‘Huppert sings!’ That’s how the Palm Springs International Film Festival earlier this month enthusiastically introduced Isabelle Huppert’s latest film, “Souvenir.” It’s obviously a wink to ‘Garbo Talks!’ (the marketing slogan of Garbo’s first talking picture, “Anna Christie,” 1930) and ‘Garbo Laughs!’ (“Ninotchka,” 1939). But most of all, it’s a thrill to see French actress Isabelle Huppert (b. 1953), radiant as always, playing Liliane, a.k.a. Laura, a former singer who in the mid-1970s finished second in the European Song Contest, losing to ABBA from Sweden, and who has since then retired from show business. Living as a hermit since then, disillusioned by life, she earns a living as a paté factory worker until she meets a much younger man she gradually embraces, as well as his optimism, and who tries to convince her to make a comeback.
Flemish filmmaker and co-screenwriter Bavo Defurne (b. 1971), who got rave reviews for his 2011 feature debut “North Sea Texas,” is the driving force behind this warm, sweet musical romance. Finding the perfect balance between comedy and drama—or what could even have turned into a melodrama—Mr. Defurne rather focuses on “Souvenir” as a movie about self-realization: “It is about being yourself and living the way you are. In the beginning of the movie, Liliane doesn’t really live the life she wants. She’s not really a factory worker, it doesn’t even feel right. I think “Souvenir” is an emotional story about your own identity. It can be light-hearted on the surface, but I’m also happy with what’s happening in the background. Sometimes in life, luck just passes by; you need to be open to it and grab it just like Liliane does.”
To me, “Souvenir” is highly appealing all the way. It captures the imagination of people the world over, and with the proper handling of the film’s marketing, it will endure for a long time, especially since this is the essence of a truly kind of honest and heartfelt filmmaking. In other words, for those who at this moment still may have any doubts whatsoever, after only two very fine features, filmmaker and screenwriter Bavo Defurne—deeply devoted to his craft—is ready to join the ranks of the giants on the European continent in the near future.
Mr. Defurne, you were recently invited to the 2017 Palm Springs International Film Festival in California to launch “Souvenir” in the US. What was the response like when the film got screened there?
The people who attend this Festival are not producers, critics, or people from the industry, but in Palm Springs, you get a cinephile audience that wants to see and discover new films. When I screened there my previous feature, “North Sea Texas” , I got the best crowd ever considering the way they reacted intellectually and emotionally, and now, with “Souvenir,” I had this magnificent experience all over again. The audience was stunning—during the end credits, they even applauded when a name appeared on the screen of someone they really appreciated. The Q&A after the screening was also very enjoyable.
Is it possible that the success of “Elle,” Isabelle Huppert’s other current U.S. film release, may have given “Souvenir” a boost in Palm Springs?
Yes and no. The U.S. success of “Elle” has undoubtedly been important to Isabelle. I remember when we started casting “Souvenir” a few years ago, she was—and had been for many decades already—one of France’s most important, solid, and enduring leading ladies, but still merely an icon for cinephile audiences and more restricted to the art house circuit, I think. Curiously, she was not as widely recognized by the large or mainstream audience as she is today, after all the awards she has won recently for her performance in “Elle.” Now, everybody knows who she is—at last—also the people who go to the grocery store behind the corner know her by now. So that’s terribly important: she is now generally and widely recognized for her incredible contribution to her art form. I am very glad for her that “Elle” is doing so well and wins numerous awards, but let’s not forget that “Souvenir” is an entirely different film. People now expect that our film is in the same category as “Elle”—the same genre, the same style—and they think Isabelle plays a similar part as she did in “Elle.” I recently had dinner with Paul Verhoeven [Dutch director of “Elle”], I admire and respect his work tremendously, but it is impossible to put “Elle” right next to “Souvenir” which basically is more like an optimistic fairy-tale and so it can’t be compared at all with the hard and cynical world of “Elle.” But that’s also the joy of working with Isabelle: she is so talented and can bring so much to a part that you can discover a different Isabelle Huppert in “Souvenir.”
Why did you cast her, and not, for example, Catherine Deneuve or Juliette Binoche?
I think it has to do with the character of Liliane: she’s not a very social woman, she doesn’t even have a small circle of friends, no relatives, and that’s how the world knows Isabelle pretty much because of several characters she has played. Except in France, though, because there she’s very well-known for a much wider variety of roles and genres she did over the years, including romantic comedies, for example. But in the European art house circuit, up until now, she is still appreciated and remembered very vividly for her work with Michael Haneke [“Le pianiste,” 2001; “Le temps du loup,” 2003; “Amour,” 2012]. So that’s the kind of lonesome character I had in mind when I initially started “Souvenir,” and then the character of Liliane gradually opens up, she goes through a whole metamorphosis when she falls in love, music is an important part in her life once again, and she becomes an entirely different, kind-hearted and loving woman. You start with a character you’re familiar with at first, and you end up with a character that’s totally different and slightly unknown to you. With the huge age difference between Liliane and this young, aspiring boxer [character played by Kévin Azaïs], it turns out to be something beautiful and extremely well-acted. Their romance had to be credible and worthwhile so that in your fantasy world if you were standing in the shoes of this young boxer, you’d be able to think, ‘Why not me?’ That was very important to me.
