On the release of his tense new thriller, the French-Georgian director best known for 13 (Tzameti) talks about unlikely bungled burglaries, fragile criminals and the prisons we build for ourselves.
Over 10 years ago, French-Georgian director Géla Babluani made a memorable directorial debut with 13 (Tzameti), a stylised black and white tale of greed, desperation and dangerous games. He is back with a taut crime thriller that recombines the main ingredients of his debut, namely money and suicide, into a mature, tense study of human nature punctuated by flashes of absurdist dark humour. Set in the grim port city of Le Havre, the story revolves around three friends who break into a politician’s mansion to steal a suitcase full of money. But from the moment they enter the house, things go wildly off plan. As the characters are faced with a situation they could not have foreseen, each decision they make leads them inexorably down an increasingly perilous path.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Géla Babluani about unlikely bungled burglaries, fragile criminals and the prisons we build for ourselves during the Fantasia Festival in Montreal, Canada, in July 2017.
Virginie Sélavy: Money’s Money is about the trap that people build for themselves because of their own greed.
Géla Babluani: In today’s society, there is an increasingly bigger gap between different social classes. I feel that it’s getting worse, and that people like the politician in the film no longer have any idea about how the other people live. What unites them all, the only interest they all share, is money. Things are becoming more and more materialistic. I’m always interested in opposing two worlds and I wanted to oppose these characters in this dead end. The financial, material, side of life, has so much weight nowadays. For me, the material question is what separates those two worlds, and what unites them, and not in a good way.
In 13 (Tzameti), the main character was also led to take desperate action because of his need for money.
In 13 (Tzameti), there was something much colder, and also much more direct, and these things were played out in a confined space. Money’s Money is more about stupidity and greed. The plot is based on two real stories. Someone I knew well burgled a place then went back for more. No one understood why but the explanation was very simple and very stupid: it was cupidity. Human beings are never satisfied with what they have and always want more. What interests me is how people would react impulsively in this kind of situation. It seems to me that I would have done the same. It’s almost like hungry people coming to a table laden with food and they want everything, they can’t stop, especially in that kind of environment where every penny counts. And the character is not going to be satisfied with what he took, he will want to go back. I think humans can never stop.
What is the other real story that inspired the film?
It was during another burglary, some people I knew broke into a house and found a man who was about to hang himself. He wasn’t a politician like in the film, and it didn’t end in the same way. But with everything that is happening today I thought that to make that character a politician was quite ironic. Just a few days ago a scandal came out about Michel Mercier [a politician accused of misusing public funds for giving his daughter a job at the Senate], similar to what happened with François Fillon. There is so much corruption in politics and elsewhere nowadays that I thought it really resonated with what is going on.
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The various twists and turns of the plot are caused by the characters’ own weaknesses.
I’m interested in people’s flaws, and I want to treat my characters with a lot of love and respect but also show how the decisions they make, good or bad, to get out of the situation they find themselves in, play out. When humans find themselves in situations they don’t know, they make choices that are more interesting, cinematographically. The more unpredictable the situation, the more instinctive their choices. I’m interested in how they’re going to mess up or save the day and in understanding why they do what they do.
You construct a perfectly engineered mechanism where all of the twists and turns are absolutely convincing, motivated and logical. How long did you work on the script to arrive at this result?
I wrote the first draft of the script in 2008. The story hasn’t changed since then but there were many rewrites to make it really solid. Every scene was thought through, every motivation. But sometimes I wonder if we overwrote certain things. Despite all that work on the script, I changed some things when we were shooting, for instance the ending. It seemed to me that all the characters needed a real ending otherwise there were too many questions left unanswered, and in the case of one character I only saw that as we were shooting. I felt that we needed something very clear at the end, and once I’d made the change the ending seemed very logical to me. The end of each character’s story is balanced and in keeping with their trajectory over the night and what they have done together.
There is also a lot of dark humour in the film.
The black comedy comes from the situations, the fact that there is something improbable or impossible about them, and that’s what’s funny. It was important to me to keep some lightness of tone, some freshness in the film because, despite everything, the characters are very young.
Your brother, who was the lead in 13 (Tzameti), plays one of the main characters again, and like in your debut, his character has a certain innocence about him as he finds himself out of his depth.
There is something naturally very human about George, he is that way in real life. I needed someone who could also be extremely violent when required and be credible. There are two dimensions to his character, something fragile, and something violent that can burst out at times. He can go from one state to the other without the audience questioning it, because he has that in him. He is able to manage that very sweet side and that occasional explosion of violence, which can take him very far, into a completely different place.
Why is his character of Serbian origin?
I’m an immigrant, I arrived in France at a fairly young age, but I already had a certain background and culture. I thought that the character’s Serbian background, his past history with the local gangster Goran, who is also Serbian, added another layer to the film. It’s not just about a feud between two gangsters, or between a petty criminal and the neighbourhood’s big brother, but there is something deeper to their relationship. And because he is Serbian, no one wonders why he keeps a gun at home. If he was entirely French, there would be questions. It’s something that you accept more easily because it is part of the culture and that makes it credible, because of the past that he may have had.
Why did you choose to set the film in Le Havre?
For two reasons: first, I found the place visually interesting, and the other thing was that Le Havre is a very working-class city. We shot the film in the ‘quartier des Neiges’ [a deprived area near the docks]. If you drive through you think there’s no one there, but if you stop for five minutes with someone from the area you realise that they all know each other. It’s a small community, like a village. They work on the docks and barely manage, and it was the right atmosphere for the film.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy