Arnaud Desplechin • Director of Oh Mercy!
"Looking beyond this socially oppressive behaviour, you find human souls"
- CANNES 2019: French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin talks to us about Oh Mercy!, unveiled in competition in Cannes
Set against a backdrop of social hardship with a rather impressive Roschdy Zem leading the cast, Oh Mercy! [+see also:
interview: Arnaud Desplechin
film profile], Arnaud Desplechin’s first incursion into the crime movie genre, was screened in a world premiere in competition at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival.
Cineuropa: Did the disadvantaged social conditions in Roubaix inspire you to make this film?
Arnaud Desplechin: It’s because it’s my birth town, because I grew up there and because I really enjoyed filming it in A Christmas Tale [+see also:
film profile] which featured a plot centring around a middle-class family. But the times we’re living through now are far more desperate than all that, and I wanted to show another side of the town. I thought about the film The Wrong Man by Alfred Hitchcock, and I didn’t want to use my imagination or any type of fiction, but real material. I dreamed about trying it out and seeing if I’d be able to find my own voice by doing something I’d never done before. The other reason probably stems from being that bit older and having always felt guilty about being born in Roubaix, which is a very Algerian town, but not speaking a word of Arabic, unlike my brother, for example. In that respect, I don’t think I’ve fully experienced my own life or my hometown. So, for me, this film was a blessing; it’s a release. Before now, I probably wouldn’t have had the maturity to handle these types of characters.
Adapting a documentary into a fiction film is quite a rare thing. Why did you choose to do this and how did you go about writing the screenplay?
It’s true that it’s unusual, except with The Wrong Man, of course. I said to myself that if it worked for Hitchcock, I should be able to manage it too. And then, there are lots of different elements in the documentary which inspired my film, in particular the fact that Commissioner Daoud isn’t in contact with the two girls. But what I wanted to show was Roschdy Zem talking to these two characters, so I had to bend the facts with this in mind. Just like in Melville’s films; Un flic starring Alain Delon, for example. What do we know about the main character? Nothing, but each and every word he utters is a window onto his soul. So, I tried to depict Daoud without accumulating too much information, with just a few basic details; to sketch out the character and to try to dig a little deeper, but in a simplistic way. I tried my best to stick to this approach, because I knew that I would have brilliant actors who would shed far greater light on this character through their performances than my writing ever could.
Despite the film being rooted in reality, there’s still something mystical about it...
The character of Lieutenant Louis is Catholic. I’m not sure whether he’s a believer, but he begs for grace and doesn’t receive it. Grace is what Daoud has, even though he’s not a believer and, as we sense in the film, he’s not all that comfortable with questions on the subject of religion. So Daoud has some sort of spiritual dimension to him. But it was only on editing the film that I realised it; I didn’t envisage it when I wrote the film. Daoud has this belief - which we also have inside each of us - that the soul exists. All the victims and all the perpetrators whose paths he crosses in the film are also victims of society. But often in social films, the characters are reduced to the social oppression that they’re forced to contend with, whereas what Daoud firmly believes is that when you look beyond this social oppression, you find human souls. The two women in the film have committed an act which isn’t human, but he tells them they each have a soul and he asks them to give it to him. Because there is a treasure inside each of us, even if we’ve committed the worst possible acts.
The film is told from the viewpoint of the police...
I’m slightly uncomfortable about it, but it’s a film about Daoud’s character, so I was always going to be on the side of the police, as I’m describing a character. But I live in France and, every Saturday over the past few months, I’ve seen with my own eyes the incredible levels of repressive violence used by the police in Paris. But the film doesn’t go into all that. In fact, there are only four professional actors in the film, all the very many others are non-professionals, and there are lots of real police officers, in particular, who told me stories straight out of their own lives. What they told me was often quite moving and I had to grab hold of this material with both hands. But I don’t think I’ve made a one-dimensional film or any kind of plea for the police, because we’re also on the side of the victims and the perpetrators.
(Translated from French)
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.