San Sebastian 2023 interview: Joachim Lafosse (A Silence)

Belgian director and screenwriter Joachim Lafosse brought his ninth feature film A Silence to San Sebastian, a film about a family secret that has festered for 30 years, slowly tearing apart a mother (played by Emmanuelle Devos), her husband (Daniel Auteuil), and her son (Matthieu Galoux). After its world première Cédric Succivalli sat down with Lafosse to discuss the film, his actors, the crimes and the victims of the bourgeoisie, and the way we look at films about incest.

CS: I’m very happy to meet you, particularly for A Silence. I’ve been a supporter of your films from day one, and what struck me in this film is that it is an extremely uncomfortable film about an uncomfortable topic, but you are daring enough to go all the way without being afraid of tackling such a heavy subject, without feeling the need to sway the audience. The film simply states the facts and lets the audience do its own job of understanding the dynamics of every character. How did you write such multi-layered characters?

JL: Every audience, even every audience member is different. There are two auteurs in a film: you see your own film, and that film is not the same as the one the person next to you is seeing. To give to the audience options you have to make choices, for instance to keep some parts off-screen instead of showing everything. If you show violence or you show a crash, you create a kind of trauma in the audience. That will cause them to stop thinking, because you can’t think if you see something violent. Through Emmanuelle’s (Devos, ed.) character you understand this is a movie about shame and the horrible effects shame can have. The question is: why do you feel shame? I heard about this true story, but with a journalistic account you don’t have a film, since you don’t have real characters. My job is to write them. From the moment I started writing I wanted to help Raphael (Matthieu Galoux’s character, ed.) and I wanted to create a bond between the woman and the audience. It is very easy to condemn a woman who doesn’t speak about horrible things as shown in the film for 30 years, but I told my co-writers (Chloé Duponchelle and Paul Ismael, ed.) that she was a victim. Also, I wanted to show that if you don’t protect the universal laws of humanity, that as an adult you will create a toxic situation, and in the end you yourself might become a victim of that toxicity. I may not be a moralist, but I do have my own morals, so I wanted to create a morality play. I refuse to judge Astrid (Devos’ character, ed.), I prefer to judge the criminal. The most beautiful question in cinema, one we arrive at through dramatic irony, is how did we get to this situation? How and why did this happen? I prefer that to the ‘what’, that is not interesting to me. That has been my approach since my first film.

CS: What you manage to do with the actors, especially Emmanuelle Devos, is astonishing. I’ve seen perhaps all of her films, but there is something in her face in this film that I’ve never seen before.

JL: For a film like this, you start with the script. But then you have the ‘writing’ of the breathing, the writing of the movement of the body, of the beginning of tears. Working with Emmanuelle in that regard was incredible. There is a scene where she is at the pool, and suddenly there is this breath, and that for me is the beginning of the film. Or when she talks on the phone with Daniel Auteuil’s brother and asks him to stop talking, and suddenly she is alone in the car. That’s a very long take of about three minutes, much like Abbas Kiarostami, my favourite director. And she holds so much control over that scene. Emmanuelle said to me, “I give a lot to this character, maybe more than I have ever given a character before.” To me she is one of the great ones.

CS: Watching the film I also thought a lot about Claude Chabrol, but as if he was injected with some sort of darkness. French films are almost caricaturally always about the provincial upper-middle class bourgeoisie, depicted through the inner conflicts of families that are corrupted from the inside. He never went as far as you did though, touching on subjects like sexual predation.

JL: Well, it was a different time of course. I like Chabrol, but to be honest for this particular subject matter and talent of the director I would prefer Kiarostami. Sometimes Chabrol is a little too much, too quickly. I abhor the bourgeoisie and their silence, the preference and comfort they choose by being silent instead of speaking the truth. When it came to the direction and the mise-en-scène I heavily discussed two directors with my DP (Jean-François Hensgens, ed.): Clint Eastwood and James Gray. We spoke a lot about Gray’s Little Odessa. It’s not a spectacular film, but he has a lot of trust in his story and his characters. Sometimes it’s a little bit sad the way people think about this kind of film. It’s complicated to be classical these days, people think it’s old and stuffy. Classical is not old! To me, it is the subject that should decide the form. A sentimentalist approach would be all wrong for subject matter like that of A Silence.

CS: Can you tell me a little bit about how you offered the role to Daniel Auteuil, and how he reacted? It’s courageous for an actor of his age and standing to accept a role that is so problematic and uncomfortable.

JL: A lot of famous French stars read the script, and they all said, “I like the script, but this character is not for me.” But with him… I sent him an email, and 45 minutes later he called me back with enthusiasm. His wife told me that he had come into the kitchen elated, and she hadn’t seen him like that in a long time. Working on the film he never spoke or asked about his character; he was always talking about the difficulties of the characters of Emmanuelle and Matthieu. Because guys like his character don’t change, they refuse to change. Their sickness prevents them from asking for help, and they choose the worst way possible.

CS: In terms of chemistry this couple definitely works. He’s this lousy, charismatic, problematic lawyer, and she is a wealthy housewife with so many pains, completely torn inside. Have you seen Catherine Breillat’s film Last Summer that was in Cannes this year? Both films tackle subject matter that is somewhat comparable.

JL: With that film I would have liked if people had spoken more about what we see. We see an incest situation, we see a sexual crime, we see a minor abused by an adult. But then afterwards I heard a lot of people speak about desire, about love, about passion. In my opinion we have to speak about the crime. Last Summer is not a bad film, I would even say it’s important, but I completely agreed with Christine Angot’s take that discussed what the film shows and what people saw in it, and the dichotomy between those two. If today you would tell a story of a middle-aged man and a young girl, and you would speak about love and passion, you would be rightfully condemned. In the promo material for Last Summer incest is not mentioned. Why not? When I did Private Lessons (2008, ed.) I heard a lot of reactions afterwards that I couldn’t understand. A lot of guys who said that what it showed was not a problem, this young guy learned a lot of things, and so on. This was unfathomable for me. After MeToo it is unthinkable for guys to say those things, but people don’t change. They still think them, they just don’t say it anymore.