By Paul Risker.
There is a touch of irony to British writer and director Saul Dibb’s career, whose most recent recent feature Suite Française (2015) is an adaptation of Auschwitz victim Irène Némirovsky’s two unfinished novellas. The most poignant moment in the whole film is a daughter’s (Denise Epstein-Dauplé) words printed upon the screen that deliver an emotional full stop. Contemplating the significance of her discovery in a suitcase of her mother’s unfinished five part manuscript, the end credits are preceded by: “It is an extraordinary feeling to have brought my mother back to life. It shows the Nazis did not truly succeed in killing her. It is not vengeance but a victory.” And so critical opinion aside, Suite Française transcends spectatorial or critical judgement to further this victory from the pages of literature to the screen over the villainous monsters of modern history.
While Dibb’s two recent feature films, The Duchess (2008) followed now by Suite Française, suggest an interest in history, in conversation with Film International the writer-director, when asked whether this was suggestive of a particular interest, explained: “I’d say no, not really. I’m interested in stories that I find illuminate something. Funnily enough before I made Bullet Boy I spent ten years making observational documentaries about contemporary British life. So in a way the funny thing was The Duchess – I made The Line of Beauty (2006) as well, which was on the recent past, the eighties – was very much the first time that I had made anything historical at all.” Talking with Dibb one is reminded that the identity of an artist is the sum of their parts, and the capacity of the artist’s career to resemble a jigsaw puzzle of numerous pieces that, once seen in context, reveal a picture full of contours and different brush strokes.
During the course of our conversation Dibb looked back to his adolescent days and the early formation of dual interests that would shape the contours of a maturing filmmaker, while spiralling outward to reflect upon the finer points of adaptation and his approach to the filmmaking process.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I suppose for me it probably developed through my teenage years. We were one of those families that always grew up with Super 8 cameras around, and so we’d always be making films and shooting stuff. It was just something that we all did. I guess I became interested in it through an interest in photography when I was at school, and then with a dual interest in the humanities. It seemed to come together, and so in my teenage years it just developed as something that I was very, very excited and passionate about. I then went to university to do a degree and it kind of grew from there. But I wouldn’t say there was a Eureka moment.
The nature of the filmmaking process is similar to a jigsaw puzzle in that you have all of these different people coming together to create the final vision of the film. Your own personal journey into filmmaking is in parallel with the identity of the filmmaking profession itself – a jigsaw like puzzle.
I guess, yeah. Film is unlike a lot of other art forms because it is so collaborative. There is a paradox where you have to drive a line through it, and have a very clear idea of the story you are trying to tell and your particular take on it. And yet it relies on a huge amount of people collaborating and getting behind that one particular thing that you are trying to do.
While Bullet Boy (2004) is a contemporary set feature, The Duchess (2008) and Suite Française look back to the past. In light of your discussion of various interests coming together, do you have a particular interest in history?
I’d say no, not really…. I suppose the only point about making something about the past is how it resonates in the present. In particular with something like Suite Française, which was written contemporaneously and doesn’t have any benefit of hindsight, I felt it was a fascinating portrait of war from a civilian’s perspective. Increasingly as we see wars around the world, the biggest impact it has is on the people who are left behind, almost less than the people who are fighting it. So for me any of those films that are set in the past, I am only interested in them in a sense because of the very strong contemporary resonance that they have.
So in a sense the past becomes a means for us to see our present day from a different perspective.
Yes, and I think it is also important to say that even a contemporary film is an artificial construct. It is not a reflection of the world as it is; it is a reflection of the filmmaker’s representation of the world. So you can have a contemporary film that feels very traditional and a film that is set in the past that feels very contemporary. I think these lines and delineations that we make about the type of films things are, they sometimes don’t hold up to scrutiny.
One of the qualities of film and more broadly storytelling is that they can take those constructs or definitions and tear them down to force us to reassess them, and therein allow those things to exist in a different way.
Yeah, and for me it is not so much about choosing whether a film is set in the past, present or the future. It is just about whether it explores territory that I find interesting; says something to me or captures a particular issue or question that I feel is either interesting or important to explore.
Within Suite Française you have lives being lived out against the backdrop of the occupation of France. While there is an ideological war on a nationalistic level, there is equally an intimate clash of ideologies where one does not necessarily identify, as Bruno [Matthias Schoenaerts] does not with his country’s ideology. These personal dramas are in deep contrast to the momentous nature of the backdrop.
I think the big thing that is going on in the novel and which we wanted to keep going on in the film is the exploration of class. Irène Némirovsky writes in her novel, and I paraphrase badly here: It is not so much the different countries or which country you are from, it is how you hold your knife and fork. A part from any other time, a lot of the allegiances that were made during the occupation were often between different classes. What you saw in France and what was shown so well in Némirovsky’s novel is that under the pressure of the occupation was how the different and very rigid classes within the class system turned against each other. The resentment, the gripes and all of these things that were already pre-existent between the people in the town of Bussy were pulled out by the pressure of the occupation. But also by things like collaboration and denunciations, and all of the things that really happened during this terrible time.
