Trouble youth fueled by the poison of resentment, as
consequence of neglect, is a social problem ever-present around the world and
in turn has been at the center of countless cinematic escapades. Yet, by
constructing her study on the subject armed with honest notions of the teal
obstacles faced by the affected young people and those desperately working to
help them, French director Emmanuelle Bercot attained truthfulness grounded on
a brutal and revelatory lead performance in her latest work “Standing Tall.”
combining the malleable talent of newcomer Rod Paradot, the elegant nuances of
veteran star Catherine Deneuve , and a plot that is unafraid to go into the
darkest and most unappealing shades of a violent delinquent’s life, Bercot
eludes oversimplification and sugarcoated resolutions. She looks at a system
that attempts to apply rational rules to matters that are charged with
heartbreak, and in doing so questions society as a whole, parents, and the
individual himself about the role each plays in shaping a child into the person
he or she will become.
“Standing Tall” was
the Opening Night Film at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and received 3 Caesar
Awards this year all in acting categories, a clear testimony to the work of its accomplished director.
Aguilar: Youth in trouble is a subject that we see recurrently in cinema, but in “Standing Tall,” your approach is profoundly raw and realistic. Was there a particular case, story, or idea that you felt personally connected to or that served as catalyst for you to make this film?
Emmanuelle Bercot: Actually
there were two main things that really were reunited when I made this film. One is my
interest in childhood in general and then also my interest in injustice. In
this particular case there was also a more particular link because I have an
uncle who works in this field. He works as one of the counselors at one of
these camps for juvenile delinquents and it was through him that I really
learned about what kind of work these people do, how much time they devote to
it, and what their job is like in trying to do something for these kids. He
also spoke to me very specifically, which is included in the film, about this idea of
the trio. He also had worked with a young man for about ten years, so he had
developed a relationship with him, and also, in that particular case, he was
working with a woman who was a judge and who was at the point of retiring. Those
three characters are the three that are reunited in this trio that appears in
Aguilar: Were you able to interact and speak with people that have been part of this system in order to depict this facet of the French judicial system and how it affects young people? What sort research did you conduct to reach this authenticity?
Emmanuelle Bercot: First
of all, it was a subject that I really didn’t know anything about all. Most of
what takes place in this particular field takes place behind close doors. It’s
something that people don’t generally know about and don’t have any idea of
what really takes place there. At first I was just reading tons and tons of books on
the subject, and then through my uncle I was able to meet some people who work
in the field including a judge and some counselors like himself. Talking to
them I was able to develop what was basically the structure for my film. Once I
had that idea in my head of what I wanted to do, I realized that in order to
portray this world I had to portray it as truthfully as possible, so that
somebody who was part of that world would know that this was
really a truthful portrayal when they saw it. I did a lot of on-site visits. I spent a lot of
time in juvenile courts. I spent time in several judges’ offices. I also
visited some of those youth centers like the one portrayed in the film. It was
over the course of several months. After that I was able to feel that I
would be able to portray it in a way that would be honest.
Aguilar: Tell me about the process of creating the protagonist Malony with your lead actor Rod Paradot. This is an incredibly angry and often violent young men who is erratic, dangerous, but always vibrant.
Emmanuelle Bercot: Normally what I like to do when I work with adolescents and
non-professionals is to really choose them as close as possible to the
character that they are going to portray. Unfortunately in this case I was not
able to do that. I just could not find the kind of young adolescent that I was
looking for to portray this person. In fact when I chose Rod Paradot, I was dealing
with somebody that in his own personality is really quite different than the
character he is playing on the screen. It really required a great deal of work
on the set. I worked with him to elicit from him that level of anger and
violence that was necessary for the character. It really required me to push
him to the point where he went out of himself and beyond himself to become
someone else. It’s very unusual to demand from a young actor,
particularly a non-professional actor, something like this, to compose a
character, to put it together, rather than just play a version of themselves.
It was a lot of work on his part so that we could arrive at the character the
way I wanted it to be portrayed.
worked with Catherine Deneuve previously and clearly know how to use her experience well, why did you feel this role as a judge
was a fitting role for her? She is a motherly judge who balancers her sympathy towards these kids on an emotional level and her duty to do what is best for them and society.
Emmanuelle Bercot: I
wrote this role specifically for Catherine and in many ways it reflects what
she is like in reality. She has both the side of her that has a natural
authority and at the same time she has another part of her that’s very
maternal. I felt that this duality was what I really needed because this was the kind of humanity I wanted her to portray in the role of the judge. The role of
the judge is actually rather difficult. In the film we don’t see anything about
her personal life. We only see her through the prism of her job, so it’s very
difficult to create a character without having any back-story. I knew that
Catherine would be able to do that, but what she also then needed to know was
how to use the right terminology and the right words so that she would actually
sound like the judge that she was playing. Just like I did, she also did some
observation in real judges’ offices and the courts so that she would become
more familiar with what they sounded like and how they behave in those situations, so that it would give more credibility to her performance.
Aguilar: In your opinion what’s the reasoning behind Malony’s behavior and his way of relating to those around him? Is it only the resentment and fear because of the constant abandonment or is there something more?
Emmanuelle Bercot: Yes,
most definitely. I certainly thought of both of those things and it’s one of the things that I think its
very important to show. That’s why I had the film begin with him where you see him as he is being abandoned at a very young age. I
think that most children in this position have come from very
difficult backgrounds. They are brought into this system, which is to provide
them with educational assistance and also to help raising them because
here, as you can see, the mother is incapable of doing
her job. She can’t raise him properly and she doesn’t really know how to ground
him or to give him the structure that he needs in order to be able to relate to
society. No child is born a delinquent. Delinquents are made. They are not
born. From what I saw and what I’ve read I think that 95% of them are from
families that are difficult families like this one and of those I think 100% of
them are cases where the father is absent. There is no father figure present in
their life, and as result they grow up with a sense of not having any
protection, tools, or grip that is necessary to deal with their everyday life. I
think that the fact that Malony in this case resorts to violence is because violence
is often the only vocabulary that these young people know how to use in order
to express what they are feeling.
