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Romain Gavras: Seeing Red

In the current issue of Dazed & Confused, we speak to the controversy-baiting director Romain Gavras about his debut feature being screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

When it comes to world cinema there is perhaps no greater contender for the title of enfant terrible than director Romain Gavras – the heavily bearded, wild-haired son of political auteur Costa-Gavras (who was responsible for some of the most controversial films to come out of France in the last 40 years). Given such celluloid-heavy family heritage, it is perhaps no surprise that Gavras Jr took the world by storm three years ago with the ultra-violent music video for the Justice track “Stress”, in which a gang of black teens from Paris’s impoverished banlieu terrorised the populace of the capital as they rampaged though its streets. Released without fanfare on YouTube, the video stirred up a veritable shitstorm of controversy, with people left none the wiser by the radio silence from its creator as to whether it was a comment upon racism and class war, or more simply an indulgent celebration of gang violence. His follow-up for MIA’s “Born Free”, in which he portrayed a private army brutally annihilating redheads, was also celebrated and vilified in equal measure for its depiction of extreme violence with the lack of any distinguishable moral stance from the man behind the camera.

This month, Gavras’s first full-length feature is finally screened in the UK at the Edinburgh Independent Film Festival, and it explores the identity crisis of two redheaded men struggling to find their place in a bleak alternative reality in which they are hated by all and sundry for their decidedly auburn aspect. Starring his lifelong friend Vincent Cassel and newcomer Olivier Barthelemy as the two troubled protagonists, Our Day Will Come is a bizarre road trip that resolves itself in a tragedy of classical dimensions. Following the same raison d’etre of moral distance in terms of its message as Gavras’s music video work, the film will come as a surprise to those familiar with his output in its significant lack of violence. In fact, Our Day Will Come is an understated and uncomfortably surreal affair, which follows a dream logic entirely the directors’ own. The ever-controversial Gavras recently acquiesced to meet us in a London café to discuss identity, nihilism and the confusion that drives the beating heart of his art.

Dazed & Confused: Your father is a highly respected filmmaker. What made you want to plough a similar furrow in life?
Romain Gavras:
I have never really asked myself that question. It’s true that my whole family is in filmmaking, and my dad was always showing me really weird and intellectual films by people like Tarkovsky when I was like, seven. Watching something like Solaris very young is quite an intense experience, so I guess the interest was always there early on. When I became a teenager,
I rejected all of that. I was a bit of a brat, and it became more about Die Hard, and shit like that. I didn’t really come back to watching interesting films until my late-teens.

Who are the filmmakers that have been the biggest influences on you?
I don’t know. (Laughs) I still like films like Die Hard. There are a lot of things that influence me… I don’t want to compare my film to anything else, but I love some of Fellini’s films because they’re fun and poetic, but at the same time they’re really tragic. I like reading stuff like Celine too, because it’s really dark but enjoyable, in a very weird way. I wanted to make my first film very different – my hope is that it is not like anything you’ve seen before.

It’s quite unique. The atmosphere of the film is almost surreal…
It definitely has that surrealist vibe. I wanted the audience to feel confused and to make a film that sort of stayed with them after they had seen it. I don’t like it when a filmmaker takes you by the hand and treats you like a spectator. It’s true that sometimes you can cut yourself off from a large part of the audience by not explaining everything but it was my first film – I wanted to do something that belonged to me. It’s like the scene with the red-haired girl. To be honest, I have no idea why I had her in the script, but I knew she had to be in there. My co-producer was like, ‘You’ve got to take her out, man. I don’t understand why she’s there! It’s too weird!’ But I just knew this scene had to be in the film, so I went and hung out near schools waiting for chubby red-haired girls to come out. (Laughs) I have a beard and I had a big coat on… It made me look really weird! Anyway, I found this girl outside of a playground. It was a strange moment because I really knew it was meant to be her. I can’t put words to it exactly, but when she came to the set everybody was like, ‘Okaaay, now we understand why she needs to here – we completely understand why she is in the film.’

