Cannes 2023: Abbé Pierre, “showing the man behind the symbol”
The cross : What made you want to devote a film to Abbé Pierre?
Frederic Tellier: When the idea came to make a film about this man, my concern was to know: what for? What, beyond his exemplary action and the symbol he represents, could make him a movie character? I had to find in his life reliefs, solids and hollows, something to cling to in order to find a guiding thread and avoid the trap of hagiography.
Doubt seized me because all the documentation, the books, the documentaries that I consulted always referred me to the legend. Basically, what I wanted was to understand who this little man was behind this admirable life. It is thanks to meetings with people who knew him, in particular Laurent Desmard, the president of the Abbé-Pierre Foundation who was his private secretary until his death, thanks to the stories and anecdotes they told me. have told that I succeeded.
What face of Abbé Pierre did you want to show?
FT: What interested me was his normality, how he could be like all of us. Show his moods, his ups, his downs. He is a man who has doubted everything, all his life, behind his beautiful assurance and his rants. Besides, I open and close the film on that. There are rough edges in his personality that I do not hide and that everyone will feel according to their sensitivity. But what fascinated and touched me was the consistency in his goodness. The only thing that interested him was meeting the other, and he held this course all his life. Basically, with this film, I’m talking less about religion than about faith in humanity.
What were the main pitfalls?
FT : There was an emotional charge around the figure of Abbé Pierre and you had to be very attentive to it. Two films had already been devoted to him: The Rags of Emmaus in 1955 and winter 54, which centered on his appeal for the poorly housed. So I had to broaden the spectrum, and to understand the man, I had to show where he came from: the monastery, the war, the Resistance. All of this is part of his fight.
Hence the choice to tell his life, from his early years to his death. The call of 54 is of course the keystone of the story, but I tried to represent it differently, to deconstruct it into something both cinematic and modern, which plays on the timelessness of its message.
Was it difficult to find the actor to play him?
FT: Yes and no. I wanted a powerful, solid and technical actor to be able to endorse Abbé Pierre’s long speeches. Benjamin Lavernhe is a bit of all that. And without being his double, he looks like him and manages to reproduce his very particular phrasing. I knew him from The SK1 Affair, where he had a small role. I felt his desire and at the same time his stage fright. That’s what seduced me.
What relationships have you built with the Emmaus companions?
FT : During the writing of the screenplay, I visited several communities including that of Neuilly-Plaisance to observe, understand and experience daily life with them. It was very inspiring for me and for the actors I sent out on tours with the volunteers. I worked closely with their managers, Christophe Robert and Yves Colin, and I loved those moments. They saw the film and it was a very emotional moment, especially for Laurent Desmard. They will be by my side in Cannes.
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