Aguilar: Occasionally, it seems as if these children and their mothers who can’t take proper care of them feel as if it’s a battle between them and the system. Even if the authorities seek to do what’s best, they seem to perceive the help as invasive.
Emmanuelle Bercot: What
I was trying to portray is not an “us against them”
kind of situation between the system against the mothers and children. This
is a system that really tries to be there for the child when the parent is
unable to do it. I think education is a fundamental right for every
child and when parents are unable to give the child that education then it’s
the responsibility of society to step in, to take over the role, and to provide it.
I think that in this case the system and everything that the system implemented
and tried to do for Malony was really something for his own good. Of course he
is going to feel like this is not something that’s good for him because it’s
almost like a punishment for him. Eventually, he comes to realize that it’s not really a
punishment but that what they are trying to do is something that will be helpful
for him and will actually benefit him in the long run. It’s really the opposite
of “us against them.” It’s the system with the child trying to give him what the
Aguilar: In a film like “Standing Tall” that emanates such a sense of truth and honest performances is there room for improvisation or is it all about an arduous rehearsal process to achieve the gravitas you are after? Every cast members provides an intense humanity.
Emmanuelle Bercot: None
of my actors are ever improvising, but also we never do any rehearsals. I prefer to work with them directly on
the set. We don’t rehearse but what I do is work individually with them while we are on the set. I’ve already spoken to you about how I worked with Rod to try
to get this character out of him, which is very distant from what he is in real
life. It’s about working with the actors in the moment and it does put a great
deal of pressure on the director. It’s a lot of work because in addition to
knowing where the camera is and where everyone is placed on set, you are also
trying to direct the actors to get exactly what you want them to give you. I
think that’s when your original choice of actors is a very important thing
because you have to know that these actors are going to be able to give you
what you are looking for. In this particular film for example, Sara Forestier, who plays the mother, plays a character that she
pretty much created herself. That’s not the way she is in real life. On the other hand, in the the case of Benoît Magimel, his character is actually much closer to what he is really like in life. It’s
less of a composed character or a created character on his part. Again, there
is no improvisation, I have a very tightly written script and everything is said
exactly the way it’s written, but the process of working during the takes is
really one of refining the dialogue as it’s spoken so that it really conveys
what it is that I wanted it to convey.
Aguilar: Tess, Malony’s girlfriend played by Diane Rouxel, is not the typical feminine figure that is often seem in films in the same vein. Why was it important to have someone completely opposite in personality be Malony’s strongest ally?
Emmanuelle Bercot: She
is a rather atypical character, but I think that what we see in her is somebody
who is a very balanced person, somebody who is very educated, and you’d look at
her and think, “Why was she attracted to a guy like this? What is the
attraction? And in many cases it’s inexplicable. That’s often the case. You don’t
understand why people are attracted to each other. In this case it’s almost as
if she is a person with a mission. She devotes herself to him almost like a
saint trying to pull him out of this spiral that he is spinning down in. She
really wants it to work. If you think about it she is the one who initiates
contact with him. She is the one who wants him. She is the one who wants to
keep the baby. She is the one calling the shots here. She is the stronger
figure and she works hard to try to bring him out the spiral he is in. Of
course, it may also have something to do with her own mother. Maybe on an
unconscious level her attraction to him is a subconscious way of provoking her mother, who is one of the counselors at this place, because her mother plays a role in that particular structure.
Aguilar: Following the Cannes Film Festival, what was the reaction of the general French audience towards the film given the difficult and very current themes it deals with? On the other hand, how did people who work in the field and deal with this issues daily felt about it?
Emmanuelle Bercot: The
film was very well received in France and I think that for a difficult subject
that’s really exceptional. I think part of the attraction to the film was that it
was showing an unknown world. Most people don’t know what goes on in the world
of juvenile delinquency. It was exposure to something that was completely new. I think that by portraying the system as it really is and trying to show
how it tries to help these young people, it enables you, as a citizen, to feel that this is something that you are proud that your government or
your country is doing. Now you can discover how it works. I went to
a lot of places that most people will never have an opportunity to go to, but
through the film I was able to show what I saw in these places. I think that
for a lot of people who saw the filmit changed the way they see delinquents.
They come to understand what’s involved in how these young people become who
they are. Also it helps them to understand what the system is trying to do for them. Many people have been affected by the film, especially by the paththat this young man’s life takes from the beginning till the end.
To answer the
second part of your question, about how people who work in the film received
the film, there have been quite a number of screenings that were done
specifically for groups like that. In fact, the Minister of Justice was actually
present at a number of them and there were lots of discussions about what takes
place in the film and what the system offers to young people. I think that
overall they were very happy that finally some light was being shun on the work
that’s being done – which for the most part goes unnoticed. It’s really something
that people don’t know about, and this gave them a chance to see it. It was
important. They were touched in many ways by the recognition that we gave them
and their jobs. In many cases these are thankless jobs in which people are
never recognized. The film also helped the families of
these people that work in the field understand what it is that they do and what
their jobs entail. What I’ve also heard is that whether is the judges, the counselors,
or the social workers that work in the system, they were all unanimous in feeling
that this really did show the daily reality of what they do.
“Standing Tall” opens in L.A. and NY on April 1st from Cohen Media Group