Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

Interview with Paul Blain

July 23 2018

BD: What is your favourite of your father’s films and why?
PB: When I was about 10-12 years old, I preferred A Child in the Crowd (Un Enfant dans la foule) because it is my father’s story. It’s a very sad story about a boy and I recognize… I imagine my father in this boy. It is a fictional story that he wrote and filmed, yet it is the most autobiographic of his films, his relationships with adults when he was a young boy informed the reality of the film.

My father chose my best friend at the time, César Chauveau, to play the main character in the film, who was a boy who was the same age as me. We had known him for a long time because César’s mother and my mother went to school together. I was actually disappointed with his decision and I asked him: “Why can’t I play this character?” He said that he had chosen him because his looks were more in line with the socioeconomic background of the character… so that was that.

I still love A Child in the Crowd but right now, the film I prefer is Le Rebelle. Maybe I will change my mind again in 10 years. I mean, all the films are really good. I love all of his films. There is no one film of my father that I don’t like. But, time passes, and the way you relate to things and films changes.

BD: How did you begin working with your father?
PB: I began working with him very early on, when he was preparing Un second souffle with Robert Stack and I had just quit school. I was 16 and I started as a stagiaire (trainee). I did a good job and once the shooting began I became second assistant. Then during the middle of the shoot I had a serious motorcycle accident, it was actually the day we were shooting the motorcycle accident of Robert Stack. My accident happened that night and as a result the film shoot was done for me. I had to be hospitalized for a while, I broke my knees, my bones. I had to have a transfusion of blood, it was very difficult.

Although, before that I was in Les Amis, his first film, I was an extra. Then In A Child in the Crowd I was also in the background in one scene playing in the park with other boys. But the first time that I played an actual character was in Jusqu’au bout de la nuit. In that film, I play an important character. And then in Ainsi soit-il, his last film, I played the principal character, the son. Actually, it was my youngest half-brother who was supposed to play this character, but they got into a fight, so my father asked me to play the character.

For me being part of the film was a powerful experience. As I said the film is about a son, played by me, who avenges his father’s murder. There’s a scene at the cemetery where my character is by his father’s tomb, and I have a few lines. Well, fast forward to one year later, I was really in front of my father’s tomb because my father had died. One year after the film. This was the last scene that I played on the film, the last scene I had to play was this scene in the cemetery…

BD: What was it like working with your father as an actor?
PB: When we were working together in Ainsi soit-il, he actually made it clear that we should work as if we were not related, as if I was not his son and he was not my father… This was just more of something theoretical, because even if we were working together we still had the same relationship: he is my father and I’m his son. That shoot was difficult because it was my father’s last film, and in a way he knew it. He never actually said it out loud but there was something, you know…. He had been diagnosed with cancer before Jusqu’au bout de la nuit. Besides health there were many other difficulties in his life, money, problems with his wife and with my youngest brother, whom he liked very much and as I said, they had gotten into a fight.

My father was a rebel, he was always rebelling. It’s interesting because for his character in Jusqu’au bout de la nuit he decided to wear the jacket that he had worn in Le Beau Serge, the first film by Claude Chabrol. That to me is a kind of choice to continue rebelling against many things he had rebelled against in his life. During the shooting of Jusqu’au bout de la nuit he was drinking a lot, although in a controlled way. He always controlled things, even if he drank a lot he always knew what he had to do during the shoot.

BD: In most of the films, there’s often a young boy who has a complicated and sort of tense relationship with his mother. Is that something that came from Gérard’s actual life?
PB: That’s an interesting question. Actually, there’s something I have realized recently after watching Ainsi soit-il again, as I had not seen it for a long time. My father loved his mother very much but his mother didn’t like him, she preferred his sister. My father always justified his mother and said that she was like this because she was angry against men. She was raised in an orphanage and she didn’t know who her father was, my great grandfather was an X, we didn’t know who he was. And then her husband left her as well… and she didn’t know how to write, she was analphabet [illiterate]. She was a maid, she cleaned apartments for other people, actually my father was born in a maid’s room. I think that as a result of all this, my father in a way was always looking for the love of his mother and that is indeed the theme of several of his films including A Child in the Crowd. So when I was re-watching Ainsi soit-il, his last film, I realized that at the end of the film, you know, in the last lines of dialogue the mother comes to her son and she says: “I love you my son." I saw it not long ago and I had never really made the connection: he was always looking for love, for the love of his mother.

