Having started making short films with the collective Kourtrajmé when he was only a teenager, French director Romain Gavras is best known for his controversial videos for electro band Justice and M.I.A.’s ‘Born Free’. The latter describes a society that violently hounds red heads, and Gavras’s first feature film revolves around a similar idea, focusing on two men with red hair who feel persecuted: one, Rémy, a mixed up teenager, the other, Patrick, a depressed and mischievous psychiatrist played by Vincent Cassel.
Romain Gavras talked to Virginie Sélavy at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June 2011 about being seen as a provocateur, finding round cars depressing and the freedom of road movies.
VS: Why did you return to the idea of the ‘Born Free’ video for your first feature film?
I actually shot the M.I.A. video after making the film, although the video was released first. The idea was that the video was set 30 years after the film, as if they’d succeeded in creating an army of red heads. And I was frustrated that I couldn’t have lots of red heads in my film, so I put tons in the video!
The video was very controversial. Were you surprised?
Yes and no. I was surprised it was that controversial. M.I.A. is a big artist in the United States and ‘Born Free’ was her comeback title. She said, ‘go ahead, ruin my career’. She was the one who wanted something strong.
Why red heads?
When we started writing the script they were not red heads. My co-writer [Karim Boukercha] and I started thinking we could maybe make them albinos to make them more striking, but that was too complicated. I liked the idea of red heads because they’re a visible minority, but there is no religious or cultural community. Later we decided that they wouldn’t really be red heads to avoid it being too farcical. I liked the fact that they think they belong to a community that doesn’t exist, that it’s really something that is in their minds.
The film alludes to divisions between various social and ethnic groups, when Patrick insults Jews, Arabs and peasants, in particular. It seems to echo what is happening in France. Is that fair to say?
Yes, because when I was growing up everyone mixed together, but now there is a sort of withdrawal into communities, and when you withdraw into your community you are in a de facto situation of confrontation with other communities. And that can lead to something completely absurd and dangerous. That said, the film is not a statement, just elements that we evoke and touch on. It’s also about the confusion of the characters. Their way of thinking is confused, their fight is confused, and that’s because we live in a period of confusion.
There are some explicit commentaries on France, for instance when Vincent Cassel describes a French car: ‘It’s just like the country, round, banal, boring.’
It’s the character speaking, I don’t control my characters. They say what they want!
You don’t agree?
Yes, I agree with the line on cars. I hate round cars, they’re rubbish, ugly – they’re just like Geox shoes, comfort over style. I can’t stand it. I don’t even drive, so in fact I don’t really care, but visually, when I set my camera down and there’s a Twingo in the field, it just depresses me.
The film centres on the relationship between Patrick and Rémy, but there is something absurd in the fact that they get together because they have red hair and feel that the rest of the world is against them.
Yes, the idea was to have a story that was a bit silly but treated very seriously, like a Greek drama. It’s about two blokes who are completely lost and who go on this impossible quest. It’s a relationship that goes nowhere, a quest that goes nowhere, a film that goes nowhere.
How important is the sexual element in their relationship?
It’s an identity quest, especially for Rémy. He wonders who he is, whether he’s a victim or an aggressor, and it’s also about sexuality. And as the character of Vincent Cassel can see that Rémy is confused, he teases and pushes him to annoy him, and to make him doubt himself until the moment when Rémy confronts what he is.
Do you see Patrick as a bit of an agent provocateur?
Yes, but it’s not always his fault. He’s not a Machiavelli; he provokes situations because he’s bored and disgusted with everything, and in the end he’s disgusted with himself after he goes too far in the Jacuzzi scene. He manipulates people, but not for a specific purpose – more to make things happen and to feel alive.
They are rebels against a society that they perceive as repressive, but there is also a pathetic side to them. Would you agree?
Yes, absolutely. Rémy is a rebel in the way many young people are, i.e. he has all the reasons in the world to rebel, but he doesn’t know what to direct his violence against.
The scene in which he shaves his hair off is very powerful. What was the idea behind it?
It’s a sort of visual suicide, a bit like when Britney Spears shaved her head. And he does it for real.
Was it inspired by Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver?
Not specifically, but of course I am influenced by a lot of films, Buñuel, Blier, Pialat.
The film starts with a fairly realistic depiction of a northern town, and then surreal and absurd elements are introduced into the story. Was the mixing of these different styles important to you?
Yes. As they’re on an impossible quest, the idea was to start almost like a Bruno Dumont film in the north and have something really anchored in realism, and little by little we enter their minds and their delusions, we plunge into their madness with them. That’s why everything around them becomes a little strange.
The desolate, post-industrial landscapes of the north of France fit the story perfectly. Is that why you chose to set the film there?
I’d shot in Lens and I have friends in Lille, so I know the north quite well. I really like this region because you could be in England, or Belgium, or Germany. The area has a universal aspect. And there are amazing landscapes that reflect the state of mind of the two characters, two blokes who get worked up in a completely empty place, a quasi-post-apocalyptic décor.
The film becomes a sort of road movie in the second part. Is that a genre you’re interested in?
Yes, I’m interested in the freedom it gives you. I didn’t want to make a first film with a tight plot where you discover the identity of the killer at the end, with guns and money in suitcases. I wanted to have something completely free, where things can happen that you don’t need to set up and with the freedom of tone and movement that road movies allow.
Many reviews of Our Day Will Come have insisted on the provocative aspect of the film and seem to take what Patrick says as your own words. Were you trying to provoke with your film?
No. My videos are a lot more provocative because that’s their aim. But the film is different, much gentler. There is a character who is a provocateur in the film, but that doesn’t make me one. It’s really in France that the debate has been about whether the film is gratuitous provocation. I think it’s because of the videos I made, so people have associated me with the character of Patrick. OK, I don’t like round cars, but I don’t agree with everything he says! I see the film as quite gentle and funny. It’s been presented as a drama but it’s more of a black comedy.
Everything you do seems to attract a degree of controversy. That was also the case with A Cross the Universe, the film you made about Justice’s American tour. How do you feel about that?
Controversy is a question of point of view. That was entertainment, there’s nothing controversial about it. I find things shocking that don’t shock people. Rob Marshall’s films, such as Nine, for instance, make me want to puke, they make me mad. Bad taste shocks me. To take 8 Â½ and turn it into a big vulgar turd, that shocks and revolts me.
Vincent Cassel produced Our Day Will Come, as well as acting in it. How did he get involved?
I’ve known him for a long time. He helped us when we started, and played in our short films.
In Kourtrajmé ?
Yes. We created Kourtrajmé with Kim [Chapiron], and Vincent was a bit like a godfather to us. He said that if I wanted to make a feature film, he’d produce it. He said, ‘if you want to make the film that you want, there won’t be much money. If you’re happy to compromise, there’ll be more’. We chose the former and I made the film I wanted to make.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy