One time, I was at a festival in Toulouse and this guy had shown up to talk to me... This man couldn’t believe that he had been living with a serial killer.
Last year’s Cannes Film Festival was proof positive that the exuberance and ingenuity of Gallic cinema rests firmly in the hands of its new generation of talent. As part of its 20th anniversary edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema—co-chaired by beloved actress Nathalie Baye and living legend Martin Scorsese—uniFrance chose to showcase the up-and-coming filmmakers and their respective works driving this trend, notably Thomas Cailley’s debut Love at First Fight, which picked up three Directors’ Fortnight awards; Mélanie Laurent’s sophomore outing Breathe, a Queer Palm contender; Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq, Claire Burger and Samuel Theis’ Party Girl, the recipient of the Camera d’Or at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard; and Thomas Lilti’s Cannes Critics’ Week closer Hippocrates. But the Cannes connection aside, there’s another film at Rendez-Vous that demands our attention all the same: Frédéric Tellier’s SK1, starring Baye herself.
In the TV veteran’s debut feature, SK1, Tellier revisits the true story of “The Beast of Bastille,” a serial killer who brutally raped and murdered seven young women in the French capital throughout the ’90s. SK1 is French police jargon for “Serial Killer no.1,” a codename given to the culprit later identified as Guy Georges, the first killer to be convicted using DNA analysis in France. The procedural side of the decade-long manhunt takes a front seat in Tellier’s taut thriller, which stars Raphael Personnaz as Franck “Charlie” Magne, an obsessive investigator who finds his personal and professional lives upended by the case. Overcoming her initial reluctance, Frédérique Pons (Baye), the seasoned defense attorney who took a moral interest in acquitting Guy Georges, defends the man nobody wanted to defend. Baye, in her sensitive portrayal, aims to convince that there are no monsters, but only people, even if they commit the most heinous of crimes.
The 20th Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs from March 6 – 15. Here’s the full schedule.
In 2010, the Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a week-long retrospective of your select films. What was that experience like?
It’s a present to me, so it was great! But each time something like this happens, I feel very shy about it. On the one hand, it feels extremely wonderful because you get to show and talk about the films that they think is good, considering they participate in choosing what films to include in the selection. At the same time, I think it’s easier for directors to present their films instead of actors. I’m just one character in the larger picture, you know? I didn’t make those films.
Your career spans over seventy films now. That’s intimidating, too.
It’s always difficult when you have to choose from a lot of films. But there are certainly films that were particularly instrumental in allowing me to have the kind of career I’ve had. There are films that were essential to me. And there have been other films that have tremendous tenderness, and my fondness for those films informs the decision to include them. Then there are other films that, while they were good experiences, don’t necessarily fit into either of those categories.
When you’re on set shooting a film, do you generally know how it will turn out?
I can feel it. Sometimes I sense that a certain film is going to be very strong. Last July and August, I shot a Belgian film with a first-time filmmaker. His name is Antoine Cuypers and I’m quite sure he’s going to be an important director. The script was strong—almost perfect. But you never know, you see? I had seen a short film he made and that made me very curious. Other times, you can get disappointed during a shoot, especially if you see that the director doesn’t quite know how to communicate with the actors. With Antoine, the shoot was wonderful, and the cast was very good and very intelligent. But I haven’t seen it. He asked me if I wanted to see an early edit and I don’t. Sometimes I can get disappointed if the finished film is not what I imagined it to be. I’ve also realized over time that I’m able to see a film very clearly ten years later. Maybe I was disappointed by a film at first, but if I happen to catch it on TV or something like that many years later, sometimes I think, “Hey, that’s not too bad. It’s good!” [Laughs] It’s strange.
How did you end up working with Xavier Dolan on Laurence Anyways?
I met him in Montreal when they hosted a retrospective of my films. He wanted to see me. I had seen I Killed My Mother and Les amours imaginaires, so I knew he was very talented. When we met, he told me he wanted to work with me and that made me very happy. Xavier gave me a script to read and I loved it very much. Then he came to Paris where we had a long talk together. I remember thinking, “This guy is really incredible. He’s young, talented, very funny and clever.”
I’ve had several encounters with Xavier over the years and he’s like no one else I’ve ever met. What was it like to actually work with him on set?
On set, he’s just incredible. I remember when he was styling the set, everything was…too much! [Laughs] He found so much meaning in every detail. He does the clothes himself. When I arrived just before shooting, he would dress me up like I’m his Barbie. If I say, “I’m going to put on that sweater,” he will tell me, “No, you have to wear that skirt!” He was incredibly sweet to everyone, both the actors and the crew. And he knows actors perfectly well because he’s an actor, too. He also edited the film himself. I actually spent two days with him alone while he was editing something. With his Canadian accent, he’s just, oh my god. He’s so funny, you know? He’ll go, “What do you think about that?” and I tell him, “Yeah, why not?” He turns into a maniac with his buttons and five seconds later, the scene was done: “That looks better, righhhhhht?” And he talks to you while you’re acting: “No, no, no! Don’t cry. Cry now! More! More!” He’s just talking constantly. We filmed Laurence Anyways over two seasons, so when I came back three months later, he would tell me, “You know what? You were right. We’re going to shoot that scene again because it probably wasn’t a good idea. We’re going to do what you did before.”