You are a true actor’s director, aren’t you? A set with a room, a table and two chairs, is basically all you need to tell your story and then let the actors take it over from there.
[Laughs.] I do love working with actors. In my previous shorts and my first feature, “North Sea Texas,” I worked primarily with adolescents and people who hardly had any professional acting experience. Then you get a living legend like Isabelle Huppert on the set of “Souvenir”—she even played the younger sister of Romy Schneider [in Claude Sautet’s “César et Rosalie,” 1972] by the time I was born, can you imagine! That’s a different approach and an interesting learning process for me; you have to realize I always adjust to the actors I work with; I give them a lot of creative freedom to make themselves feel comfortable enough to give you the best performance possible. Isabelle, on the other hand, will only ask a few questions from time to time. She masters her craft so beautifully that when she, for example, opens a door or picks up a glass of water, she does it on an emotional level which is always new, refreshing and surprising—without ignoring the director. Because whenever I talked to her about something she had to do in a certain scene, she listened very carefully, and in the end, she always gave more than what I expected or hoped for. She has a great way to respond to simple things and bring something magical to them. Really incredible. Sometimes I was watching her with my script-girl very quietly in the corner of the set, and we said to one another, ‘Jesus, what a professional lady she is.’ She sees everything; she understands everything, you never lose any time with her.
I also admire how you handle Ms. Huppert’s close-ups. Each one of them is valuable and precious. They remind me of the way film directors like Rouben Mamoulian or George Cukor made their close-ups of Greta Garbo in screen classics such as “Queen Christina”  or “Camille” .
I think that’s one of the main reasons why Isabelle wanted to work with me. She had seen everything I had done, and when we first got together, she asked me a lot of questions about my working method with my actors, how I shoot my scenes. I think that one of her reasons to choose the directors she ultimately works with, has to do with how she will appear on the screen. You know, as a film director, you’re responsible for creating an atmosphere of confidence and a safe environment for your actors. If you do that, they feel secure enough to show and explore their most vulnerable emotions, even unusually and most unexpectedly. Because of this mutual trust, the actors realize that the director will focus on this vulnerability to show these emotions and tell his story as accurately and honestly as possible. If a director should ignore this crucial phase in his approach towards his actors, the performances will lose their emotional value and strength. So I am glad Isabelle trusted me completely, which resulted in a wonderful performance of hers.
How did you cast the principal roles for “Souvenir”? When Stephen Frears made “Dirty Pretty Things”  with Audrey Tautou, who hardly spoke any English at the time, he had said, ‘I only cast faces.’ And so he decided to work with Ms. Tautou because her face was what he was looking for, and it worked out beautifully. What about you? How did you cast your principal roles?
The screenplay was written by Jacques Boon, Yves Verbraeken [also the film’s producer] and myself and we used a bulletin board to put up pictures of actors, the type of actors that we were looking for. We started with Isabelle—even during the writing process, we had her in mind—but at the same time, we were realistic enough to keep our feet on the ground because who could ever have thought that she would appear in “Souvenir”? But then, one day, our casting agent in Paris said to me, ‘Okay, Bavo, there are only a few possibilities left, now we really need to contact someone, and you have to make a choice.’ So I said to get in touch with Isabelle, she was our first choice. But when you talk about casting faces, in a way that is true, you know. When we were working on the relationship between the mature woman and the young boxer, we even had compilations of photographs on our board of “The Graduate” [1967, relationship Anne Bancroft with Dustin Hoffman] and “Sunset Boulevard” [1950, Gloria Swanson with William Holden], just to have a clear and open mind—how do you look at the faces of these women and the young men they’re involved with? It’s a long process of putting up pictures and replacing them with pictures of other actors, if possible all according to their age. And Isabelle’s picture stayed there the whole time, and as funny as it may seem, when we were casting the part of the young boxer, ten actors read for the part, and I immediately chose Kévin Azaïs. Later on, Yves Verbraeken told me, ‘But you had his picture there for months.’ I just had forgotten all about it. So yes, maybe next time I should use stills to do my entire casting because it’s an interesting procedure that seems to work out fine with me.
You know film history, don’t you? Using “The Graduate” and “Sunset Boulevard” as points of reference, would you consider yourself a film buff?
Not really, because whenever I see a movie, I look at it from the point of view of a director. So I’m always working when I watch a movie. I’m not relaxed, let’s put it this way, but it does fascinate me a lot to see the work of Sergei Eisenstein, F.W. Murnau, Carl Dreyer, Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, or all the films of Marlene Dietrich which I know almost by heart. It’s very inspirational to see what they did and how they did it: it almost looks like a craft that’s slowly disappearing. They used film as their art to express themselves. Their combination of image and sound—not only dialogue, but also soundtrack and so on—was the ultimate form of expression, and that’s really what it’s all about. Actresses just didn’t put on any dress; there was a special reason why they chose that particular dress, just like the importance of the color of the wall in the background, for example. That’s one of the things in film that really fascinates and inspires me. As a director, it’s your job to do justice to film as an art, you know.
