By Danny Peary
Just a Sigh fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. For now Jérôme Bonnell’s (Le Chignon d’Olga, Les yeux clairs) critically-acclaimed quirky French romance is playing at arthouses in Manhattan. Emmanuelle Devos is magnifique as usual as Alix, a stage actress who takes time off from doing Ibsen in Calais to audition in Paris for a tiny, silly part in a movie. Unable to withdraw money from the bank or to reach her boyfriend back home by phone, the aggravated and somewhat irrational actress finds solace with the handsome married professor (Gabriel Byrne) she meets on a train and tracks down at his friend’s memorial. They are attracted to each other, but will they risk getting closer and even committing to each other before she must return to Calais later that night? I respectfully didn’t ask Bonnell and Devos about the ending when we did the following interview.
Danny Peary,: Jérôme, have you seen Brief Encounter, the 1945 British drama with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard? It’s also about a chance meeting by a man and woman in a railway station, and their passionate romantic interlude. Their relationship goes on for a longer time than Alix and the professor’s one-day affair, but was David Lean’s film an influence on you?
Jérôme Bonnell: I am familiar with Brief Encounter, of course, but I’ve seen it only a couple of times and don’t know it by heart. Of course there are similarities with the train station and all that, but that movie is a lot more hinged on ideas of morality, lies, guilt, and culpability. I didn’t want to explore those issues in my movie.
DP: What does your title mean to you?
JB: It comes from Casablanca–lyrics in “As Time Goes By.” It’s very far from the French title, Le temps de l’aventure, which means Adventure Time but is impossible to translate. In English it doesn’t mean the same thing at all. There are several meanings in French to the words time and adventure. Adventure is about love and time is about…
Emmanuelle Divos: …the right time to do something. Like the right time to live and the right time to love. It can be the right era or the right age.
DP: So are you saying it’s the right time in their lives for Alix and the stranger—the professor played by Gabriel Byrne–to meet?
JB: Yes, that can be one of several interpretations.
DP: I think they both need to meet each other at that exact time in their lives. I think that’s key to the movie.
JB: Oh, yes.
ED: I love coincidences because I don’t believe in coincidences.
DP: Do you think it is coincidence, fate, destiny or happenstance that they meet?
ED: I feel that the people we’re supposed to meet we do meet; and we meet the people we need to meet at the right time. We meet them when we need to make a change in our lives, maybe in the way we think. As actors we meet the directors we deserve or the directors that help us push what we can do in our art.
DP: They first meet on the train to Paris when he asks her directions to a church. It seems like he is trying to pick her up. But in fact, he really does need directions to the church to go to a memorial, and a couple of scenes later, she goes there to find him. She makes sure they connect. That’s not destiny, that’s Alix actually forcing the issue.
JB: Just because a character makes a decision doesn’t mean there’s no destiny. People make decisions all the time and there’s no premeditation there, things just happen.
DP: Alix at times seems totally irrational and her behavior is completely surprising and even shocking. When she pursues him, it seems like the most irrational thing she could possibly do. But with hindsight, after seeing the entire movie, I would say her decision to go after him is the one rational, good decision she makes.
JB: I do like that interpretation a lot–the act that seems the craziest ends up being the most rational and the one that makes the most sense. I haven’t thought of that before but I do like that.
DP: Emmanuelle, do you think it is a positive choice on her part to pursue him?
ED: Yes, this is a decision that she’ll be able to rely on for the rest of her life. Even though she comes off as a little bit irrational and all over the place, this decision is like a building block for her. It’s like hard cement, a strong base for all the events that will happen to her in the future.
DP: What do you think the professor sees in her? Why does he respond so much?
JB: It’s hard to put into words what love at first sight, le coup de foudre, is. I think it’s really impossible to define because the mere definition of it would make it smaller. Maybe it’s something on the order of a revelation, when at the same time something is revealed to us, we reveal something inside us.
DP: Emmanuelle, I think Alix is very complex. When reading the script for the first time, did you understand her right away, maybe because you’re playing an actress? Or did you not understand her until the end when something important about her is revealed?
ED: Before I shoot a movie, I think about it and work on it beforehand. But then when I’m actually on the set, there are new things popping up every day about who I’m playing. It’s like when you have a relationship with someone and they surprise you with new things about them, day after day. Until you are on the set, and there’s fire on the set, you don’t know what can come out of your character. I think we’re there to capture an instant, a moment, without having been able to see it before. It would be really sad if we could have foreseen it.
DP: There’s a line where the professor says, “I’m not very good with pain,” and she says, “Me, neither.” But she’s an actress, and I think her whole life is full of pain and embarrassment. And, Jérôme, you don’t make it any easier on her. You set up all these obstacles to her having a pain-and embarrassment-free day. She has no money, she has no phone, and when she tries to call her boyfriend from pay phones, she gets his voicemail or a band walks by and the drumbeat is deafening. She also has a difficult audition conducted by a numbskull who gives her ridiculous instructions. Then there’s a visit with her sister and they get into it, literally. And when she wants to be intimate with the professor, his friend keeps turning up. At such times, I thought you might be making a comedy and I’m thinking, is this the life of a French woman, or just an actress, or a woman who’s having a terrible day? What were you trying to do?
JB: I sprinkled all over the film all these obstacles. They were meant to be a humoristic device but they also were meant to say something about the times we live in. At the same time, they became the tools that allow her to find her freedom. When I was writing the script, and I came up with the idea of making her an actor, everything suddenly started to make sense. There was a new logic that revealed itself to me. I can’t even describe it more specifically. But I can say that it is actually possible to talk in depth about this film without talking about what it is to make a movie and to film somebody. Here I had two actors who revealed themselves to each other and at the same time, things about themselves were revealed through the other. When I filmed Emmanuelle I revealed things about her, and she helped me reveal things about myself.
DP: Alix’s audition is a great scene. What I found interesting, Emmanuelle, is that you’re playing an actress who is taking the emotions that have built during her aggravating day to help her play a woman who is having just as awful a day. Getting locked out of an apartment when naked is something that might very well have happened to Alix during her day!
ED: Alix goes through a lot of obstacles, and she too is kicked out and her clothes are stripped from her on many levels.
DP: In most current American films, there is a build up to the couple having sex, but we rarely see them having sex. So, Jérôme, talk about your decision to show them when they’re actually in bed.
JB: I didn’t really ask myself what I was going to show in the sex scene, I focused on what I was going to hide. I showed some things but there were many others that I didn’t show. We show them in bed but never see them actually having sex. I tried to film that scene as if I was not watching them. That’s ambiguous because I’m filming, so I’m obviously watching.
DP: You begin the film in Calais, so did you decide to set the rest of the film in Paris strictly because of its romantic nature?
JB: It’s in Paris because the noise, bubbly nature, and liveliness of the city serve as a counterpoint to the intimacy between the two characters. I like that a love story like this takes place in such a big city, and Alix, who is from Paris, feels like a stranger in her own hometown. I’m from Paris and I liked the idea of filming in my hometown as if I were watching it with a foreigner’s eye. I am a Parisian yet this is the first film I’ve filmed in Paris.
DP: Finally, Emmanuelle, how fulfilling was it to play Alix at this point in your career?
ED: It was very fulfilling. There are a thousand reasons, but maybe the most important is that I was filmed with such attention, care and love. And as Jérôme said earlier, by doing this film we revealed parts of each other to each other. There was such intimacy and, at the same time, modesty and elegance. That is so rare.