Out of all the films on offer at Rendez-Vous this year, SK1 is a true standout for me. What attracted you to that particular film? It’s very dark!
There are two reasons why I accepted that film. First, I had already worked with Frédéric Tellier before. I appeared in four episodes of a TV series he co-created called Les hommes de l’ombre. I had a wonderful time with him on that. Secondly, I loved the choice my character makes in the film. I want to tell you, also, out of all the films not in the festival this year, I love Eastern Boys. The director of Eastern Boys is Robin Campillo. If you have the possibility to see that movie, it’s gorgeous. I’m not in the film… [Laughs]
I didn’t assume you were. It’s an honest recommendation.
I’m very objective. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t.
Do you remember what it was like when Guy Georges terrorized Paris in the ’90s?
Of course. The climate in Paris, especially for young women, was full of anxiety. That went on for ten years! For a time, he was put away, but when he got out, everything started up again.
Was it hysteria?
There’s no hysteria in France. That’s very American! [Laughs] There was panic, maybe. The parents were concerned. It was the parents telling their daughters to not go out at night by themselves. One time, I was at a festival in Toulouse and this guy had shown up to talk to me. SK1 wasn’t out yet, but he had known I was in a movie about Guy Georges. He told me Guy Georges had lived in a squat with him for two and a half years. It was the five of them: three men and two women. They were very close to him. So I asked him, “But what about the girls?” and he said, “Guy Georges was wonderful with them.” He was very protective of them and one of the girls actually visited him when he was in jail for five or six months. This man couldn’t believe that he had been living with a serial killer. It’s adaptive personality. It’s just incredible.
That is absolutely terrifying. Is your character based on a real person?
Yes, I met the real Maître Frédérique Pons and we had dinner together. But I didn’t try to replicate her exactly the way she is. She mostly shared conversations with Frédéric Tellier and I think he gave the film a very honest treatment. When he wrote the script and made the film, he stayed very true to all the people involved, including the victims’ families. He spent a lot of time with the policemen. It’s all very close to the facts.
Before dance and film, did you ever want to follow in your parents’ footsteps? I understand they were both painters.
Oh no. No, I wasn’t down for that. Painting may be the hardest work in the artistic world because you’re always alone. You’re very alone all the time. We had this one painter friend who only lived with his paintings. He was literally buried in a million paintings. It’s terrible. My poor parents painted their whole lives and it’s very difficult to live with that. A writer is alone, too, but it’s not quite the same. I took up ballet and acting, and you always have a partner for that. There’s a very lovely story about a father telling his daughter, “Okay, I’m leaving to go play,” and the girl says, “With who, Daddy?” In French, play also means work in acting.
How did you react when your daughter decided to follow in your footsteps?
In the beginning, it gave me anxiety because I know how hard it is. So many people want to become an actor and so few are chosen to do it. She started studying theater in school. One day, she wanted to read lines to me to make sure she didn’t make any mistakes, and she was absolutely correct. I thought to myself, “Okay, she’s good. Now we’ll see…”
You both star on this new series called Call My Agent! Did you share scenes together?
Yes, that was the first time we’ve ever acted together. She was terrified and I said, “I’m sorry, but at least I’m not the worst.” [Laughs] “I love you, but don’t stop yourself from being afraid.” She plays Laura Smet and I play Nathalie Baye, so we play ourselves. It’s about talent agents in Paris. We had a lot of fun with that. Cédric Klapisch is a wonderful director.
What big discoveries have you made under the tutelage of your directors?
It happened many, many times. I’ve been lucky because I’ve worked with so many wonderful directors like Truffaut, Godard, Spielberg, and all these people who fell in love with cinema. The thing is, before Truffaut came along, I only wanted to do theater. I never thought I would work in cinema. I didn’t dream about that. It’s day and night, you know? So I fell in love with cinema because of Truffaut. With Godard, I learned to be available. No make-up, no nothing, you just give him what he needs. Spielberg didn’t want to rehearse on Catch Me If You Can. Acting in another language was quite difficult for me. He has wonderful enthusiasm, which is great. When something goes well, he turns into a kid. He jumps around, so happy. Thanks to them, I’m still in love with my job. I’ve been doing this for forty years. I very often meet actors that, after twenty years, don’t care about making films anymore. They’re too busy thinking about the money. It’s like falling in love because keeping the passion alive takes a lot of work. It can be fleeting.