French screenwriter and film director Dominik Moll (b. 1962), who won a César for directing “Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien” (2000, a.k.a. “With a Friend Like Harry…”), has a new film out. “Seules les bêtes” (a.k.a. “Only the Animals”) is an intriguing, engrossing, and suspense whodunit with a seemingly simple plot. In a remote French farming mountain town, a woman disappears during a winter snowstorm, and subsequently, five people are caught up in a mystery that leaves you guessing until the film’s last twist before you can unravel what really happened.
One of those characters is played by French actor Denis Ménochet, known to international audiences as the dairy farmer, a man of few words, harboring Jews, in Quentin Tarantino’s opening scene of “Inglorious Basterds” (2009). Laure Calamy plays his wife Alice, a home care nurse who has an affair with Joseph (Damien Bonnard), one of her patients. As the other two main characters are introduced, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Nadia Tereszkiewicz, little by little we get to see what really happened in the course of this surprising murder mystery, where the several chapters depict the five interconnected characters, their points of view, what happened to them and to the woman who disappeared.
“Seules les bêtes” is quite different from Mr. Moll’s previous feature, “Des nouvelles de la planète Mars” (2016, a.k.a. “News from Planet Mars”), a light and subtle comedy starring François Damiens and Veerle Baetens. This film is a nonlinear mystery thriller where the action surprisingly jumps from France to the Ivory Coast and back, and it was screened at the latest Venice Film Festival and the London Film Festival.
To avoid any spoilers, this is just as far as I’ll go. Therefore, I am happy to pass on the microphone to the man behind “Seules les bêtes,” filmmaker and screenwriter Dominik Moll. He came over to Brussels only a few weeks ago to promote the release of this excellent, engaging, and very stylish thriller.
Mr. Moll, what was for you the challenge to make this film?
As you know, the film is an adaptation of the French novel “Seules les bêtes” [published in 2017], written by Colin Niel, and there were several things in it that I liked. First, there was the general atmosphere, the fact that it was a film noir—or a book noir, if you wish—with a crime story where the crime is more a manner of looking into the lives of the different characters. I found that all of them, as different as they are, and although they are not always in an easy situation, they all had a dream of some sort. Another thing that I liked was the confrontation of those two very opposite worlds: the farmers in this lost French countryside covered with snow where they all live in isolated farmhouses, and then you have the contrast with this big African city, all those people, the traffic, the heat… And I was also interested in the book’s narrative structure with its several chapters, with each one of them being the point of view of one of the characters. The central point is the disappearance of a woman during the snowstorm, and every character is linked to it in a way. Every character has only a partial view of the event or about what really happened. With each character and with each new layer that is unfolded, the reader—or the spectator—gets a better picture of the puzzle. So even if the story is a bit dark, there was something quite playful about how it is told, as the audience is very actively involved when trying to piece everything together. Those were the reasons why I felt that it could be interesting to turn this novel into a film.
When you wrote the screenplay with Gilles Marchand, keeping in mind you had those five main characters and five different points of view, how or when do you know that the narrative is in perfect balance?
Gilles and I have a kind of mutual control and reading; we often try things out and ask ourselves many questions like, ‘What if we take this out, or we add that to make the story better.’ But the five main characters are only main characters in one part of the film. Then they become a secondary character, or they disappear entirely, so we had to make sure to keep the audience interested in each one of them and provide enough elements so they can imagine the things that the characters are imagining in the story. One thing that always helps me, just to know if it works or not, is to give the screenplay to the producers or to people who know what writing a screenplay is all about, having their feedback and comments like, ‘We don’t understand this,’ or ‘This is probably too long.’ From those reactions, you can also understand what works or what doesn’t. In the long run, a screenplay can work very nicely, but it’s always only a step towards the film, it’s not supposed to be a goal on its own. It’s only a step in the whole process of filmmaking, so ultimately you really know if it works once you’ve shot the film, especially during the editing when there’s the possibility of finetuning the storytelling by eventually taking things out. Even if you have some experience, there is always a tendency of being a bit too explanatory during the screenwriting because you only have the text, nothing else. And then when you see the material with the actors, there are a lot of things you understand from their way of behaving or their facial expressions. So during the editing, you cut out quite a few unnecessary lines of dialogue because they explain things that you already understand, just by the visual storytelling. And the choice of the actors is very crucial too.
You were surrounded by very interesting character actors. How did you do the casting?
