When the play he was to stage with the Comédie Française troupe was canceled due to confinement, Christophe Honoré gave birth to the cheerful “Guermantes”, which he evokes at our microphone.
Guermantes is the story of a play that did not take place, confinement requires. But who knows a second life on the big screen. Directed by Christophe Honoré, who was to stage the Comédie Française troupe in this adaptation of Marcel Proust’s “Du Côté de Guermantes”, the feature film tells how, faced with the cancellation, the team continued to play despite everything, for the beauty, the softness and the pleasure of staying together.
And it is a stone’s throw from the Théâtre Marigny, where most of the story takes place, that we find the director to discuss this film halfway between fiction and reality, broadcast on France 5 a few days before its release. in theaters.
AlloCiné: If we easily understand what motivated the project, who had the idea? Was there a trigger? Christophe Honoré: It really came from outside. It was France Télévisions which proposed to the Comédie Française, at the time of the first confinement, to record their plays. By evoking in particular the fact that filmmakers were then theater directors for them at that time.
The Comédie Française offered me that, but making a recording does not make me dream. And above all we had not created the show, since we had been interrupted at the time of the first confinement. So I first said no. But they were a little pushy, telling me that I had the right to do whatever I wanted. And that’s something that, for a filmmaker, never happens again. That is to say that, suddenly, you are given the possibility of making a kind of spontaneous gesture, even if it was on a very particular scale of production.
They confirmed to me that I had the right to do whatever I wanted at the end of June , we shot a fortnight – three weeks later. There was a kind of unexpected momentum for me. Like everyone else, I was in a period when I was doing nothing by force of circumstances, where nothing was possible. I know that some filmmakers and writers saw this period of isolation as a privileged moment to start creating. But me, from the moment when it was an imposed time, I could not do anything. Really nothing.
So there was something unexpected and uncertain that I liked. The unexpected and the uncertain are really parameters that no longer exist in cinema. You spend months trying to convince people that your script is worth making into a movie, and there is always a waiting moment to shoot that is very laborious. There it was enough to rush into the open door, but it was not I who asked to open it. It was really opened in front of me.
So it was planned from the start that the film would be broadcast on France Télévisions before being released in theaters? Or the passage by the cinemas was decided in a second step? The exit was decided later. We made the film and then, with my editor [Chantal Hymans], we worked on it in August, and we ended up with this film. And I still got my film producer on board to structure this shoot a bit, and I think he was surprised by the film. Because for him too, as a producer, it’s rare to see a film without having read a script (laughs) And we had shot ten days without knowing at all what we had done.
So he discovered the film without knowing what it was going to be. And with his astonishment and the somewhat new character of the film, he told me that we could offer it to Memento, who had distributed my previous film [Room 212]. They saw it and told us that if France Télévisions agreed, they were ready to play the game. Let the channel broadcast it, but that it would be good if it was screened in theaters. This is how the opportunity to present it on the big screen came.
When you say your producer didn’t know what the movie was going to look like, is it because it was written day by day? Yes, there was no script. I had a few pages of notes and, above all, I had communicated a lot, from a distance, with each of the actors. So the film was not quite invented from day to day, but it still did not structure itself in sequences with learned dialogues. We were filming at the Théâtre de Marigny. I would arrive in the morning and, in general, I would summon the actors I wanted to shoot in the morning, explaining the situation to them and what I wanted them to tell.
I would sometimes hand out a sentence or two, explaining that I really wanted this to be said at some point. And then we embarked on an improvisation. My cinematographer was not sure who was going to speak, so the camera was necessarily on the shoulder. The grammar of the film was dictated by its production method. We kept going like that until 11 p.m., and we did that in a few days in July. I had a bit of the story in mind, and filmmakers don’t have to write a script to have it in mind anyway.
It doesn’t help me, but I’m not saying I can do without a script either. It’s just that, compared to what I want to tell, the form of the script is always more than transitory. You write a script to reassure others, but not to reassure yourself as a filmmaker. Because we know very well what we are going to tell. This was also the case here. And what was nice was having a troupe without any restraint, to whom I told that I wanted to film them up close, whereas in the theater I watch them from afar when I put them on stage. Things then unfolded naturally.
Have you ever worked like this in the cinema? Not so much in the cinema, but I work a lot like that in the theater when I direct [“The Idols”, “Before the end of the story” or “New novel”, editor’s note]. What we call stage writing: the text is not written at all at the start of the rehearsals. There is a lot of dramaturgical work and documentation then, day after day, I ask the actors to improvise, I generally film them. Then I transcribe the improvisations, and it is from there that I write the text.
So I imported into a film this working method that I had experienced in the theater. But this is really the first time, even if it can happen, over two months of filming, afternoons where you allow yourself to shoot things that are not planned in the script, and where you bring the actors, either to improvise on the text, or to improvise on the situation. It’s always a desire with me – a bit of an obsession even – to make the shoots escape the script.
There is nothing that makes me sadder than a day of filming where I feel like I have executed the pages of a script, where each line corresponds to a shot. In general, the shots that you are happy with at the end of the day are always the shots that you had not imagined and where suddenly, because there is a light, an actor who does something and an actress who does something. says something, you decide to change what was planned.
