INTERVIEW David & Stéphane Foenkinos
Courtesy of Studiocanal, we have an interview with the directors of Audrey Tautou’s latest rom-com Delicacy (La delicatessen), which was released on DVD and Blu-ray at the start of the month.
Nathalie has a wonderful life. She is young, beautiful and has the perfect marriage. But when her husband dies in an accident, it brings her world crashing down. For the next few years, she focuses on work, leaving her emotions on the sidelines. Then all of a sudden, without even understanding why, she kisses a most unlikely man – her coworker, Markus. This odd couple then embarks upon their own emotional journey; a journey that raises all kinds of questions and hostility at work. Can we really choose how we rediscover our taste for life?
Marvelling at their newfound love, Nathalie and Markus end up running away to give their relationship a fighting chance. This is a story of rebirth but it is also a tale of the singularity of love…
David, La délicatesse is your eighth novel. It has had the most readers of all your works with 700,000 copies sold and translations into 21 languages. How did the idea come about to turn it into a film?
Stéphane: We both wanted to make a film together one day. I was lucky because David gave me the book to read very early on. I immediately thought that it had to be turned into a movie. And that was long before we had any idea the book would reach so many readers.
David: Several of my books are in the process of being adapted. But in my mind, my desire to make movies wasn’t linked to my work as a writer. On the one hand, I write novels; on the other, I wanted to make a film. As I did all the interviews and debates one does when a new book is launched, I realised that this story was much more personal than I’d realised and that the subject was very close to my heart. I hadn’t finished with the story. When other books I’d written were published, I felt a kind of weariness and a desire to move onto something else. Whereas here, I couldn’t break away from it, I still wanted to talk about it and I still had the energy to spend more time with it.
How did the project for La Délicatesse develop?
David: Among the offers we received, we were pleased to meet producers Marc-Antoine Robert and Xavier Rigault because they’d acquired the rights for my previous novel, Nos Séparations, and I felt very comfortable with them. I then wrote the screenplay, trying to come up with new ideas. I wanted it to be a film adapted from a book more than a transposition.
David, your literary style is in part based on a constant desire to play with the reader. There is self-mockery and multiple digressions, information is inserted between chapters; cultural references, lists, soccer results, the recipe for asparagus risotto and so on. How did you resolve the dilemma of whether to keep these annotations and how to do that, or to get rid of them at the risk of losing the tone?
David: The adaptation is very faithful, but I think the scenes from the book weren’t necessarily cinematographic. My challenge was to preserve the tone of the text while creating new fantasies. I used transitions, ellipses and various other tricks to illustrate the passing of time. There are things that aren’t in the book but a film is something different to a novel, so the things we took from the book had to be visual.
The internal voice also allows you to keep connection with the text…
David: The film begins and finishes with a voice off. Among the filmmakers who have influenced us, firstly there is Truffaut – the so-called “crackers” scene is a direct homage to Bed And Board. But we also wanted to avoid falling into the trap of a film that was too literary.
Stéphane: We also really like visual comedy and situation comedy. And those offbeat characters like Jacques Tati, Pierre Etaix and Blake Edwards.
The style of the office, as well as Markus and Nathalie’s costumes are very characteristic of their psychology and they play a key role in the comic side of the film. What did you ask from the set and costume designers?
Stéphane: Given that a large part of the film takes place in the office, we didn’t want to film the modernity of glass and open-plan spaces. We had to find wooden moldings, gilt and marble that crepe soles stick to and upon which high heels tap. It’s also supposed to be a Swedish company, so the watchwords were discretion and a muted atmosphere. As soon as we found the set – a real company in Saint-Denis – we had to revamp the fittings and accessories to avoid being too old-fashioned.
The same applied to the costumes with very precise color codes ranging from navy to beige. So when Nathalie puts on a red blouse, she really is out of place. And as for Markus, I think we totally exhausted the full range of beiges. Every time François Damiens saw a new sweater, he’d quip, “Oh, beige for a change!”
David: We thought long and hard about Markus’s comic side, but we absolutely had to avoid him being ridiculous or awkward. Striking that balance was key. Sometimes that involved simple details like Markus’s complete inability to sort out his shirt collar.