When we were writing the screenplay, I already thought of Denis Ménochet to play the part of Michel. Luckily he liked the screenplay and really wanted to be part of it. For the other characters, it took a little bit longer because we had several ideas. Like for the character of Alice, Michel’s wife [played by Laure Calamy], we had a few very fine actresses in mind. We met them and did screentests of one of the scenes to see which one embodies the character the best. It is also a matter of imagining one actor opposite another actor, and finding the right balance. Like when we were casting the roles of Evelyne [played by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi] and her young lover Marion [Nadia Tereszkiewicz], once we had decided to cast Valeria, we had a couple of very interesting young actresses who also did screentests, each of them playing a scene with Valeria, to see which couple worked the best, which one had the best energy, and that you also could believe their characters really had a relationship. There was something quite natural with Nadia Tereszkiewicz, so we chose her for the role of Marion. For Damien Bonnard, who plays Joseph Bonnefille in the film, it took a bit longer. At first, we thought it might be interesting that this character was a bit older, let’s say around sixty rather than forty, to have an age difference between the characters of Michel and Joseph, but afterwards we found out that it was not a good idea. We had already met elder actors by that time, but we decided that it didn’t really fit nor helped the story. So when we met Damien Bonnard and did a screentest with him, we knew he was right for the part. Sometimes you have intuitions that come very early and prove to be right, and others take a little bit more time and energy. And also, one thing that was different when we were shooting in the Ivory Coast, there are only very few professional or experienced actors there because there is hardly any film industry. So once we were there, we did a wild casting and practically all the young actors in the film are amateur actors. For Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Drin [Armand in the film], this was the first time he played in front of a camera. When you meet these young men, it’s also very often a matter of intuition. You do screentests with them; they may not be necessarily good during their first screentest, but he was very smart, he had this charm, and you could feel his wit. We did more screentests and after a while he really understood what it meant to act, be a character, and enjoy acting. We were very lucky: some actors may be good in a screentest until there’s a camera pointed at them and a crew around them, and they can be completely paralyzed—which was luckily not the case. Others might suddenly reveal themselves as great, natural talents, which was when we did “Seules les bêtes.”
Was it logistically more difficult to shoot in the Ivory Coast than in France?
No, it was more difficult in France [laughs]. In France, we had this issue with the snow. The story took place in winter and we wanted snow, also because the woman disappears during a snowstorm. So we really needed snow, and on our location, there’s not always snow. We were really praying for it to snow, and even if it did snow, we had no idea when. That means the whole shooting schedule had to be organized in a way that all the actors had to be more or less available at any time in case it snowed, so we could bring them in. That was stressful and complicated, especially for the first assistant director who was doing all this scheduling. In the end we were lucky because we did get snow—too much that it became difficult to drive to the various locations. So logistically, it was more difficult to shoot in France, also because in the Ivory Coast we had a local producer who organized everything. Only a small part of the crew was French when we were shooting in Africa; most of them were from the Ivory Coast or Burkina Faso. That allowed us to be quite integrated into the neighborhoods where we were shooting, instead of a white crew arriving there and behave as if they were there in their own backyard. So in Africa, everything went very smoothly—except that it was very hot. And in France, it was very cold [laughs].
The locations in France, covered in snow, look stunning. Did you choose them yourself?
Yes and no. I mean, the book’s main location was this region called Lozère [near the Massif Central], and this plateau where the farmers live is the Causse Méjean [a UNESCO World Heritage site]. I happened to know this place because I had been there on vacation, and each time I was there, I thought, ‘I should try to find a story to shoot here.’ The landscapes are very cinematic; they look like western landscapes. This highland plateau is quite unique and very steep valleys surround it. It’s almost like a castle, and in order to get there, you have to drive up those very small roads. That is something that also corresponds to the characters who are isolated and who try to protect themselves. All the specific places, like the farmhouses and the camping site, we picked out ourselves during the location scouting.
Is there also a message that you’re trying to tell with your film?
I’m always quite ill at ease with films that convey messages because it can easily become a bit simplistic, especially if you want to convey a political message. I don’t think the film itself has a really strong message, but I think there is still something political about it because we have these two worlds—the world of the farmers in Southern France who have a really harsh and difficult life, and then you have the life of the young scammers in Abidjan, those characters aren’t often seen on screen. To give them space and to show them is, in a way, political. But to continue this thought about politics—if you take a Ken Loach film with a very strong political message where you have the poor struggling, while the rich, or their bosses, are very mean or exploit them, it’s often true, but I find it more interesting how the rich and the poor are depicted in a film like “Parasite”  where the rich are not mean, they are just ignoring the fact that there are poor people. It’s like two parallel worlds where the rich just are rich and don’t ask themselves questions about the poor because they don’t even see them—although they might be living in their cellar as if they are invisible. That’s not a message, it’s a fact, and in a way this is more complex than the very strong message in a Ken Loach film which is also necessary to be told, of course, because he depicts the hardness of the life of poor people who have difficulties to make ends meet, so I think all of his films are very important, very relevant. But in terms of filmmaking, I seem to be more attracted to what a film like “Parasite” has to say about it. Anyway, this is just a little parenthesis on what a message is.
