Billed as the ‘french Brokeback Mountain’, Olivier Peyon’s new film brings to life the power and pain of a gay teenage love affair
If you watch Lie With Me without any context, you might assume that its 54-year-old writer-director, Olivier Peyon, based the time-hopping French feature on his own life story. Such is the specificities of how a middle-aged author, Stéphane (Guillaume de Tonquédec), is still haunted by a teenage love affair, could it be any other way? As it is, Lie With Me is indeed drawn from reality, but from a piece of autofiction by the novelist Philippe Besson, the title of his book being Arrête avec tes mensonges – in English, it translates to Stop with Your Lies.
In Besson’s hit 2017 novel, Stéphane starts out as a shy schoolboy who embarks on a secret romance with Thomas, a closeted classmate known for dating girls. Around two-thirds in, the book then jumps several decades to Stéphane as a renowned novelist who’s written extensively about Thomas despite them losing contact at the age of 17. For the movie, though, Peyon repeatedly switches between both timelines, paying extra attention to Stéphane as a mournful grownup who’s bottled his emotions all these years.
“I’m lucky that Philippe loves the film,” remarks Peyon in Curzon Bloomsbury, shortly before introducing a preview screening in early August. “Philippe told me, ‘My novel is about the past and the silence. Your film is about the present and the power of talking.’”
Thus Peyon frames Lie With Me in the modern age, where Stéphane, played by an actor in his mid-50s, arrives in Cognac for a corporate gig. However, for Stéphane, these surroundings trigger memories of 1984, especially when he learns that he was invited by Thomas’s son Lucas, a pensive man who insists he hasn’t read any of Stéphane’s work – one of many fibs referenced by the film’s name. (In fact, the English title, Lie With Me, was a pun coined by Molly Ringwald, who translated Besson’s novel.)
Early on, Peyon and his cinematographer considered shooting the past in black-and-white and the present in colour to form a distinction. Instead, Stéphane and Thomas’s teen romance was filmed in summer and his mournful adulthood in winter. “But I didn’t want too much contrast,” Peyon clarifies. “I wanted fluidity between the two time periods. For Stéphane, his memories are also his life. When I think about my past, my memories are part of my present.”
In the 1984 sections, Stéphane is a bespectacled boy played by Jérémy Gillet, an introvert drawn to Julien De Saint Jean’s domineering Thomas. Outdoors, soaked in sun and sweat, the two teens ride bikes, make love, and then hope no one spotted them. Several decades later, Stéphane only needs to tread on certain spots in Cognac to be flooded by repressed emotions, both the positive and heartbreakingly negative ones.
As for gay teen romances set during the hottest months of France in 1984, one can go back three years to François Ozon’s Summer of ’85 – a film originally titled Summer of ’84, but renamed to appease The Cure’s Robert Smith in order to get “Inbetween Days” on the soundtrack. “François Ozon and Philippe Besson are the same age, so it’s not a surprise,” says Peyon. “But I’m two years younger, and was 15 in 1984. It was also my childhood. I was looking into my memories.”
As with all teen love stories, the casting is crucial, and Peyon landed upon his young duo when they were both around 20. Lie With Me, too, is complex and knotty, with the pair conveying not only the intense highs and lows of a first love, but also the internalised shame and fear that comes from a homophobic environment. “They read the book and loved it,” Peyon explains. “They also understood the meaning of the sex scenes, and that it was not just two young guys fucking each other.”
Beforehand, Peyon played certain films to his leads. “There’s a scene in [Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On] where it shows everything and nothing. I didn’t want, you know, a close-up on an arse.” At the actors’ request, day one of filming consisted of Stéphane and Thomas’s first sexual encounter. “The first one is quite harsh, then, step by step, the love is born out of tenderness. When I explained the meaning, they understood. Julian, who plays Thomas, gave me lots of ideas of how he wanted to fuck in the scene. It was really a collaboration.” The actors also watched playback in order to reconfigure body movements. “Jeremy would say, ‘Oh, I have to put my legs like this, and put my hand here.’ Then they’d do another take and be intense.”
For scenes set in the present, Peyon switched the setting from Barbezieux to Cognac, a decision based on the director having made a short documentary about the town, and the need for “action”. Crucially, Lie With Me establishes that, decades later in Cognac, Stéphane is still a victim of homophobia, albeit to a lesser extent than as a teenager. “The difference between 1984 and now is that, when you’re a young gay, you know you’re not alone,” says Peyon. “Philippe Besson said that when he was [younger], he thought he was the only one like that. Of course, there’s still lots of homophobia.”
“For me, the sex scenes were normal. I discovered it was harsh for a lot of straight people who weren’t used to it” – Oliver Peyon
In France, Peyon has discovered that Lie with Me has appealed, as expected, to a young gay audience, and also to young straight people – especially girls. However, a handful of viewers have informed him of their occasional discomfort. “A lot of old ladies were shocked by the [gay] sex scenes. They said they usually don’t like it, but now they understand it better.” In France? “Yes. They loved the film, so it was OK. For me, the sex scenes were normal. I discovered it was harsh for a lot of straight people who weren’t used to it.”
That’s a compliment, a sign that it’s not like how in Call Me By Your Name the camera shies away from gay sex? “Yes. I wouldn’t censor myself, because, in the book, the sex scenes are really important. I didn’t have the right to avoid those scenes, and, in truth, I was surprised by some audience reactions.”
Peyon has directed six films, most of them about actual people. As a writer-director, how much of himself does he instil into his work, even if something like Lie with Me is so overtly drawn from someone else’s life? “I love to use a real story, and put myself in it,” he says. “It’s not my story, but it could have been. I put lots of me into it.”
After competing with other directors to adapt the film, Peyon was granted carte blanche by Besson for the script. So much so, in an early draft, Peyon included only scenes set in the present moment, focusing solely on Stéphane as an adult and Lucas. However, he finally struck a balance. “Because, usually in films, I don’t like flashbacks,” Peyon explains. “But finally, because the novel was autobiographical, I said to myself, ‘You don’t have the right to not talk about this teenage love story.’ I’m happy, because, in the film, the past nourishes the present, and the present nourishes the past. I didn’t want to betray the spirit of the book.”
Lie with Me is out in UK cinemas and on digital from August 18