But isn’t that’s what you do? “Souvenir” is a very well-balanced, nice, sweet, and heart-warming musical romance, made in an era when the multiplex theatres are screening blockbusters such as “Iron Man 3” or “Batman v Superman.” It must take a lot of courage on your part, and on top of that, as a Flemish filmmaker, you get to cast Isabelle Huppert right away in your second feature.
Well, she really loves cinema, and she has worked with several of the best French film directors like Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard. She doesn’t brag about it at all; she even doesn’t talk that much—she just loves to work. I learned an awful lot from working with her, and I think of myself as a much better director now than I was before we started shooting “Souvenir.” If you pay close attention to Isabelle, how she works on the set, how her brilliant mind functions, she gives you so much knowledge, you know. I am very grateful for that. Looking at the way she simply opens a door and makes it an expressive and unforgettable highlight on the set, can you imagine how incredible that is? I could write pages and pages about it, analyzing it, and what the impact is of how this very professional, highly experienced, and skilled actress is a God’s gift on your film set. And she absorbs all the information you give her right away: you tell her something, and she simply doesn’t forget it. Very accurate and always to the point.
If you watch any of your movies again, can you enjoy them, or do you see any flaws that might upset you?
I’m a perfectionist, so when I see “Souvenir” at a festival, I do think, ‘If I only could do that again,’ or, ‘If I had a little more time then, we could have done it slightly differently…’ But you always have to be realistic: no matter what your budget is, your artistic dream will always have its restrictions. I was very fortunate and appreciative when I had Isabelle the whole time by my side, also when she defended me while meeting with our financiers and co-producers, explaining to them how much she liked my style, the way I worked, and the story I was telling. I remember I had asked Paul Verhoeven what his shooting schedule of “Elle” was like, and if I’m correct, he had something like seventy days, while we had thirty days of shooting. If we would have had more time, we could have gone further, do some extra close-ups we couldn’t do now, pay more attention to certain details we had to overlook. And although those are often details that an audience might not even notice, if I were to do “Souvenir” all over again, there would be some adjustments altogether.
There’s no real reference to any location, place, or city in “Souvenir.” The location in the story is less important than the story you are telling, isn’t it?
We shot one week in Wallonia [the French-speaking part of Belgium], near the city of Liège, and five weeks in Luxembourg—because of technical and financial reasons obviously, since a large portion of the budget came from Luxembourg. But my philosophy is that a film is located in a country that’s called cinema. My films don’t deal with a specific location, they focus on emotional truth and emotional reality, and need to be truthful. So the exact location is of less importance to me. The cars in “Souvenir” even had fictitious license plates. A lot of films do have a specific and very recognizable location, probably to give a certain value or truth to it, relating to the ‘here and now’ of the story, but I prefer the opposite. I like to make a film in a world entirely of its own, located within our emotional consciousness and not in any way connected with our geographical realism. It is less relevant to me. People have asked me that question before during a Q&A here and there; I do it instinctively because that’s how I think, and consequently, I feel this is the way to express myself as good as I can. You know, years ago we had the cinéma vérité, when filmmakers started to use lighter cameras, put them on their shoulders, and they could shoot the social reality in the streets. That was very interesting back then, but times have changed in the meantime. We have YouTube, the social media, cell phones—we live in a whole different world now. Cinéma vérité doesn’t have the freshness it had fifty years ago, and even though I appreciate that style which has produced a lot of great films, I’m not tempted to go in that direction in any way. Cinéma vérité has been done, and so if I want to make a film now, it is because it is something that I have not seen up until now, you know. That’s what every filmmaker has in mind: to create images or tell a story that hasn’t been told before.
Is it difficult to get your films financed?
Yes, it is. In my mind, I have made many more films than the two I did. Because of the long process of financing a film, it is possible you look at things differently than when you first wrote the script so long ago. A screenplay is a reflection of how you look at the world, but if it takes a few years to fund your film and your view has changed, do you also need to change your script in the end? It is something you should take into consideration, don’t you think?
January 24, 2017
“Souvenir” (2016, trailer)
NOORDZEE, TEXAS, a.k.a. NORTH SEA TEXAS (2011) DIR Bavo Defurne PROD Yves Verbraeken SCR Bavo Defurne, Yves Verbraeken (novel by André Sollie) CAM Anton Mertens ED Els Voorspoels MUS Adriano Cominotto CAST Ben Van den Heuvel, Eva van der Gucht, Thomas Coumans, Katelijne Damen, Nathan Naenen, Noor Ben Taouet, Luk Wyns
SOUVENIR (2016) DIR Bavo Defurne PROD Yves Verbraeken SCR Bavo Defurne, Yves Verbraeken, Jacques Boon CAM Philippe Guilbert MUS Pink Martini CAST Isabelle Huppert, Kévin Azaïs, Johan Leysen, Jan Hammenecker, Anne Broinne, Sophie Mousel, Benjamin Boutboul