Actor, director, producer, screenwriter – Gustave Kervern is a man who plays a myriad of roles. Known for his works in Groland, Dans Le Cour with Catherine Deneuve, partnership with fellow director Benoît Delépine, and now – Cigarettes et Chocolat Chaud (or The Fabulous Patars) – we recently met with Mr Kervern at the launch of this year’s Le French Festival to chat about his venture into cinema, the future of film, and Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
Thank you for your time and welcome – how are you liking Malaysia so far?
I haven’t seen much yet, I’ve been to the Petronas Towers. I am not staying for very long unfortunately. I wanted to go to Malacca or the primal forests but it’s too far and the time that I am here is too short. I would love to visit more but I have my 14 year old son with me, who is a child of the tablet and the phone, so I am obligated to adapt myself. See, this new education method that you have to adapt to your children. Unfortunately it isn’t easy to get him out of it; I have no authority over my son!
It’s funny because I was born in Mauritius, and the history is similar to Malaysia’s. We first had the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the English. We eventually had the French, but you didn’t. You managed to escape the French! The history is quite similar, and then there was the independence. It’s funny for me to make this parallel between Mauritius and Malaysia.
Since this film is new to Malaysia, can you give a quick introduction to <<Cigarettes et Chocolat Chaud>>?
Of course – the film is about the education of children. The way you try to raise your children in fact. It’s about a father who is a widower and has to raise his two daughters alone, and he’s trying to raise them in a very free and overly open-minded fashion, which is not at all how I’m trying to raise my children in my own life! He is trying to cope with raising them alone, then there’s this social worker who wants to help put more strictness and order in his life.
Actually this is the first film of a famous film editor Sophie Reine; it’s her own story because she lost her mother at a young age, so her father raised her and her siblings in a very open-minded and disordered fashion. I agreed to do this movie because she was very enthusiastic about it and I felt like she really had something to say, and I do like autobiographical films as well. I was convinced by her energy and her dynamic about the whole thing.
What was it like working with Sophie Reine?
At first she was quite scared. I’m a director myself but I don’t like to watch over or interfere with the directors if I’m acting. Acting is like a holiday for me, because directing is a very difficult process. But then she eventually relaxed and she’s a girl with a temper – so she managed to get hold of the team and manage them, really. In the end the atmosphere was really nice and we were all in the same house that became kind of “ours”, and we made a mess in it. Our own mess! The house was going to be destroyed after anyway. The shooting was very nice and great with extraordinary children; they’re great and funny – like the film.
Was this your first time working with children?
Yes. Originally I’m not an actor – not much of a comedian; I’m more of a screenwriter. I wrote a lot of short pieces for a television programme in France that’s gone on for 25 years now and it’s very successful. I’ve acted in those pieces as well, I’ve acted in my own movies but I don’t really consider myself as an actor. One day I was offered to do the film <<Dans La Cour>> with Catherine Deneuve and I said yes. It kind of made me want to act more, to do more, so I agreed to do more films. Up to that [film] – my experience as an actor, it was my first time with children.
Tell us about your first venture into the film industry.
I actually never thought I would make film for the cinema. We started with the short television pieces, and there are two of us working together since that programme. We’re both screenwriters and directors so we always work in a pair. One day we had the idea for a full length film and thought would we do it – we did our first film in 2003. Now we’re making the 8th one. The 1st one was a rogue movie in a wheelchair. Ten of us in a small truck! The movie was about two handicapped people travelling from France to Finland in wheelchairs. My co-worker and I were playing the two leads in that film and we had no money to make it – but we enjoyed it so much we decided to make more and more. We didn’t go to film school or anything; we were both self-taught men.
What’s funny is that the real reason we made this film was actually to go have a drink with a Finnish director, Aki Kaurismäki, who actually has a small part in the movie. We knew he was drinking a lot and so were we at the time – so we made that entire trip just to have a drink with him. That’s how we got into film. And when we got to Finland he stopped drinking so we had a drink of water with him, which was still good.
Would you say you prefer acting or directing?
I’m not sure. I like them both actually. We’re making a movie that will be shooting in August in the South of France with Jean Dujardin and Yolande Moreau who are both French actors. I don’t have any preference; I just enjoy both for now.
What are some of the challenges you face as an actor and director?
As a director we’ve had a lot of challenges especially since we specialise in working with difficult actors who have a temper. We’re lunatics’ tamers in a way! For instance our last film was with Gérard Depardieu and Benoît Poelvoorde – who are both uncontrollable actors. It’s very exhausting but we do like those challenges. As an actor I’m ready for anything but since I’m getting old I prefer not too many stunts or have not too much physical effort to make. For example, James Bond – I would refuse.
Do you think you have any similarities with your character Denis Patar?
