Comfortable versus creative

The words of Greek seaman and poet Nikos Kavvadias fill the screen at the beginning of «Les Marins Perdus» (The Lost Sailors), who find themselves stranded in a Marseilles port. The film, directed by Claire Devers, was recently screened at the fifth French Film Festival in Athens. Based on the novel by Jean-Claude Izzo, three seamen – the boat’s Turkish captain, the Greek second mate and one of the crew members, an Arab sailor – are living aboard a cargo ship. The boat has just been sold and their future is unclear. «Greek sailors are mythical figures, beginning with Odysseus. But does it really matter, the fact that he is Greek?» asks Bernard Giraudeau, the French actor who took on the role of the Greek Diamantis. «Izzo was from Marseilles, a Mediterranean man, who was influenced by Kavvadias, the sea, the ports, the cosmopolitan feeling.» The French actor leads a cast that also includes Miki Manojilovic, Sergio Peris-Mencheta (on the sailor front) as well as Audrey Tautou (of «Amelie» fame) and the late Marie Trintignant. One of the festival’s honored guests this year, Giraudeau is also the author «Le Marin a l’Ancre,» a novel in which a disabled man travels the world through correspondence with a seasoned sailor. «All the sailors resemble each other; I could have played the role of a Greek, a South American or a Frenchman, it’s not that important. The proof is that aboard the ship is a Turk, a Greek, Africans. But there is the shadow of Kavvadias and his poetry, while Diamantis, refuses to become captain because he wants to stay close to his men,» says Giraudeau. «Sailors love their mothers and idealize their women, but they don’t look for female company; they would rather be in the company of men.» On board the decaying cargo ship, the men seem lost. Do sailors always lose their bearings when they have to live like the rest of us? «Those who have a lived a lot at sea are rather lost. The outside world scares them,» says Giraudeau. «They are part of the world of the sea, a moving, unstable world where boats define their place in the world and therefore, that of their men.» For this role, Giraudeau drew from his own experiences: Born in La Rochelle in 1947, he enlisted in the French navy in 1962, before entering the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique in 1970. Three years later, he faced the camera for the first time, alongside Jean Gabin and Alain Delon in Jose Giovanni’s «Deux Hommes dans la Ville.» In the early 1980s, Giraudeau starred in blockbusting comedies, while in 1988, he turned to directing in «La Face de l’Ogre,» a film for television. His first full-length feature for cinema, «L’Autre» (shot on location in Cyprus), was released in 1990, followed by «Les Caprices d’un Fleuve,» where he also took the leading role. He has also taken part in period dramas, such as Patrice Leconte’s «Ridicule» and Vera Belmont’s «Marquise,» in which he has interpreted Moliere. Meanwhile, the theater has become a second home. In the last few years alone, Giraudeau has earned critical acclaim in Jean Anouilh’s «Becket ou l’Honneur de Dieu» and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s «Petits Crimes Conjugaux,» in which he starred alongside Charlotte Rampling. «The theater remains at the heart; that is where we polish the instrument. Where we think about things; we work on them – you can easily lose yourself in cinema,» he says. «The theater is doing well in France, but we are short of playwrights. There is no contemporary author narrating the essential things, a new theatrical language; there are no more Becketts, Ionescos.» The same goes for the cinema. «I find that French film is ‘tired’ these days; it’s less creative, a bit lazy,» says Giraudeau. «But I’m not criticizing it, I’m a director, I’m part of this. We have to give it a kick in the butt.» When looking at the figures, however, French cinema appears to be in good shape. «I don’t care about the figures; figures don’t stay,» says Giraudeau. True, healthy figures reflect the industry’s advantages when it comes to distribution quotas, tax benefits and funding. «American cinema is not very rich right now, then you have one film from Iran and then you have French cinema, which is a big producer,» says Giraudeau. «But we have to ask a few questions, criticize our work.» Taking a break from cinema and film writing, Giraudeau himself has turned to documentaries, for instance. Would he consider venturing into other film industries? «I think that the English language remains the common vehicle,» says Giraudeau. «It’s hard for French, Italian, Spanish cinema. Can we talk about a European cinema? Not yet. Do we have a common European culture?» Few French actors, according to Giraudeau, have managed to break the language and cultural barrier and pursue a Hollywood career. Though he cites Juliette Binoche, Jean Reno and Gerard Depardieu as players, he is quick to point out that they have occasional successes, not a constant string of blockbusters. Meanwhile, he says, highly respectable actors, such as Daneil Auteuil, stay at home. With Hollywood a non-starter for most and European cinema still a blurred vision, where does French cinema stand? «You always need leaders, you need desire. That’s when things happen,» says Giraudeau. «We can make films, but we need unexpected, surprising films. Not yet another film that resembles the one made last year, full of psychological issues or the story of a neighborhood and what’s going in the local bistro or a woman with marital problems who gets herself a lover. I’m tired of this.» As the actor/director prepares for an upcoming long feature shoot in Chile, he is about to publish a book featuring five short novels, while a documentary he recently shot in the Philippines has been scheduled for television screenings. Meanwhile, he is also preparing for his role in a film project to be directed by Gerard Corbiau («Farinelli») and co-starring Isabelle Adjani. So what lies at the dividing line between all these visual arenas? «Talent. You can make a very good low-budget television film with a talented director, who says, ‘OK, I have little means, I will sacrifice this and that;’ if he chooses to work like this he knows what lies ahead. You give Lars von Trier two weeks to make a film and he will come up with something wonderful; give another director 70 days on location with a load of money, he might not be able to do it,» says Giraudeau. Yet for all the creativity emanating from gifted individuals, a society resting on its laurels is hard to change. «Cinema reflects the rather comfortable way of living we have in France,» says Giraudeau. «Mother France is very maternal.» Even when living in a world increasingly dominated by the threat of terrorism? «People are not stressed in France. In the creative field, we are not threatened,» he says. «I’m not saying that you need to be living in misery in order to create, but sometimes those who are in great difficulty are more imaginative. So yes, things are going well – unfortunately.»

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