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Laurent Cantet • Director

Beyond appearances


- An encounter with the director, a sweeping talent working in the fine line between the intimate and the social

Laurent Cantet • Director

Precisely analytical and very open, Laurent Cantet explains to Cineuropa the reasons that pushed him toward a Haitian adventure in Vers le Sud [+see also:
film review
interview: Laurent Cantet
interview: Robin Campillo
interview: Simon Arnal-Szlovak
film profile
(Heading South). An in-depth look that confirms the director’s subtle perseverance with the exploration of the themes of predilection, in particular the need to find a place in an unclear world where everyone wears a mask.

Cineuropa: What was your profound motivation in deciding to deal with a subject about Haiti?
Laurent Cantet : In the beginning, there was a trip to Port-au-Prince. I experienced something wonderful in coming face-to-face with a country where one senses the art of living, a force, a sensuality and a very rich culture, and above all a revolt against a level of poverty which one witnesses in very few other places and a violence which we feel is always ready to break out. Very quickly, I had the desire, not to do this particular film since I hadn’t yet read Dany Laferrière, but a film dealing with the place of tourists in such an impoverished country. The difficulty I had in finding my place there made me reflect on other personal experiences and which helped enlarge a piece that was more political that it first appears. This preoccupation with finding one’s place is a constant theme in my films, the other constant being the masks which we wear to pretend that we have found a place which is clearly not the one to which we actually aspire.

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Exactly, isn’t Vers le Sud a film where the themes are concealed?
Yes, I think the film doesn’t reveal itself directly. The intimate story unveils bit by bit a certain numbers elements which hang in the air. What interested me was this social violence which is muted but always present for which we don’t have many explanations since I think the reality is often more arbitrary than we can reveal in a tight screenplay. What struck me in Port-au-Prince was that anything could happen, happy or unfortunate accidents, wonderful encounters or sudden gunfire, a mix of softness and violence. I tried to show this arbitrariness of events in people’s lives and that we can suddenly be involved in something more dangerous that we could have first imagined.

How did you choose your trio of actresses?
The silhouettes drew themselves as soon as I started to think about the film, and, without premeditation, an image that greatly resembled Charlotte Rampling appeared. I met her before writing the screenplay, we talked and she asked all the questions that I needed to be asked. On reading the screenplay, she felt that her character would not be easy to carry off, not very sympathetic at the start and weak at the end. But she said yes and even accepted that the film be put back by a year, since we were supposed to film at the start of 2003 when Aristide was deposed. Karen Young, I discovered at a typical casting in New York. As for Louise Portal, I saw her in films by Denys Arcand and she had the vitality of this character who forms a counterpoint to the stories of the other two women.

Were you surprised by the award for best Newcomer at Venice for Menothy Cesar?
He created a formidable character. He had never seen a film camera, had no technique behind him, but from the first test, I had the feeling that he was a real actor. From his first improvisation, he had the rhythm, he knew when to stop, even knew how to hold a silence which is very rare for a non-professional. He has a kind of grace and ease which he manages to retain in front of the camera.

Where did the idea of monologues facing the camera come from, something we rarely see in contemporary cinema?
The monologues came almost at the start of writing, because it respects the construction of the novel by Dany Laferrière: successive evidence by these women which recounts a story that becomes clearer, bit by bit. I wanted to retain this almost literary aspect and also, since the film deals with a taboo subject, women’s desires, it seemed important to me not only to see them living but to hear their own words as if from an intimate journal which they are revealing to us.

How did you get through a shoot in such a difficult environment?
In the urban part, we had a very small crew and we had to have total flexibility, go where we could when we could. The first day, gunfire went off close to us and I thought that we should leave but the crew agreed to stay on. As for the hotel, in the Dominican Republic, we had to juggle with terrible weather conditions. A certain number of scenes changed because of that, but that’s what I love about shooting: there are accidents, we are not masters of the world and it’s best to make the best of it rather than suffer.

What’s your next project about?
A small independent American production company is doing a series of films on the American Dream as seen by foreign directors. I proposed a project which I wanted to keep as fluid as long as possible so that I keep the maximum of liberty on the set, based on a plot I am currently working on. The theme will be New Orleans and the survivors of the cyclone, how they are trying to reconstruct, and how it has revealed things about American society today. Americans have rediscovered poverty in their country, and also segregation, the fact that Southern racism is still one of the foundations of their society.

Vers le Sud (2005) LM
L’Emploi du temps (2001) LM
Ressources humaines (1999) LM
Les Sanguinaires (1997) CM
Jeux de plage (1995) CM
Tous à la manif (1994) CM
Un été à Beyrouth (1990) Doc

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