A Chat with Xavier Giannoli…
A soft-spoken, affable interviewee, one wonders how Giannoli approached directing the force of nature that is GÉRARD DEPARDIEU? “I said to him, ‘I’m a better Depardieu than you are’!” Taking FilmExposed’s Andrew Pragasam completely by surprise, Giannoli suddenly leaps to his feet, adopts a hunch and demonstrates some remarkable Depardieu-as-Alain mannerisms. It is clear he knows his leading actor inside out, and as such, why he was able to bring Depardieu back to his genius form…
Gérard Depardieu’s fans have writer-director Giannoli to thank for providing the great actor with his finest role in recent years: Alain Moreau, a lonely, ageing, dance hall singer. One of the highlights of last year’s London Film Festival, Giannoli’s THE SINGER depicts Alain’s tentative romance with beautiful, young Marion (SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE’s Cécile De France). Don’t groan. This isn’t your typical ageing star pursues nubile hottie scenario, but the finest May-December romance since Lost in Translation (2003), genuinely tender, moving and funny.
Depardieu imbues a potential caricature with surprising dignity, something Giannoli extends to the dance hall milieu. A British film might have taken a campier, satirical approach. “That’s what I wanted to avoid”, says Giannoli. “It’s easy to be cynical, cruel, to look for kitsch, make fun of the way Alain wears tight trousers or dyes his hair blonde. But Alain carries himself with great dignity. He never pretends to be anything he’s not. A dance hall singer just wants people to have a good time.”
Through his research, Giannoli befriended real-life, dance hall performer, Alain Chanone (who cameos in The Singer). “He’s decent guy, intelligent… again without any pretences. He works an eight-hour night, on his feet the whole time. He understands the audience doesn’t come to see the singer. They come to dance.” Observing Chanone provided Giannoli with little details for his own creation. “He wears ladies’ jeans,” he laughs. “Because they’re tighter, you know?”
Giannoli’s eye for detail extends to the subtle interplay between his actors/characters. We follow Alain and Marion’s developing relationship through glances, gestures and movement as much as by dialogue. “For me, that is cinema. You’re looking for those certain, magical moments. Depardieu would ask (about the scene): ‘Is it alive?’ It isn’t about filming life; it’s about bringing the film to life. Harsh naturalism doesn’t interest me. A film that is personal is, by definition, stylised.”
Giannoli’s filmmaking methods are purely instinctive. “If something feels right then it is right.” He claims to find it a struggle, explaining why he made a film a certain way and what it is about the dance halls and the singer that fascinates him so. He offers an example by way of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974); a scene where a character wanders a field of waving grass captivated the young cineaste. “I thought wow, God was the assistant director! But years later, I watched a documentary where they showed how Tarkovsky used a helicopter to blow the grass, then cut the sound. That is the vulgarity of today. I’m sure Tarkovsky never wanted people to know that, but now when I watch this beautiful, magical scene, I think of the helicopter!”
This endearing reluctance to separate the magical from the mundane was expressed in Giannoli’s earlier, short film L’Interview (1998). Inspired by his early career as a film critic, it recounts a young journalist’s attempt to interview Ava Gardner. The aged love goddess refuses to leave her flat, so he conducts the whole interview via intercom. “He’s standing in the street, talking over the intercom about John Huston and Joseph Mankiewicz, asking for answers she can’t give. That’s the story of my life, my relationship with cinema!”