Stéphane: We were influenced by the 1960s aesthetic of Mad Men, which fitted with the direction we were taking. We also claim a barely-concealed homage to Joan, the series’ busty secretary, through the formidable Audrey Fleurot who was delighted to oblige.
In a similar way, the film tells the story of a woman over a decade or so. From the joyful and happy period at the start to the return of love at the end, Nathalie goes through some darker periods and in particular a period of grieving. How did you work on Nathalie’s physical development?
Stéphane: In the script and the storyboarding, we defined three different phases for Nathalie. And they were the object of meetings with the hair and make-up team and the set designers to plan how we were going to make that happen. Audrey was also very involved with the choice of hairstyles among other things. David, who is obsessed with hairstyles, and I both wanted her to have long hair at the start of the film.
We opted for a high ponytail that you first see in the long opening take and which immediately works as a symbol of youth and insouciance.
David: We didn’t want to be too obvious in the way Nathalie moves through the phases of her life. We didn’t want to use the easy route of cutting her hair to symbolize the passage of time. Aside from the changes in style over the decades, we felt very strongly that her appearance had to reflect her state of mind. Markus’s arrival subtly provokes changes in Nathalie in terms of her clothes and her hairstyle.
We gave the script to Audrey Tautou to read very early on. It was like a crazy kind of dream.
The work done in terms of lighting is also very precise. Did you have any specific cinematographic or pictorial references?
Stéphane: We talked a lot with our DP Rémy Chevrin about Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. We particularly liked Gondry’s way of approaching faces and playing with natural light. In a similar way, to accompany her physical and psychological evolution, Rémy used different film stock to subtly mark Nathalie’s passage from her initial happiness to grief and then gradually to rebirth.
David: We worked very closely with Rémy. Our references weren’t always linked to a specific filmmaker but to precise scenes. For example, in terms of recent movies, we were very struck by Xavier Dolan’s slow-downs, as well as the nightclub scene from Black Swan where Nathalie Portman lets go. Furthermore, we also spent a lot of time looking at paintings, books on structuralist architecture and Erwin Olaf’s photography in particular.
Both your names are on this film. Do you share the various tasks? Who does what?
David: We are extremely complementary. I wrote the story and the screenplay, and I’m fascinated by the technical aspects of framing and editing. I have spent a lot of time these last few years on shoots.
Stéphane: I was very relieved to be working in tandem. There was no question of me making a film on my own, even if I’m more involved in this business than David. He is the author of the book and thus the conscience and the reference in terms of the characters and their psychology. For any slight question in the text, David was able to arbitrate. Because I have worked in casting, I was more disposed to directing the actors.
How did the casting work out?
David: We gave the script to Audrey Tautou to read very early on. It was like a crazy kind of dream – we didn’t dare hope, although we were sure she was right for the character.
In what way was Audrey Tautou ‘the character’?
David: While I was writing the script, I saw her on stage in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and I was overwhelmed by her performance. I was amazed by the power and fragility she gave off at the same time as a comic energy.
Stéphane: I have a particular link to her because I did the casting for Pascale Bailly’s God Is Great And I’m Not (2001). I already knew her capacity for working in very different registers and her inventiveness, as well as her skill that would mean she remained credible as the woman/child at the start right through to the woman who has been tested by life but for whom life is opening up once more. Audrey was concerned that as the story went on, her character would become dry or unlikable, but that was never the case.
Tell us about the male roles. In the novel, you talk about a combination of Pierre Richard and Marlon Brando, but that’s to describe Nathalie’s husband François, rather than Markus, the coworker who falls in love with her.
David: That’s true. For François, we needed someone so charming that he makes you want to spend the rest of your life with him and whose premature death is totally devastating. As for Markus, in the start, we didn’t really know who would be able to play this unusual Swede. We did some casting sessions with some Scandinavian actors. Then all of a sudden, François came on the scene.
Stéphane: There was this cloud of faces and every time, his reappeared.
David: Physically, he was perfect for the character, but I was worried he might be a little too extrovert because Markus is shy and discreet. But when we met him, it was a striking. He was Markus.
