Joachim Lafosse: “A film director needs his cast and crew to be a part of the world he creates”

During the Romy Schneider film retrospective and Exhibition about her life and work, which runs from March 24 to June 25 in Brussels, Belgian filmmaker Joachim Lafosse (b. 1975) was invited to introduce “L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot” (2009), a documentary by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea on Clouzot’s unfinished film “L’enfer” (1964) starring Romy Schneider.

Mr. Lafosse is an accomplished filmmaker. “Folie privée” (2004) was his debut film and later, he made highly acclaimed films with several top stars from French cinema, including Isabelle Huppert (“Nue propriété,” 2006), Émilie Dequenne (“À perdre la raison,” 2012), Bérénice Bejo (“L’économie du couple,” 2016) and Leïla Bekhti (“Les intranquilles,” 2021). All of his films were festival favorites and won several awards in European, American and Asian festivals.

In his films, similar themes often recur—something many great directors do—or he comes up with the same theme differently, but you can be sure his films are always engrossing and captivating. Time and time again, he succeeds as each project unfolds in its own unique way. As an actor’s director, he always gives the audience magnificently acted and stunningly crafted scenes.

“L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot” (2009, trailer)

In this interview, he talks about French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) whose screen credits include “Le salaire de la peur” (1953) with Yves Montand, and “Les dialobiques” (1955) starring Simone Signoret. Clouzot also directed Brigitte Bardot in “La vérité” (1960).

Mr. Lafosse, was it your choice to introduce “L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot” to the audience this evening?

Yes. When I discovered the documentary by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, I looked at it from a director’s point of view, and it’s obvious that you have to connect and interact with people if you want to make a film. “L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot” shows a lonely man who was ill and who had lost the ability to encounter. An actor or an actress is not an object; they may give you that impression when they play a role, but they’re not. Actors always create something with their director. When Clouzot made “La vérité” [1960, a.k.a. “The Truth”] with Brigitte Bardot, they already knew each other, but he didn’t know Romy Schneider when they made “L’enfer.” That was not her fault; I think she was trying to find out what he expected her character to be like, but he didn’t communicate with her. When she arrived on set, she feared him because of his bad reputation—he had a temper and could be a bully—which makes it impossible since a professional collaboration like theirs should produce a work of art. This documentary is very valuable and authentic because it shows how important that is.

That’s also the challenge when you write your screenplays and shoot your movies?

That’s precisely the question you have to ask yourself. When you write a screenplay, it’s all in your head. Once you’re on set, it becomes the real thing, and a film director needs his cast and crew to be a part of the world he creates. Clouzot was not ready to do that; he had his idea, stuck to it, and didn’t allow others to contribute or participate. It’s the same in real life: if you see a woman and want her to be exactly how you want her to be, it will not work. You will never love her; you might not even meet her. It’s just the same if you want to make a film.

Your working method is very appealing to others because you have worked with several leading ladies from French cinema. You don’t have any problem convincing them to work with you.

It’s easy to convince them to come to me, but then the film director has to ensure he connects with his actors. You create something with the actors; they bring the characters I wrote to life in a way that allows you to capture their performances; I like to see how they develop their characters. That doesn’t guarantee it will succeed because they have to trust you, so you spend a lot of time together, you talk and listen to them. And when I look at “L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot,” I don’t think any of that happened. I have the impression that Clouzot thought he was working with clay instead of humans. I could never work like that; I like to interact with my actors, go through the dialogue and see what they can do with it, or adjust it to make it more direct or more powerful. I adore Romy Schneider; she is an outstanding actress, and when I need to pick out one film to talk about her, this one seems to be the most obvious film, especially when you read what she said about Claude Sautet later on. They really communicated, and they exchanged ideas. He listened to her; her ideas and opinions mattered. Together, as a team, they made a difference.

Film director and screenwriter Joachim Lafosse in Brussels during the introduction of “L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot” (2009) | Film Talk

And just like Claude Sautet did, that must be why you always have a lot of empathy for your characters.

Yes—but I even empathize with Clouzot when I watch “L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot” because you see a filmmaker who is not doing well. He is sick; you can sense that. The documentary makers understood that very well. That was the most important thing about this film, and how the actors work with a film director who is not well. They protect themselves; that’s something you learn when you research the filming of “L’enfer.” But I have to be honest with you; when I did my first film, “Folie privée” [2004], I learned everything. The crew left me after five days; only the actors stayed with me. Then I experienced that you make a film with all the others, not against them, not on your own. When actors suggest something different than what you had in mind, you have to be there for them. You have to be available. And that’s something Clouzot didn’t want to do.