Was it easy to raise the budget for “Seules les bêtes”?
It’s never easy. Nobody will tell you, ‘Here you got several millions to make your film.’ But it wasn’t difficult either; we found finances in France and in Germany. It wasn’t a super comfortable budget because we had to cut down the shooting schedule a little bit—initially, we had scheduled to shoot nine weeks, and we ended up doing it in eight weeks to fit it into the budget we had, but I’m definitely not complaining. We could do it in reasonable conditions where everybody was getting paid, so I wouldn’t say it was difficult. I mean, French television co-produced and co-financed the film, they were very enthusiastic about the screenplay, and the responses we had, in general, were quite positive.
Are you also a fan of film noir or genre films?
Yes, and again, for me “Parasite” is a film noir that I like a lot. And then you have the classics of the 1930s and 1940s, or “Chinatown”  by Roman Polanski, a superb film noir. What I like about film noir or genre film in general, is that it offers a frame with codes that people know, but it also allows you to put in, or slide in, various elements, things, and subjects that are not just about finding who the killer is, and that makes it so interesting.
Although you were born in Germany, I suppose you truly are a French filmmaker, aren’t you?
Yes, I consider myself a French filmmaker. As a person, I consider myself French-German—half half—but as a filmmaker, I’m French, because I’ve done all of my films in France or in the French production system. I’m completely part of it.
Over the years, a lot of French films have been remade in America. Suppose an American producer asks you to do a remake of “Seules les bêtes” in the U.S., would you think about it?
I was asked this question with “Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien”  after the remake rights were sold to—at the time—Miramax. Over the years, there were various plans to do the project, and even recently, somebody called me and asked, ‘Do you have the remake rights of “Harry”?’ I think at one point, the question was raised if I would be interested in directing the remake myself, but I said, ‘No, I have already done the film.’ If someone wants to redo it in a different country, in his own way, I have no problems with that. But I wouldn’t want to do the same story twice, even if it was in a different country and with different actors. I would rather move on to something different and new.
When did you first realize that you were a born storyteller?
[Laughs.] I never told myself, ‘Hey, I’m a born storyteller.’ But I know that when I was a film student in New York for two years—that was before I went to film school in Paris—and I did my first short film there, and adaptation of a short story by Charles Bukowski called “The Blanket,” I really enjoyed making it, and I took pleasure in all the different steps of the process of filmmaking, like writing the story, casting the actors, lighting the set, editing it… It was a way of storytelling that I really loved, because you can play on different levels. You can show a character who says one thing, and by the way he acts or looks, you can understand that he is thinking about something else, or that he’s lying, or that he’s hiding something. The music can add a new layer; the editing can add another layer. When you use all those different means that film offers you, you can tell a story in different layers. I felt very comfortable with that. The joy of filmmaking is using all the different means that film offers you.
Adding layers in the story of “Seules les bêtes” makes the film all the more interesting, because at one point, you may think, ‘Okay, now I know what’s going on,’ but then a new chapter adds another layer, looks at it from a different angle and you can start all over again. Are there maybe films that you’ve seen and inspired you to tell “Seules les bêtes” this way?
Certainly unconsciously, but consciously I don’t think so. When I started writing the screenplay with Gilles, we tried to think about what films worked with different views, and how they did it. You have “Rashomon”  by Akira Kurosawa, which tells the same story from three points of view, but there’s no objective truth in that film. You have three objective truths, but as an audience, you don’t know which one is right—it depends on whom you choose to believe. And in “Seules les bêtes” there is only one truth—we know what happened—but the characters and the audience don’t have all the clues at the beginning. I think it was one of the producers who thought about “Babel”  by Alejandro G. Iñàrritu. Then I saw it again, just out of curiosity, and there you also have different points of view, but the structure of the film is very different because we start with A and then B and C, and then ABC, ABC, ABC. The stories have a link which may be the shotgun, but they are loosely connected and work separately in a way. In our case, we have the same timelapse in the first and second chapters with the point of view of Alice and then the point of view of Joseph, and they start during the snowstorm. In the third chapter, we suddenly have a completely new character that we haven’t seen before; the young Marion meets Evelyne who in the former chapter was dead, so we go back in time. And in the fourth chapter, we suddenly go to Africa. Many films that work with multiple points of view, Robert Altman also did that so brilliantly, but here I felt that “Seules les bêtes” had its own specific logic, and we had to find a way to make that work without stealing ideas from other films or being inspired by them. There was no reference that I could think of that really worked the same way. Since we have a chapter that takes place earlier or in a different country, we had to find its own logical narrative of the structure.