It is where the real heart of the human story is.
Well it is, and she wrote about the effects this enormous historical event had on ordinary people. This was what she was interested in – war from the civilians point of view and how people behaved under this enormous pressure. So it wasn’t about the politics with a capital P; it was the politics with a small p. It was personal politics and where people ultimately stood in relation to their compatriots, but also ultimately stood in terms of the war itself. This was something that came later in the story – how the ordinary or some of the ordinary people became politicized, and that ultimately becomes what the adaptation of Suite Française is about – the politicization of an ordinary woman through the process of occupation.
I have heard it said that a film or TV adaptation is required to live separately of the book in order to tell its own version of the story. Do you agree and how does working on an adaptation change the dynamic of the process?
Yes, and look it is inevitable. I suppose that sometimes people wrongly think that if there has been an adaptation that it replaces its source material. I think the best way to look at it is as a companion piece that sits alongside the original work. I think what you are saying is true, but it is also more true for this because it is an unfinished book where you have two parts of a projected five part novel that was unfinished. The two parts that were finished and even then only to first draft form bore no relation to each other in terms of characters or plot. So we had to decide whether to centre on one or the other, and once you are making that kind of decision you are inevitably going to have to create something that is different in structure from the original work. But I also think there is no point adapting something if you don’t intend to stay true to its spirit, and our intention was certainly to remain true to its main themes, albeit we had to focus in on a more singular story.
In discussion of the TV adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015) Enzo Cilenti remarked to me: “If you stray too far there’s a risk of the show being ‘inspired by’.” I suppose it is striking that balance whereby you nurture that connection, while helping the story grow in a new way and endure through an alternative storytelling medium.
I mean look, they are so different. Novelistic storytelling often involves very interior passages. Obvious stuff: it is not told in pictures; it is often not told in dialogue; it often reveals information by going back to something that happened in the past, and if you don’t want to invoke flashbacks then you have to find a different way to tell that story. They are very different mediums and yeah, as we were making a film we obviously had to find a way to make the film work. Again it is an unfinished novel and so it would have been impossible in a sense to incorporate all of the things that she was trying to do. I suppose for me the main thing that we tried to do was to take one part of it and make that the middle act of the film. Then we extrapolated backwards to incorporate this first part to then create at the end a kind of third act of what Némirovsky was planning to do had she had the chance to finish the novel herself, or at least write the next part. So I guess there were always going to be certain leaps that we had to take, but they were absolutely the right ones. I was always guided by what her greater intentions for the book as a whole were.
We’ve spoken about film being a collaborative medium and on this film you work with a talented cast. When you were writing the script did you have any actors in mind or rather did you picture what the characters were going to look like? If so how does this help you during the writing, but then how does the reality of the person who eventually plays the role feed back into your earlier musings?
Well I guess first of all I am trying to write it, and unless you have an actor cast right from the very beginning then you probably can’t help writing with that person in mind. But it is just trying to make the character work in their own terms first and then begin to cast around. Once you have written a script it is a very salient moment when you ask an actor to read it and they come back to you having only really looked at the script and the story from their character’s point of view. So it throws up a whole load of other questions, which I then tend to try and address again in another draft, which then begins to tailor the part more specifically to that actor and the things that they brought to it. I always hope and expect that the great actors bring a lot to the part, and are able to fully breathe life into them.
From the writing of the script to the editing of the film, is the process for you about going on a journey to discover what the film will be as opposed to saying what the film is going to be?
Well I think it is both. You have to have a very, very clear idea of what it is that you want to achieve. I always make a point of actually writing out on a page or two what the film is about, and what the fundamental principles are that we are going to approach the filmmaking with. At the same time it still gives you the chance I suppose to explore the shades of grey within characters, and within their relationships with one another. I suppose that is what the process does to bring the film to life on that level. But in terms of broad brush strokes and the big picture, I have a very clear idea of that well before I start and that is in a way the compass point that has to take me through the whole thing. For Suite Française it was obviously – and for all films actually – about the authenticity of the piece for me and how you make it feel as truthful as possible. It is to have it feel as authentic and real as possible from every small detail that you make in terms of production design right up to how the characters would behave in any given situation.
Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.”
That’s right…older and more exhausted.
How do you view the way in which Suite Française has shaped you both personally and professionally, and how do you think it has informed you moving forward from a directorial or storytelling point of view?
Well that is interesting. I think inevitably, and I am sure that part of the pull anyway is that these films take you on a journey; they take you into a different experience of the world; into something very different. I guess what I always feel by the end of the film is that more than ever really what you have are your gut instincts. The more true you stay to those gut instincts and you are not encouraged to waver away from them, which you are often are in the process of filmmaking, then the better and more truthful your film will be. They are in a sense the coordinates that you have to stick to. So for me the more experience I have of filmmaking, the more clear it seems that while inevitably there are compromises that need to be made to make a film happen, you really have to fight for the things you believe in.
Suite Française is available on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK on July 27th from eOne Entertainment.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.