By Tom Ue.
Much of contemporary crime fiction revolves around the search for resolution rather than solution. Some, such as Epix’s new television adaptation of Joël Dicker’s bestselling novel The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (2018), offers both. Christophe Charrier’s Jonas (also known as Boys) (2018) offers neither.
The film interweaves two crucial periods in the titular character’s life. It was the start of a school year for ninth-grader Jonas Cassetti (Nicolas Bauwens). He meets, quickly befriends, and becomes attached to his new classmate, the rebellious Nathan (Tommy Lee Baïk). One night, they go to Boys Paradise, a bar to which they were denied entry. Undeterred, Nathan and Jonas accept a ride from a stranger (Nicolas Sartous) they meet outside. He promises to take them to La Dolce Vita. In the car, the predator strikes Nathan, and Jonas, panicked, pulls the brakes and escapes while Nathan is driven away. Years later, the older Jonas’ (Félix Maritaud) life is in shambles: he has been arrested after a fight at Boys Paradise, which he has continued to haunt, and his infidelities lead his boyfriend Samuel (David Baïot) to terminate their relationship. Jonas is also stalking Nathan’s brother Léonard (Ilian Bergala) in an effort to make some kind of reparation. As much as Jonas is preoccupied with the story of Nathan’s kidnapping – a crime out of which no clue has ever surfaced – the film relays Jonas’ attempt to gain some kind of closure from this traumatic episode.
In what follows, I discuss with writer and director Charrier some of the decisions that he took with this powerful first feature.
Congratulations on Jonas! What inspired this particular story?
I’m 37. I’m not a teenager anymore, but it was so easy for me to go back to the ‘90s and to remember my school-time, my feelings, and my behavior then. Even though it was long ago, it felt just like “yesterday.” I was also striving to play with my imagination to create a fiction that merges thriller, romance, and melancholy.
The film’s music works so well: tell us about the score.
I have known Alex Beaupain since 2001. He’s my best friend. He’s like my brother. I love his songs and soundtracks for Les Chansons d’Amour (2007) and Les Biens-aimés. We had already enjoyed collaborating: I directed some of his video clips and he had already composed the score for my shorts films. For Jonas, the music is very important. I wanted it to impact strongly, and be emotional and epic. With Alex, we discussed various inspirations (including the scores of Boogie Nights (1997), Planet of the Apes (2001) and Blade Runner (1982) for the creation of the music for Jonas.
The film’s opening is very curious: Jonas is occupied with Tetris on his Game Boy, while his father goes to pay at the gas station. When the game ends, he sees a vision of Nathan, who slams the car windows as he screams and as he is physically dragged away: “Open up, Jonas! Why are you doing this? Why? He’s coming! Open! Dammit, Jonas! Open up!” Here, we get the sense that Jonas had failed Nathan. Nathan’s kidnapping did not occur like this and Jonas has no direct responsibility. Tell us about this film’s opening: Is there something that Jonas is misremembering? Is he reliable as a narrator?
Yes, Jonas is totally reliable in my eyes. The first scene of the film takes place two months after the “traumatic situation” that we will see at the end of the film. It’s Christmas time and Jonas is no longer the charming and sweet teenager you’ll get to meet during his first days of school in the fall. He is now traumatized, and every time he is alone, the same nightmare returns to haunt him again and again.
Tell us about the cast. Nicolas Bauwens’ and Félix Maritaud’s mannerisms are close: what kinds of direction did you give them?
I didn’t tell them much. First I chose each of them individually, for their acting and their response to the part. Then, they met: they watched each other’s casting tapes, and some of the dailies during the shoot. And that’s it. It was very natural, easy. When they would meet, Felix would always say to Nicolas: “You’re the action, and I’m your consequence.”
The film is ostensibly in two halves, where the “past” is set very prominently in 1997: we learn that Princess Diana has just died and Gregg Araki’s Nowhere (1997) is in theatres. Why set the film in this particular historical moment?
I wanted to go back to the 90s and didn’t want to overdo it. Princess Di’s death throws us back instantly in that era. And that works all over the world. We all remember perfectly where we were when we first heard the news.
Class and social organization are quite important to the film: Nathan’s parents are visibly more affluent than Jonas’, who have to work during the week. Can you comment a bit on this?
When I dug in my imagination for the film and to build the characters, I felt that there was some kind of social contrast that helped me build the dynamics between the characters. On the one hand, a rather wealthy and very-open minded family. And on the other, a shy family, leaving in a smaller and skimpy world.
So much of the film operates by hints. What is Jonas’ backstory with Nico? Did Nathan get it right?
Yes, he did. Jonas was in love, but he didn’t call it that way until now. He only understands the nature of his feelings after Nathan words it out.
Are there any “clues” that we may miss from an initial viewing?
I believe every viewer has his/her own pace. But as a director, I made sure hints and clues would be there to allow and identify eras and continuity. For example, the mother and son make the exact same gesture when telling the story of the scare.
There’s much that we/Jonas don’t/doesn’t know about Nathan. Did you think about making this character fuller?
No, I wanted us/Jonas to simply fall in love with Nathan. And for that matter, I needed him to embody perfectly an archetype. Not a plain character, but rather a character who attracts us/Jonas at once, and shakes Jonas’ usual boundaries.
We see the Jonas before this incident and the Jonas after. But what happened to Jonas in the years in between?
After the traumatic episode, he probably went on with his life as best he could, definitely with an emotional scare. When we see the Jonas embodied by Felix Maritaud, he has reached a breaking point of his life, where he is ready to take action, to recover from his past.
Jonas confesses to Nathan’s and Léonard’s mother that he was looking for something that didn’t exist. How long do you think Jonas has been stalking Léonard?
It doesn’t matter for me but, I would say one year…
Why reach out to Léonard now, after 18 years? What can Jonas hope to get from Léonard?
I’m sure that even Jonas doesn’t know exactly. He’s obsessed by Léonard like a hunter is obsessed by his prey. In Jonas’ eye, Léonard is his last link with his past. And he’s both scared and fascinated by it.
By the end of the film, we see for Jonas and Léonard heading into Magic World. What kind of future do you anticipate for them?
Probably, they will spend some time together. Maybe they will be friends. But I’m sure about one thing: meeting Léonard is a new start for Jonas.
Are you optimistic for Jonas?
Yes I am. Because facing his past, taking action after such a long time in order to meet Léonard and his mother, brought him the release he couldn’t dream of during these pas years. And because I am optimistic for my friends, my family, sometimes for myself! So, there is no reason for me not to be optimistic for Jonas.
There’s much speculation on the Internet regarding what happened to Nathan. What do you think happened to Nathan?
I know! A lot of people ask me that question! I always thought that Nathan was dead. So I am not so optimistic after all!
What is next for you?
I’m still debating whether I should be optimistic or pessimistic, but I am definitely dreaming of many more stories to tell. And I am hoping to direct my second film, surrounded by Sandrine Brauer and Marie Masmonteil, the producers of Jonas.
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.