This does not mean that these plans will be kept at the time of editing. Often times the grace you have on set you see it and don’t quite understand why you were so excited to do this. But in any case, it gives that impression. And there is this real discipline for me, to tell myself that a film happens during the shooting. It must not happen to the scenario. What seems to me to be cinema is when there is something that escapes the narrative, literature, illustration, visual and which only belongs to the cinema. And these are often things that you can do in the present day of a shooting day.
Exactly like a painter who starts to do something, goes wrong with color and realizes that it is more interesting that way. Or, for example, in writing: in the middle of a chapter, a digression takes us elsewhere, and literature invades us, settles down and reigns over what we have written.
There are digressions in the film, and they recall Proust’s writing. We feel that his influence went beyond the subject. Yes, we all had a fairly Proustian year. Because being prevented, confined, and having a fairly anxiety-provoking world around us, it’s a very Proustian mood. It should not be forgotten that a large part of “In Search of Lost Time” was written in a bedroom during the First World War. People often have a lot of common places about Proust, but very often they forget this idea of the threat. “La Recherche” is a book constantly threatened by reality. The feeling of wanting to master something responds to this threat, and it’s true that the film responds to that.
There is a trace of it. During the first confinement, like everyone else, I was a little depressed and a doctor I knew contacted me telling me that artists had to come to the hospital to film all this. Beyond the question of potentially putting people at risk, I wasn’t sure filmmakers were the best people to film. I do not know this environment, I am going to arrive with a poor little camera, I am going to put myself in a corner, but I do not know anything about it. We also talked a lot about the place of an artist facing reality.
In the end, it was the administration that said no, but I believe that the film is a response to this request from the doctors. And it is precisely the one with whom I had discussed with whom I have an interview in the film, when he tells me his regret that I did not come to film. That’s why I wanted to put this very documentary sequence in the film. Because for me, that’s an answer to that.
Because that, I can film it. I can succeed in making a theater troupe stuck on a set in Marigny a metaphor for the moods, feelings and ideas that went through us during confinement. Much more than being able to testify for other people, to speak for other people. It’s always something that gives me a lot of problems and questions as a filmmaker.
And to come back to your question on the digressions, it is true that the film works like paperolles [strips of paper rolled up on themselves and fixed on a support, note]: we write a scene then there is a scene satellite, which itself has a satellite scene. And I never stopped, as I had no script to follow, to add little things to what we had shot. I was in this rather endless profusion, which made the film quite long and had to last an hour longer at the beginning. I suddenly had immense material. And in a way, Proust inspired us in his way of constructing the narrative.
And we find the first name Marcel in two of the books you wrote. Was it already a reference to Proust? It’s quite funny, because when I write my first children’s book, “Tout contre Léo”, the first sentence is “P’tit Marcel qui m’appelle” , and I thought about that. But obviously at the time I published it nobody thought that in a children’s book I would allow myself to do this. And the book had something distant, but unconscious, since I was re-staging my own childhood in Brittany, with my brothers. It was really at the time of the “Idols” that I immersed myself a lot, a lot in Proust. Even before working on Guermantes.
When I see Pleasing, loving and running fast, I can tell I was reading Prosut. Same thing when I wrote the script for Chamber 212. It’s a pretty weird thing. Something about age too: I think there is an age when you like to be completely in resonance with the contemporary, with all the triviality that entails. I believe that one of the markers of the fact that you get older, beyond the fact that you gain fat and gray hair, is also that at some point you end up devoting your time to artistic objects that fill you up and allow you to live more strongly.
We imagine that the casting phase has never been easier for you than on this film. Yes: the actors were already there, so I had to take them. What was difficult was that I had made a commitment to them so that they all had the same score. But you will notice that there are sixteen of them and that there is no leading role, which is pretty much impossible in a movie. You cannot give sixteen scores when writing a screenplay, even in choral films. They don’t work like that.
And an imbalance can also be created during editing. The actors had given me a lot through improvisations – they would also be entitled to claim royalties from me. The majority of the dialogues that are in the film, they are the ones who invented them. So everyone has roughly the same speaking time. It’s like in a televised debate, and I tried to be very vigilant about it. That they all fully exist in the film Which gives the viewer an almost scattered character, and makes us wonder what we are being told.
But, in my opinion, it ends up being pleasant because it gives the impression that anything can happen, since you continually go from one character to another. And above all, there are a lot of collective scenes. It is rare that you can stage in the same shot, the same sequence, fifteen people. And that these fifteen people speak and exist for real.
One of the big news is that you play in it yourself. You could have said that I play wonderfully in it (laughs) I admit that at first I thought I was asking someone. But I quickly realized that I was not going to be able to have a kind of contract with the actors, to play with their own identity and to put someone in them who is not the director of the play. So I asked them for permission and, out of kindness, they obviously said yes. But it put me in a very vulnerable state. Because it’s not something I can do. I am incompetent for this. If I am a filmmaker, it is certainly because I prefer to watch other people rather than show myself.