Are there any films or filmmakers who inspired you during your formative years?

I saw François Truffaut’s “L’argent de poche” [1976, a.k.a. “Pocket Money”] when I was eight or nine; I was about the same age as the children in the film. That film turned me upside down; I was very touched by the teacher who explained to the children what life was all about, and I loved the characters that the children played. I think that film gave me a first glimpse of what characters are all about—nothing spectacular, but they allowed you to look at life in a way you usually wouldn’t. There were other films too, and they all enabled me to talk to my family and friends about my feelings without telling them it was about me. I talked to them about some of the characters in “L’argent de poche,” but I was talking about myself. Also “Au revoir les enfants” [1987, directed by Louis Malle]—films with children that I saw as a child—impressed me. The characters were real and alive, and that’s what’s missing with Clouzot, although it’s very peculiar because he made some great films during his heyday.

“L’argent de poche” (1976, trailer)

You are one of those filmmakers who can shoot a film if they give you a table, a few chairs, and a couple of actors.

I know, I don’t need much [laughs]. That’s all I need, and I don’t even need more than that. The older I get, the more pleasure I have when things are simple. You can tell so many stories in a moderate setting. My father was a photographer, and I love the art of photography, of making portraits. A portrait comes about when the person who is photographed and the photographer meet. That’s very basic, but the possibilities are endless.

How do you work on your film set? Do you need a lot of takes, for example?

I only have one rule, and it’s the only thing that I have learned so far: some actors and scenes hardly need any takes, and others need a few more. If you need a lot of takes—or maybe too many—then usually something is wrong. Maybe something is wrong with the scene, or the camera is in the wrong place,… Suppose I need to shoot a hundred takes, then I am the one who is making all the mistakes. Not the actors.

You always write your screenplays. Is that essential to you?

I never made a film with a screenplay written by other writers. So, yes, I think it is necessary, at least from my point of view. When you shoot a film as a director, you’re also writing the story, and you have to keep on searching if you want to know what and how to direct it. That search begins when you write the screenplay. Suppose someone sends me a script that I like, and I would make a film of it, I would first adapt it to make it my own so that I could consider it my script. I would feel the urge to rewrite it and turn it into something that’s mine.

Screenwriter and film director Steven Knight once told me that filmmaking is as close as you can get to a dream. Do you agree with that?

That is very true because when you write, there are no restrictions. You can do whatever you want. But at one point, your project becomes something real, and very often, it may look entirely different from what you first imagined. In real life, people don’t do what you want them to do; they don’t say what you want them to say. They will only do or say what you want when you write your screenplay. So I always admire when you get to meet your actors—and what a difference they make. Like when they say, ‘No, that doesn’t seem right.’ When they suggest, for example, to add a moment of silence in a scene, or their character stays calm a little longer, and only then it gets upset. It can make a scene so much better than I had expected, which turns this collaboration into an incredible experience. Two or three people are much more creative when they collaborate, compared to only one person. Il y a toujours plus dans deux têtes que dans une. I can’t do everything on my own. And if the cinematographer says, ‘Hold on, instead of getting angry, why don’t you try to speak slowly and be very calm…’ Voilà, pour moi, c’est un art collective, le cinéma. When I look at a film by Pedro Almodóvar, he knows everything. He knows what he wants. Nobody has to make any suggestions. But I am different; I couldn’t work like that, and I wouldn’t even like to.

“Nue propriété” (2006, trailer)

Isabelle Huppert had appeared with Romy Schneider and Yves Montand in “César et Rosalie” [1972], before you were born. By the time you made “Nue propriété” [2006] with her, she had been a star in French cinema for several decades. What was it like to work with her?

I was thrilled, also because the crew on that film was very young. I was thirty-one, and most of us were not even twenty-five; the cinematographer [Hichame Alaouié] was only twenty-three. She spent six weeks with us, and she was no different from any Belgian actress I had worked with in my earlier films. She was simply one of us and looked for solutions if anything came up. She had a car and a driver to pick her up, but there was no difference once she was on set. I will never forget what she said to me on the second day of shooting. The French producer told me at a certain point, ‘C’est bon, Joachim. Cette prise d’elle est bien. You can move on to the next scene.’ Later, Isabelle told me, ‘Joachim, plus jamais, jamais, tu n’écoute ces gens. You decide if the take is okay. And if you want to continue, we will continue. And if not…’ She didn’t try to impress any of us, although she was an actress who impressed me a lot—she was fabulous! But when you work with her, she’s a real treat. She’s easygoing and very loyal. I remember she knew very well how to dress; nobody had to tell her what her character should wear. She made those decisions and knew better than anyone else what she had to put on.