Not really. He’s a very cool dad in the movie. He’s not so careful about hygiene, lets his daughters be too free with him. He kind of has to be that way because he has two jobs to support them. But I’m a stressed out dad, and like many people in France, too stressed – about children and their future, about work, the future, about education… We’re all stressed because of the current situation! I have no authority but I am very stressed out so in the film I’m the best dad ever, and in life I’m the worst dad. Despite the fact I have a lot of love and good will – but unfortunately that’s oftentimes not enough.
Have you ever experienced difficulty detaching yourself from a character?
No, not really. I don’t really believe the actors who say they feel a bond with their character – feeling tied to them. To me some of them sound false, because you move on quickly actually. You put a lot of yourself into the characters but afterwards you forget quickly. Some actors may say they do, but that isn’t the case for me.
What were your favourite moments when filming <<Cigarettes et Chocolat Chaud>>?
The general ambience, overall it’s very cool. The two children were great to work with and it’s not that hard to work with children after all. Especially now since they understand everything before we do. The new generation, they’re so used to watching television and they are extroverts. They have no problem acting in front of the camera. I’m still stressed and afraid. I’m part of a generation who’s still afraid of walking into a shop! It’s surprising to see children so at ease. If I watch a show like The Voice, they come out and do it and sing so naturally – if it were me I would be so scared that the microphone would fall off my hands – so it’s a new thing and very surprising, but it’s very pleasant to work with children who understand right away and you don’t have to explain repeatedly.
Is there anyone you admire in the film industry?
Many people, yes. Off the top of my head I can name the Coen brothers; they’re filmmakers I really like. I’m 54 and I’m discovering a lot of filmmakers only now – because I am now buying a lot of DVDs and watching old films and discovering many filmmakers. Before I was a bit wild, going out a lot – now I’m more mature and quiet so I have more time to watch movies and to discover those filmmakers. So my cinema culture isn’t very extensive but I’m getting on it and I, right now would be able to name a lot of films and filmmakers that I like but still – work in progress.
I’m a pessimist on the future of independent films, because nowadays when you go to the cinema – all the trailers in France are for American blockbusters or French comedies that aren’t great. The amount of demand for films is diminishing; the people who used to like to go see films are going less and less now. Unfortunately I feel independent cinema is meant to disappear. Which is why now I really like to watch movies from the 1970s, especially Italian or American movies from that time because to me they’re the most wonderful years of international cinema; those films are wonderful but can’t be made now because they’re too radical. The quality of film is diminishing. The visual quality for blockbusters is very amazing but in terms of reflection and thought put into the films, or risks taken – the intellectual quality is diminishing. So, even when you think of Asian movies now, they’re kind of becoming more American, and everything is very much alike. The music, the editing, there’s some kind of uniformity in the movies – or homogeneity, not necessarily in the good sense. Some films they tend to lose their specificity – what made them special.
How do you think cinema can be improved? Or is it all based on the audience?
Yeah it’s mostly the audience. The education must be done but it cannot really be done anymore. When I look at my son, he watches action movies – a lot of violence and blood. The audience nowadays is inclined to watch fast paced movies and quick editing. I compare this to a train that is being launched at full speed. Because of that it’s more and more difficult to make people digest black and white, slow-paced, reflective movies. It’s another generation; they’re not so used to paying attention. There’s a big problem with attention now. Movies that require more thinking – they’re just not “in” anymore. We live in a society of hyperactive children. There is a phrase from an extraordinary documentary film <<I am Not your Negro>> that I recently saw on racism against black people in America. This sentence is from a writer who fought for civil rights with Martin Luther King when talking about white people at the time. He said “immaturity is taken to be a virtue”, and that really sums up what I think of society and the audience nowadays. We see it in Donald Trump – who is a symbol of it – or in reality TV shows and stars, this immaturity. People nowadays seem to like that whole stupidity – it’s becoming a society trend.
Do you have any interest in doing different genres of films in the future? Would you give Hollywood films a go or would you stick to making French films?
In view of my English capabilities, I think working in American films will be a bit complicated! But I’ll stick to the ones I do. I do like making thoughtful movies and for instance, I don’t like plain comedies, I wouldn’t work on any of those unless I really needed money. I do like to think and reflect upon society and all the films we’ve done are very socially orientated and very thoughtful. We like and need to understand things and how they work. As an actor I hope to keep working in those films, as a director I hope to make more films like these.
Since Le French Festival aims to celebrate and promote France and its culture in Malaysia, how would you describe France in three words?
Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité! I can’t sum things up better than that especially in the current political situation in France. I’m pretty pessimistic on current French politics and I do hope that these three words will continue to exist as I hope it will in many other countries, not just France. It’s getting more and more difficult now, and France needs to remind itself that it’s the motherland of human rights. And so we need to remember to be the first to apply those rights that we so-called invented.
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Photos: Le French Festival 2017, Google.