I assume my status as a voyeur and absolutely do not feel an exhibitionist. It was very strange since it was the shoot where I was the least stressed, strangely. It was quite happy, because as I was with them, I felt like I was sharing the responsibility of the project with everyone. Whereas usually it’s not that much. It was also weird, because in general it’s you who reassure the actors. When we did improvisations, they were the ones who reassured me when I thought that what I had done was bad, while giving me advice.
There was like a shared and reversed authority, which, suddenly, freed me a lot. And I found that very pleasant. Quite disturbing too, because it’s a question that I ask myself a lot, the question of the power of the director. It’s really something that embarrasses a lot and that I use, like all directors, because it’s impossible to escape his power as a director, and in addition you have teams. where everyone is supposedly at your service and expects you to lead them. We are also talking about the direction of actors.
We know that from the moment we have power, abuses are very easy, and that we always forgive the director for his excesses, his whims, his bad faith. But there, strangely, finding myself in front of the camera, it moved me. And I think that helped make the mood of the film lighter and more cheerful. In a kind of tenderness.
Did the film have any influence on how you put the play on stage, once you finally got to play it? In the directing, not that much. Except that it is. It’s not true. Because Claude Mathieu, who is the dean, when we resumed rehearsals, told us that she was at an age at which she could not afford to rehearse without a mask. So I answered her that she would still be in the show, because we would screen the death of the grandmother, which you had filmed during the summer. This is a very important episode of “On the side of Guermantes”, and we had not planned that it be of the video.
Then it created very strong relationships and bonds between the actors and me. When you are at the Comédie Française, you are invited, you are not the one proposing a play. Éric Ruf, who directs the Comédie Française, offers directors. So you come in, you don’t know the actors, you work six to seven weeks with them, you do a play and then you go and they do what they want with the play. Even if it goes very well, you are in a fairly detached relationship anyway.
There, I think that what we lived and relived – because we started to play it, but the second confinement interrupted us – created between us bonds of affection certainly stronger than if nothing had happened. . But I don’t think it really influenced me. The theatrical settings, insofar as the rehearsal times are quite short, you have to write them a lot beforehand. There is no thing where I told myself I was going to do it again differently.
The film mixes the true and the false: what proportion of the true and the fictitious is in “Guermantes?” Everything is true. Everything is true insofar as we were here, that we could not play, that there was the pandemic, that Elsa Lepoivre is called Elsa Lepoivre, that Serge Bagdassarian is called Serge Bagdassarian, and me by my first name. After that, just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s real. And that’s the whole problem in cinema: everything is true but told. And from the moment it’s told, you allow yourself everything. But just because the line between fiction and documentary seems indecisive doesn’t mean the actors can’t tell what they want. They choose the words.
And I’m not going to put them through the truth serum afterwards, to find out if what is told in the film is true, if Laurent [Lafitte] is really anguished with the trailer for his film [The Origin of the World , finally released on September 15, 2021, editor’s note]. It is a reflection of us. But in the present. And the real can sometimes be just as strong in fictionalized stories. Because, suddenly, an actor or an actress is going through a separation or the beginning of a love story during the filming, and that will come to nourish the fiction. In any case, cinema only works with the real thing.
So there, yes, it is certainly a little more disturbing for the spectator to decipher and to wonder if there is really a history between such and such person. But so much the better. I don’t have to deny or assert anything in fact. In any case, it was true that we were doing it.
You thank three filmmakers in the credits: Sofia Coppola, Wim Wenders and Jean Renoir. For what reasons? Because it is part of the viaticum that I gave to each of the actors. Before we met here, I gave them a bunch of clothes, I told them the colors of the clothes to take – because, of course, they chose their costumes from their wardrobe – and I asked them to see three films, which for me are three great films about actors: French Cancan by Renoir. The State of Things of Wenders, on this film crew which, at one point, stops filming and is on hold.
And Somewhere by Sofia Coppola which, for me, is perhaps one of the greatest films around the question “What is an actor when he’s not playing?” Me that interests me a lot. Actors and actresses interest me a lot, because they are very special lives. I think the actors interest me even more when they are not playing, when they are not between “Engine!” and “Cut!”, or between raising and lowering the curtain. And how they keep working in their real life. This is really what is at stake in French Cancan, because a show has to take place, but it stops and has to be done again in another place.
In the Wenders, it’s the same: it’s a film crew inactive, prevented. And then in Somewhere there is this boy who wanders in his hotel, in the relations with his daughter and who is not a very good actor. In the movie. But despite everything, all the little moments are moments of fiction. That’s what interests me and that’s why I thanked them in the credits.
Will the way of filming “Guermantes” have an influence on your next film? Everything always influences. You always do the films a bit in reaction to the project before. And as I also tend to do plays or opera productions between my films, everything takes me somewhere else. And Guermantes is also a sort of self-portrait of a director at work. It’s a film about Proust and the Comédie Française troupe, but I can also see that there is a self-portrait side to it. And my next film is very personal, so maybe I now allow myself to have a little less fictional doubles than in my first films.
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