BD: You have talked a lot about family, and of course family is such a major theme in your father’s films. Why do you think he wanted to deal with the theme of family in his work?
PB: Yes, family was important to him because as I was saying, when he was young he had no love, he was alone. And the love of his sons particularly was very important. He was always unconditional in his love for us.

It’s interesting to think about family because it was during the shooting of Pierre and Djemila, when I saw my father really happy. The film tells a story of love between two young people, a young girl, who was born in France but has an Algerian background, and her young boyfriend. When he was casting the role of the young woman, he found a girl to play Djemila, and I went with him many times to see Djemila’s family. He was completely amazed by the harmony between this family, it was a big family, there was the mother and many brothers and sisters. We would sit with them around the table and eat and discuss. They were all very close, there was a warmth between them, they were all together as a family and I think that’s something like this family harmony is what he was looking for throughout his life.

BD: Your father started as an actor and not only had an important career in France, he also went to Hollywood where he would have probably also succeeded. Where do you think his desire to become a director came from?
PB: I think it came very early. Back when he was playing in Hawk’s Hatari! in Africa, he had a 16mm camera and would shoot, you know, little scenes. I think he had to express something else. When you act, you’re of course expressing things, but when you become a director you have more possibility to express yourself… you are the one in charge.

But at the beginning, I think he really wanted to act. He looked at old movies and he would repeat things in front of the mirror, a little bit like the actor’s studio. In a way, I think that he discovered that he wanted to be a director when he began to act because at the beginning he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He came from the street so he had to make his own life and he decided to try and see if he could get roles but at the same time he took boxing. His boxing teacher told him that as a boxer someone was going to break his nose eventually but my father said “No, I don’t want to break my nose.” Of course, he knew he had a good face. He had his sensibility but a good face. He used to refer to himself as “intellectual muscle” (laughs). My father was also a stable lad, you know, one of the guys who train horses. So he kept doing different little jobs like this but luckily he got roles to act in film fairly quickly, in part because of his face, but also because of his character and his personality. So as he started acting he got more interested in thinking about how to work the scenes so sometimes he would give suggestions to the directors about how to do things. I imagine it must not have been easy for the directors to have an actor that opened his mouth so much. I wasn’t there but I have heard that he was not so easy going during the shooting, he had his own directorial ideas. I mean, ultimately, he would do what the director said, he of course respected the director. But as he was having his own ideas about how to do things, he began to write scripts. At the beginning when he was trying to get funding for Les Amis, the CNC said no. They refused because it was 1969 and it was a story in part about a homosexual relationship. They said, no, because they found that the relationship according to them was not moral. Then, there was also another script that he never made and it followed two guys who had come back to Paris after the Algerian war, and all they did was cheat and do very bad things. So the CNC said no again, they said the film was completely against the army and against France. They actually told him even if you find the money, we will not let the film get out.

Thankfully he continued writing and… I don’t know, 2 years after, he asked the CNC for funding again. There was another president in place and times had changed so they said ok this time. For his last one, Ainsi soit-il, for example, the one I play in, at the beginning they said no as well because at the end of the film, after the son kills the murderer of his father, he was to go free, he wasn’t to go to jail. They could not accept this, they said that if the character killed someone he must face the consequences because it was a man who didn’t let the police do their work. They didn’t like that he took revenge in his own hands, so my father had to make some changes in the script so the guy, my character, gets 15 years of jail.