Does the surreal atmosphere of the film reflect the confusion going on in the minds of the two main characters?
Yeah. I mean, the concept was basically to take a very absurd subject – such as two redheads wanting to create a utopia – but to treat it very, very seriously. In order to reflect the confusion of the characters and of their impossible quest, you have to make a confusing film, and making a confusing film is basically like shooting yourself in the foot. (Laughs) I mean, most people like going from A to B in a straight line! It was very important to me to reflect that inner haze of confusion, though. The mood
reflects their mind, it reflects their quest… it reflects everything.

The film seems to be making a comment that your identity is pretty much just what other people project on to you…
It’s a weird thing with identity because it definitely depends on how people look at you. There is a tricky thing going on – your identity is not just who you are, but it’s what you look like to other people. In the film, there is a quest for these two characters to find their identity – to find where they belong in their sexual identity, in everything – and I think that is why it’s a quest that goes nowhere. I don’t want to say hippie shit, but if you don’t embrace the fact that you have to get over your ‘identity’ then you will always go deeper and deeper into an absurd mode, and that is why these characters take it
to the extreme.

It’s certainly a film about outsiders. Did you feel like an outsider as a young man?
I was not a shy outcast at all when I was young; I was more of a dickhead bully. I did have some issues with identity though as someone who is half-French, half-Greek. I suppose every teenager feels outcast in some way and has an inner violence. In the film, it’s pretty extreme. The main character is a complete outcast and when the anger bursts out, he becomes really crazy. The guy who plays him is actually a childhood friend of mine, and what I like is that he’s a tough guy in real life – he’s a boxer and was always getting into fights. He lost a lot of weight for the film and during the whole shoot he was really weird and really fragile – really into his character. The combination of him and Vincent works really well. In a way, it’s a buddy movie, but they’re not really friends – there is just something that happens between them.

What do you think is so special about Vincent Cassel?
I think what’s good with Vincent is that he’s a huge actor but at the same time, he will always try to finance films like mine. He’s a sex symbol in France but he has such a weird fucking face – he has like, this mean thing going on and tenderness at the same time. (Laughs) I’m going to sound very gay but he has a very unique charisma and that’s what I like about him. He’s a very generous man to put himself in danger with a film like this.

He certainly looks pretty damn dangerous when he shaves his eyebrows and hair off…
Oh yeah, he looked very, very strange… And that was really happening in the film. There is real blood. The two of them actually didn’t want to do it. We shot that sequence towards the end and during the whole film they were both like, ‘Oh, so we’re going to use CGI?’ I don’t know what I said but somehow I convinced them both to do it and they looked fucking great. Vincent actually went to Cannes with his face like that.

Do you think fans of your ultra-violent videos for MIA and Justice will be surprised at how understated the mood of the film is?
I think so. I mean, it’s really not that violent. There’s almost no violence in it. There are some very unsettling scenes but it’s not like it’s an action movie. In France, I think people were surprised by the fact it’s very subtle and soft and… emo. (Laughs) I don’t mean emo in the sense of a band putting on eyeliner and having weird hair, but in the sense  of it being very emotional. I wanted to do something quite unexpected. It starts quite dark but it ends up being a very tragic and romantic film, you know? I didn’t want to make something crazy violent. I wanted to say something quite universal that everyone could relate to, which is why I used redheads – a minority that aren’t discriminated against in reality.

There is a sense of violence in the brutality of the industrial landscape though – it’s an incredibly bleak vision…
It’s quite a universal landscape – it could be England, it could be Belgium, it could be Germany… I wanted the landscape to be apocalyptic because it’s like what’s going on in their minds. They have no future and, without knowing it, they’re becoming completely nihilistic. The landscape of Northern France where the film was shot is exactly like that – it’s like, all in the past and full of closed factories. We live in a very nihilistic era, and I want to convey that in some way.

Film stills from OUR DAY WILL COME - which will be showing at the ICA from next Thursday July 28th – August 18th. A preview screening will be shown on July 28th at 8.30pm introduced by Romain Gavras, followed by an extended Q&A with Vincent Cassel and Romain.