost harder to reach an audience than to make the movie itself. Once you have finished your movie, once you have the Digital Cinema Package in your hands and you are ready to show it, you have to make people come and see it. But there is sometimes no room for you at all. Cinema is an industry. And now you can see sooooo many films, series, shows everywhere: at home, on your phone, on your computer… You can spend your whole life watching the kind of shows you know you will like, because there are so many of the same sort… It is very human for spectators to want to watch always the same kind of stuff, and they tend not to be curious anymore. No one tries to make them curious again because everyone in this industry is busy giving the audience what they want. As long as you give them what they want, you make money…
But you have to try to offer something different, and if you manage to have someone come, even by chance, by mistake, and watch this difference, these people will often discover they actually like this difference. And then they wonder why it is so difficult to find different kind of movies. It is just because the industry don’t give them the chance to be curious again. It shapes their mind, their taste, with communication and money. And in France, money goes to easy comedies; and American movies have the money and the power.
As your film shows, there remains a place for films that resist simplistic classification! Your film defies all kinds of boundaries and I don’t think that I can do it justice by summarizing it. Tell us about its form: what led you to populate it with so many stories?
Thank you for being so kind! As a matter of fact, I didn’t plan it. The form came with writing, with working on the script. I wanted to experiment something that would have the energy of plays like the ones written by Marivaux, Beaumarchais, and Goldoni. I wanted the rhythm to be broken, the story to go in a way, and then suddenly, bounce on the wall and take a different direction. The only solution I found was the characters, each character taking the plot to a new place. And then I wanted them to move. So if I wanted them to move, they had to go from one place to another, and the simplest way to achieve that was to make them follow each other, was to make them walk, as in silent movies, as in archaic cinema. It was actually real fun to write. Not easy, but fun!
Some stories – like Sylvia’s – are funnier than Géraud’s with his parents, which is only mentioned near the film’s end. How do you decide on the kinds of story to integrate and which ones to focus on?
Sometimes it is important just to fly over the situation, and sometimes, you feel like resting for a while, like taking some time with a character or another. It is like the flight of gulls, sometimes they ride the wind, and sometimes they just walk along the seashore, or take a nap. But you know, when you write, you mainly RE-write. And sometimes, you are almost at the end of your script, and you have this silly idea, but you think it is funny, and you like this silly idea. And very often, in order to follow this idea, you have to change many things in what you have already written. So you take your script, and you revisit everything, and change all you have to change so that your silly idea finds its place in the whole picture. And it is when you write, and write, and write again that you get the clear notion of when you should speed up, and when to take your time and give more information about one character or another…
Are there any Easter eggs that we may miss from an initial viewing?
I don’t think so. Some people are surprised by the character of Milad, the refugee. They wonder why there is such a character in a comedy, because he has nothing to do with having fun. But I wanted the movie to be in real life. Sometimes, we have good times with friends in a restaurant, for instance. And when we go out, you cross people who live on the streets, who don’t know where to go, and who are lost. We see them, but we don’t stop, and we go on laughing with our friends, because that’s how life is. I wanted something like that to happen in the movie, because I didn’t want everything to be gay and merry. I wanted something a bit darker. So if there is an Easter egg in the movie, it is that it is mainly a movie about inspiration, about how creation occurs, and how writing changes reality in the eye of the writer. Imagination is able to transform a refugee into a Maharadjah. Because what do we know? Maybe this refugee IS a Maharadjah!
So many of the film’s stories concern (un)requited love: what do you think finally separated Géraud from the married Ludwig?
Oh, I think it is Ludwig’s cowardness. I’m not a young man anymore, and all through my life, I have met so many men who were definitely gay, but decided to get married and stay with their wife. They didn’t have the courage to accept their homosexuality, and make their mother cry. Even now, it is quite common and sad when you think about it. And I wanted Géraud to be in some kind of shitty relationship that would obsess him, and make him not really care about what is around him, so that he could be blank, like a white screen on which the other characters could project their own fantasies, dreams, desires. After breaking up with Ludwig, Géraud gets involved in the carousel, the round dance, that takes place around him, he is revealed to the world that surrounds him. The relationship with Ludwig is also like a mirror of what happens to Sylvia with Louise….
In many ways, Balthazar is mature beyond his years, even more than Géraud: he knows exactly what he wants and pursues it. Tell us about this teenager.
I think Balthazar is like many teenagers: very interested by love and sex. He has never met someone like him, and when he meets Géraud, it gives him the courage to say who he is and to accept love. He is very sincere, absolutely sure of what he wants, and what he wants is Géraud. When I was Balthazar’s age, I was madly in love with a guy who was 20 years older than me. I told him I was in love, but he turned back, because he was scared of being a criminal, which he would have been. I was definitely minor. But I was ready to become an adult, I was ready to experience what I needed to experience. His saying no sent me back to my childhood. I lost confidence for many years. It made it quite difficult for me afterwards to express my feelings, to meet boys because I was afraid of being rejected. That’s what you very often see in gay movies. Call Me By Your Name (2017), for instance. What Elio feels is quite intense, and he has no doubts about it. But it goes wrong, and the ending of this movie is sad. I didn’t want that to happen to Balthazar. I wanted his boldness to be rewarded.
Is there also something dangerous to Balthazar’s conviction?
Of course! Because he is so young! Géraud could be prosecuted for having a sexual relationship with him. It is not completely immoral because the age of consent is 15 in France. But still, for Géraud, it is not so easy to cope with the situation. But I think Géraud knows how Balthazar feels, because maybe he felt this way too when he was the same age?
Are you optimistic for Balthazar and Géraud?
Yes! Definitely! Because they are not going to stay together at all, which is good! Balthazar has to get out of his town, and he has to discover the world. Géraud is a fantastic opportunity for doing so, but Géraud is right: “You don’t fall in love with someone by watching his movie.” The love story between Géraud and Balthazar is like a summer fling: very intense, very true, but very summerish…. This affair helps them to go through a moment of their life, to turn a page, but it is better than staying together. But they will always stay in touch, and see each other very often.
What is next for you?
I’m now in the process of editing my first documentary, which is about my adopted son, Tajamul, who left Afghanistan when he was 13, and came, by his own means, all the way to France. He is 20 years old now, and wanted to talk about what it means to leave his country, what it means to go through many countries you don’t even know, what it means to go to jail and camps, and what it means to be a refugee. So we made the trip backwards last May and Hune from Amiens to Kaboul. And we went back to the places that were important to Tajamul, and he explains what happened, what he did, and how he felt at the time. We have no idea what will happen to the movie: we made it very freely, we don’t know yet how long it will be, where it will be released, but we want Tajamul’s word to be heard, so we will definitely find a way!
I’m also working on the script of my next movie, Eddy’s Hands, which is to be shot in 2019, with Mickaël Pélissier (Balthazar), Marie Vernalde (Louise), and also Johnny Rasse, of course!
Tom Ue is Assistant Professor of English at Dalhousie University and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London. He is the author of Gissing, Shakespeare, and the Life of Writing (Edinburgh University Press) and George Gissing (Northcote House Publishers / British Council) and the editor of George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Edinburgh University Press). Ue has held a Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Toronto Scarborough.