Cinema Palace, Brussels
April 12, 2023


FOLIE PRIVÉE (2004) DIR Joachim Lafosse PROD Eric van Zuylen SCR Joachim Lafosse, Kris Cuppens CAM Federico D’Ambrosio ED Sophie Vercruysse CAST Mathias Wertz, Vincent Cahay, Kris Cuppens, Catherine Salée, Jean-Benoît Ugeux

ÇA REND HEUREUX (2006) DIR – SCR Joachim Lafosse CAM Ana Samoilovich ED Sophie Vercruysse CAST Fabrizio Rongione, Kris Cuppens, Catherine Salée, Mariet Eyckmans, Dirk Tuypens, Cédric Eeckhout, François Pirot, Jean-Benoît Ugeux

NUE PROPRIÉTÉ, a.k.a. PRIVATE PROPERTY (2006) DIR Joachim Lafosse PROD Joseph Rouschoup SCR Joachim Lafosse, François Pirot CAM Hichame Alaouie ED Sophie Vercruysse CAST Isabelle Huppert, Jérémie Renier, Yannick Renier, Kris Cuppens, Patrick Deschamps, Raphaëlle Lubansu, Sabine Riche, Catherine Salée, Jean-Benoît Ugeux

ÉLÈVE LIBRE, a.k.a. PRIVATE LESSONS (2008) DIR Joachim Lafosse PROD Jacques-Henri Bronckart SCR Joachim Lafosse, François Pirot CAM Hichame Alaouie ED Sophie Vercruysse CAST Jonas Bloquet, Jonathan Zaccaï, Yannick Renier, Claire Bodson, Pauline Etienne, Anne Coesens, Thomas Coumans, Johan Leysen

À PERDRE LA RAISON, a.k.a. LOVING WITHOUT REASON and OUR CHILDREN (2012) DIR Joachim Lafosse PROD Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart SCR Joachim Lafosse, Matthieu Reynaert, Thomas Bidegain CAM Jean-François Hensgens ED Sophie Vercruysse CAST Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Émilie Dequenne, Stéphane Bissot, Mounia Raoui, Radouane Behache, Baya Belal, Nathalie Boutefeu, Yannick Renier

LES CHEVALIERS BLANCS, a.k.a. THE WHITE KNIGHTS (2015) DIR Joachim Lafosse PROD Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart, Sylvie Pialat SCR Joachim Lafosse, Thomas van Zuylen, Bulle Decarpentriers (book by Geoffroy d’Ursel, François-Xavier Pinte) CAM Jean-François Hensgens ED Sophie Vercruysse CAST Vincent Lindon, Louise Bourgoin, Valérie Donzelli, Reda Kateb, Bintou Rimtobaye, Stéphane Bissot, Yannick Renier, Catherine Salée, Tibo Vandenborre, Filip Peeters

L’ÉCONOMIE DU COUPLE, a.k.a. AFTER LOVE (2016) DIR Joachim Lafosse PROD Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart, Sylvie Pialat, Benoît Quainon SCR Joachim Lafosse, Mazarine Pingeot, Fanny Burdino CAM Jean-François Hensgens ED Yann Dedet CAST Bérénice Bejo, Cédric Kahn, Marthe Keller, Margaux Soentjens, Jade Soentjens, Francesco Italiano, Tibo Vandenborre, Catherine Salée

CONTINUER, a.k.a. KEEP GOING (2018) DIR Joachim Lafosse PROD Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart, Sylvie Pialat, Benoît Quainon SCR Joachim Lafosse, Thomas van Zuylen (adaptation by Mazarine Pingeot, Fanny Burdino, Samuel Doux) CAM Jean-François Hensgens ED Yann Dedet CAST Virginie Efira, Kacey Mottet Klein, Diego Martín, Mairambek Kozhoev, Damira Ripert, Belek Mamatkoulov

LES INTRANQUILLES, a.k.a. THE RESTLESS (2021) DIR – SCR Joachim Lafosse PROD Alexandre Gavras, Anton Iffland Stettner, Eva Kuperman, Antonino Lombardo, Jani Thiltges CAM Jean-François Hensgens ED Marie-Hélène Dozo MUS Antoine Bodson, Ólafur Arnalds CAST Leïla Bekhti, Damien Bonnard, Gabriel Merz Chammah, Patrick Deschamps, Jules Waringo, Alexandre Gavras, Joël Delsaut, Colette Kieffer