Stéphane: I’d just cast him in Doillon’s Just Anybody in which he has two estate agent scenes that were both comic and scary.
His character has that aspect of childishness that you find in the work of Polish writer Gombrowicz…
David: There’s something of the Gogol’s characters about him. He reads Cioran. He has that grotesque gentleness of characters in novels from those Eastern Bloc countries that influence me a great deal. Indeed, Audrey Tautou is reading a Goncharov novel in the film.
Stéphane: He is timeless, like in Kaurismaki’s films, which we love!
Pio Marmaï plays François, the husband…
David: He is perfect. He has the perfect fragility, sweetness, tenderness and a kind of clumsiness. I wrote the script thinking of him, of his vital strength after having seen him in Rémi Bezançon’s The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life.
Stéphane: He is handsome AND funny, like both Patrick Dewaere and Pierre Richard at the same time.
And Bruno Todeschini?
Stéphane: He has such comedic power, which is really under-used in my opinion. To play this hunk of a guy who is a bit of a loser, you have to have a real power of detachment, which he understood perfectly. I think a whole lot of people are going to be overwhelmed by his performance.
David: He is a character who suffers, he’s a thankless person. To characterize, he’s the ‘baddie’ in the story. But I wanted him to move us, too. Bruno captured that strange balance perfectly. We should also mention Mélanie Bernier (Chloé), who I was thinking about right back when I was writing the book. She has a huge capacity for self-mockery. As for Joséphine de Meaux, we wanted to have her whatever the cost, being great fans of the films of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. She plays Sophie, Nathalie’s best friend, who is the only character not to appear in the book. I wrote it for her.
Right from the start I was determined to have this incredibly inventive musician collaborate on the film.
The music has its own role in the tone of the film. How did you come to choose Emilie Simon for it?
David: Right from the start I was determined to have this incredibly inventive musician collaborate on the film. She is the singer I most admire and who I dreamed of meeting. As a singer, she is an absolutely perfect fit in the universe of La Délicatesse. Right from the moment she agreed to do it, she went beyond our hopes. She suggested a lot of songs. Initially, we didn’t want that much music but each time she sent us something, it was so right and fitted the images so well that it was a marriage made in heaven. It’s a film by David and Stéphane Foenkinos with music by Emilie Simon!
Stéphane: It was as if she had created a parallel world to the film that was in perfect symbiosis with it.
You dare to include some very lyrical moments especially at the start and the end of the film, as if you are trying to escape reality. Does this freedom of tone seek to blur the boundary between drama and comedy?
Stéphane: We often said we were making a ‘dramedy’, which expresses the idea of passing from one state to the other much better than the French term, ‘comédie dramatique’. It’s also bittersweet. The tone is very close to that which you find in David’s novels. The moments of lyricism – those that there are – stem from a desire driven by moviemaking.
David: It was important to make the film we had in our minds, and that brings with it its own share of risks. Like a way in with a long voiceover. Beyond a simple mixture of comedy and drama, we were also driven to tell a simple story punctuated by moments of madness and flights of fantasy.
The scene with the first kiss is very unexpected, especially as it’s the first time we see François Damiens, isn’t it?
Stéphane: Sorry to prove you wrong, but Markus appears a few scenes before during his first meeting with Nathalie and her group. We liked the idea of having a hero who appears after thirty minutes of the film have already gone by, and whose face you don’t even see in his first scene.
David: The scene with the kiss is surely the pivotal scene of the film. I remember the huge relief during the shoot when I saw that fabulous eye rolling from François Damiens.
It must be said that Audrey helped us a lot. We established a special strategy for that day. We did a number of additional shots to push back the kiss. François dropped his guard. And then during one scene, when he wasn’t expecting it anymore, Audrey kissed him really passionately. You really feel the sense of surprise in that shot.
The final scene is particularly moving. How did you envisage it?
Stéphane: David had written this quite audacious long take in the screenplay and there were some in the crew who weren’t 100% for it. We did a lot of tests and rehearsals. Then, thanks to the set which magnified the garden, shooting with the Steadycam, the skill of the actors and Emilie Simon’s music, the choreography made sense and we were able to recreate what we had in mind.
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