BD: It feels like Gérard had a very strong moral stance on things, maybe not even political, it’s like he always had his own world view. He had his own moral code.
PB: Yes, absolutely, all of my father’s films follow his own moral. And most of the time it didn’t agree with the social morality of the time. He always puts his morals very high, yet he was not like this in reality because in reality it’s very difficult, you have emotions. But when he had time for reflection, when he began to write his reflections, and started to think about what he really wanted to be, he wrote his characters, which are his heroes. They are heroes, I don’t know if they can exist in reality …because their morality doesn’t agree with social morality. Like I said, in the end of Ainsi soit-il, the funders said it’s impossible to have the son take revenge like this and kill the murderer of his father, he has to let the police do it, you have to let society do it for you…

It was the same with Pierre et Djemila, there was a big controversy in Cannes. People were saying that it was racist, against Arabs… they understood nothing.

BD: It’s interesting, your father’s films often draw comparisons to Robert Bresson. I was wondering if that was a filmmaker he admired and if there were others?
PB: For sure, he admired Robert Bresson. Always. But he liked other filmmakers as well. He liked Godard. He said that Godard is the only one who had found something else, something new stylistically during the Nouvelle Vague. He liked Tati, Melville. He also he liked Pialat and Rohmer very much.

And as for directors from other countries, he talked about Ozu of course, Buñuel, Satyajit Ray, John Ford. He liked John Ford very much. Ford was close to him because he also uses very frontal shots and doesn’t move the camera too much…and also his approach to the characters.

Bresson became a personal friend, you know. He was the temoin (witness) of his last marriage with my step mother, the mother of my two half-brothers. When they got married, Robert Bresson was there. I remember, I would go with my father to visit Bresson in his house in the country, about 50 kms from Paris. He was very sympathique, he was old, but very sympathique. He ate a lot of macarons. We brought him macarons and he would eat them one after the other like this… he would eat a box of macarons in 5 minutes.

Pialat was also very nice to my father. One time when he had money problems, Pialat signed him a cheque, just like that, on the table, where we were eating. My father was talking about cinema and the difficulty of life and at the end of the dinner Pialat signed him a cheque, to help my father….

BD: One last question about Le Pélican. When we showed it last year, the audience had a very strong reaction, they loved this film… just wondering if you had any thoughts as to why that film resonates so strongly with an audience today?
PB: Let me first talk about what Le Pélican means. It is a bird that is a Christian symbol, you can find it sometimes on the top of churches. There’s also a poem by Alfred de Musset called Le Pélican…so this bird is to go to get food by the sea for his children, and if he doesn’t find any food, he gives his body to his children as food. Le Pélican gives everything for his children.

When my father and my mother separated, as I told you, his children became the only love he could really have and as a result he had this moment of fear when he started wondering what was going to happen with his boys. He was really afraid that it could become difficult for him to keep his children. So it was from this fear that he felt at this time that he started to think about making a film about it because this feeling was so strong, and he understood that the love for his son was really important for him.

You know, in Le Pélican there isn’t a lot of dialogue. The film is mostly us watching this father as he looks at his son from a distance, with “jummeles” (binoculars). There’s a lot of silence, which really puts us inside the mind of the father, as he is longing for his boy. We see the boy with these people, the mother, who has remarried a guy who has a lot of money, but it’s not “beautiful money.” It’s more the kind of money that buys luxuries, you know, they just play cards and lay around. It’s not “interesting money” because they do lots of interesting things with it, no. They have money but the way they live it’s a little bit boring. Later on, as you know, there is a scene where my father’s character breaks everything, all the stuff, all the things because he feels that this kind of life is terrible for his son, he can see how it will influence his son in a negative way. So the film is in a way against the pollution of money. Here you have this man who has an incredible love for his son and who follows his own morality but it’s ultimately tragic because he can’t do anything against money. It’s a very sad story.

Actually let me share an interesting story about the casting of the film: my father wasn’t supposed to play the main character. He asked Alain Delon and Delon liked the script very much but he didn’t want my father to direct the film. Delon wanted to buy the script and offered my father a lot of money but my father didn’t accept and decided to play the part himself. He said that this is his best part as an actor, his best character.