When you see the film now, the final result, is this what you had hoped for?
That’s very difficult to say. When you first write the screenplay, things are only written, and you can imagine things. That is before you have cast the actors who are going to play the characters that were a bit abstract at first; they now will have a body and a voice, they come to life. And then when it works, it’s difficult to imagine what you had thought of before. I don’t think you have a result in mind when you start shooting a film. Of course, you want to control as many things as possible, but again, when I was writing it and thought about a farmhouse, for example, or the stable with the cows, I had images of my grandparents’ farmhouse. And when you start picking the locations and they look completely different, you have to re-imagine the things that you had written by projecting them on the very practical choices that you’ve made. But I know I’m very happy with the film, in its spirit it is very close to what I had imagined, and it is truthful to the book. The author was also happy with the film, which is not always the case when writers see their work adapted. So in the end, I’m definitely happy with the result.
December 10, 2019
“Seules les bêtes” (2019, trailer)
INTIMITÉ, a.k.a. INTIMACY (1994) DIR Dominik Moll PROD Vincent Dietschy, Bénédicte Mellac SCR Dominik Moll (short story by Jean-Paul Sartre) CAM Pierre Milon ED Thomas Bardinet MUS Franck Ash, Philippe Razol, Philippe Ours CAST Christine Brücher, Nathalie Krebs, François Chattot, Christian Izard, Hélène Roussel, Laure Werckmann
HARRY, UN AMI QUI VOUS VEUT DU BIEN, a.k.a. WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY… and HARRY, HE’S HERE TO HELP (2000) DIR Dominik Moll PROD Michel Saint-Jean SCR Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand (poem by Francis Villain) CAM Matthieu Poirot-Delpech ED Yannick Kergoat MUS David Whitaker CAST Laurent Lucas, Sergi López, Mathilde Seigner, Sophie Cuillemin, Liliane Rovère, Dominique Rozan, Michel Fau, Victoire de Koster
LEMMING (2005) DIR Dominik Moll PROD Michel Saint-Jean SCR Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand CAM Jean-Marc Fabre ED Mike Fromentin MUS David Whitaker CAST Laurent Lucas, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling, André Dussollier, Jacques Bonnaffé, Véronique Affholder, Michel Cassagne
L’AUTRE MONDE, a.k.a. BLACK HEAVEN (2010) DIR Gilles Marchand PROD Carole Scotta, Barbara Letellier, Caroline Benjo, Simon Arnal SCR Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand CAM Céline Bozon ED Nelly Quettier MUS Emmanuel D’Orlando, Anthony Gonzalez CAST Louise Bourgoin, Grégore Leprince-Ringuet, Melvil Poupaud, Swann Arlaud, Pauline Etienne, Pierre Niney, Patrick Deschamps
LA MOINE, a.k.a. THE MONK (2011) DIR Dominik Moll PROD Michel Saint-Jean SCR Dominik Moll, Anne-Louise Trividic (novel by Matthew Lewis) CAM Patrick Blossier ED Sylvie Lager, François Gédigier MUS Alberto Iglesias CAST Vincent Cassel, Déborah François, Joséphine Japy, Sergi López, Catherine Mouchet, Jordi Dauder, Geraldine Chaplin, Roxane Duran
DES NOUVELLES DE LA PLANÈT MARS, a.k.a. NEWS FROM PLANET MARS (2016) DIR Dominick Moll PROD Michel Saint-Jean SCR Dominick Moll, Gilles Marchand CAM Jean-François Hensgens ED Margot Meynier MUS Adrian Johnston CAST François Damiens, Vincent Macaigne, Veerle Baetens, Jeanne Guittet, Tom Rivoire, Michel Aumont, Catherine Samie, Léa Drucker
DANS LA FORÊT, a.k.a. INTO THE FOREST (2016) DIR Gilles Marchand PROD Jérémie Elkaïm, Valérie Donzelli SCR Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand CAM Jeanne Lapoirie ED Yann Dedet MUS Philippe Schoeller CAST Jérémie Elkaïm, Timothé Vom Dorp, Théo Van de Voorde, Mika Zimmerman, Mireille Perrier, Sophie Quinton, Kristell Bizien, Marite Mibalo Johansson
SEULES LES BÊTES, a.k.a. ONLY THE ANIMALS (2019) DIR Dominik Moll PROD Carole Scotta, Barbara Letellier, Caroline Benjo, Simon Arnal SCR Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand (novel by Colin Niel) CAM Patrick Ghiringhelli ED Laurent Rouan MUS Benedikt Schiefer CAST Denis Ménochet, Laure Calamy, Damien Bonnard, Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Bastien Bouillon, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Drim, Jenny Bellay