Interview with Pierre-Emmanuel Urcun- Clermont- Ferrand Film Festival
Sunday 1 February 2015, by
Why is Le Dernier des Céfrans [The Last of the Frenchmen set in the banlieue*? Couldn’t your heroes have come from Paris or even the countryside?
The film takes place in the banlieue because for the last ten years I’ve been living mainly in the banlieue. So I’m filming my close surroundings, but the film could just as well be seen through the contextual prism of certain Parisian neighborhoods or peri-rural areas. Some narrative threads would obviously have evolved differently, but the essence of the film would have been the same.
In Le dernier des Céfrans, you play with caricatures. For instance, you show us an extremely old-fashioned French apartment. How did you come up with the idea for that interior and how did you make it so exact? Did you have a decorator?
Yes, of course, it was the product of my collaboration with Julie Plumelle, the film’s decorator: I wanted something that would also speak to a certain idea of France and its history. The wallpaper gives a sense of the old-fashioned environment that the principle actor lives in: a young man living at home with his elderly mother… It also unconsciously awakens false airs of royalty through its crowded motifs, a much older France…
The last of the Céfrans then sees himself enlisting in the army… the staging of the “entrance exams” is pretty funny! Did you or someone close to you completely invent this humorous sequence, in conjunction with the army?
The scene is totally made up. I like the Coen Brothers’ films and their detachment from reality. Making films also means taking the liberty of giving life to a world that does not exist. I like to begin with the real, then twist it slightly to make my stories come to life. For example, in the scene with the slides, even if the context is not a real recruitment session, the content of the slides is very strongly inspired by one.
In your film the main characters all have pretty unfortunate relationships with women. Was it your intention from the beginning that none of them should have a successful personal life?
No, not necessarily. The starting point for the story is that the main group of actors undergoes one unfortunate day in particular. For the purposes of comedy and caricature, I wanted strong female characters who would push them to act or become aware of things. After that, the moment with Rémi and his girlfriend Sonia is kind of touching, awkward but touching. As for Moussa the player, that day he ends up experiencing exactly what he puts women through on a regular basis…
Your heroes give the impression they don’t seem to be too excited about their work either; it provides them with a salary, but clearly doesn’t satisfy them. Do you get any satisfaction from the long process and all the pains of filmmaking?
For me, the process of coming up with a film from the director’s chair is very exhilarating. I take great pleasure in each of the steps in producing a work. That may be because I come from a production background, which, for me, is a domain where everything is more laborious.
When you make a film, you live with the idea of the film, you shape it to give it life; each step is very pleasing. After that, it’s like with anything else, there are ups and downs. Doubt is the essential ingredient that needs to mix with pleasure. Then I quickly go on to something else. I like to jump right into the next project, or something that is totally different, because I also enjoy getting away from movies the moment I can. After editing the Dernier des Céfrans, I went to Brazil for two months to organize workshops for young people, to travel and to set up a photo exhibit…
So here’s a recruiting test for you! Which of the following things are paramount and which are incidental for you? Friendly – Romantic – Professional – National?
If I might nitpick for a moment: the binary you propose between paramount and incidental is a bit too stark. Things are always more diverse and nuanced than they seem, but if I had to choose… I would choose the domain of passion.
Do you think that young people nowadays have an ambition to join the national protection services such as the police and army?
Paradoxically, those government organisations are the ones that offer jobs that are open to young people who haven’t necessarily had the opportunity to get a degree, or the possibility of discovering other prospects for the future. In the film, I don’t judge the army per se: Rémy goes there looking for a job. I wouldn’t really use the term “ambition” so much as “opportunity” when you have no other real choice. Anyway, that’s what he discovered.
Le Dernier des Céfrans is a French production. Would you say that your film is typically French?
Absolutely! Everything in the film is French: the main characters, the minor characters, the sets; in fact, only the music is Italian – it’s Vivaldi, but even that relates to the history of France and royalty, and to the idea of a country with a very long history… After that, the most important thing for me is the dialogue. Language is what ties us all together. Embracing it, playing with it, taking pleasure in speaking it, helping it to evolve, all of that is firmly part of the French identity. It’s a wealth that we must hold on to. And the banlieues play a capital role in that.
In your opinion, what does the French film industry offer that others don’t, as far as short films are concerned?
The French film industry gives you the opportunity to express yourself; it offers a terrain for learning a profession that requires both means and time in order to take shape. Being able to have a dream and then seeing it come true, even if you didn’t originally have the financial means to make it come true, now that is a very great opportunity.
The diversity of forms is also one of the advantages of the French short film industry.
Defending freedom of expression today also means defending the institutional, economic and social structures that were put in place in France in order to give a voice to those who want to express their worldview. The French film industry still offers that space of freedom, but above all it is audiences seeking that diversity who give it its legitimacy, along with the distribution network of, say, festivals that fight to show these short films to the greatest number of people.
*Editor’s note : The word “Céfran” in the French title of the film is slang for “Français” [i.e “the French”]. This form of slang is commonly used in the banlieues, the urban areas built outside large cities to house immigrant workers after WWII.