With his debut feature Vif Argent (Burning Ghost) currently playing in the MyFrenchFilmFestival, Batut has already decades of experience.
Speaking from a phone in the French capital, filmmaker Stéphane Batut’s first response is to ask me how I am. It’s a measure of the man to be more concerned with the welfare of others, I suppose, and the 53-year-old (born the same great year as I was) adds that the Irish Lockdown seems very hard.
Luckily, however, we are both continuing to do our bit and Stéphane is appreciative of the fact that he is continuing to work and that his work is continuing to be seen. His next film project is already in the bag, so to speak, having recently acquired the necessary funding from the CNC (the French equivalent of Screen Ireland).
His career as director of feature films has only just begun with quite a bang (Burning Ghost was won three major prizes upon its initial release in 2019, most notably the Prix Jean-Vigo) but this is a man who has been waiting and watching from the long grass for a number of years.
From an early age, he got to work as a casting director with some of the greatest names in French cinema, including Arnaud Desplechin and Joann Sfar (whose 2010 film on the late Serge Gainsbourg is a blueprint on how to make a thoroughly engaging biopic). However, his steps into the world of directing were tentative – beginning with some short films and verging into the area of documentaries:
“I always felt a little bit, let’s say, intimidated by the aura around certain filmmakers that I worked with,” he says, “so I said to myself that it was perhaps by filming documentaries that I would find the best means of cinematic expression to begin with.”
Stéphane made the documentary Le Choeur in 2007 and Le Rappel des Oiseaux in 2015. Although both were classed as short films, the latter work (a film about the Tibetan Sky Burial ritual) was 40 minutes in length. It was the success of Le Rappel des Oiseaux that gave him an ‘in’ in the world of film production and he found that levels of encouragement and confidence went up considerably.
“This led to working on this kind-of modern ghost story (Vif-Argent) that was originally intended to be a portrait of Paris – at least of the Paris that I know; Eastern Paris – to be told through experiences of memories told to me by people that I met. Little by little, I brought in the fantastical element of the story by working on the character of the man who listens to the memories. So I worked on these notions of destiny and fatality and from there, we managed to make this film and get it over the line.”
There is a haunting quality to Batut’s modern-day ghost story that combines the importance of memories, love and loss. The film is extremely powerful visually, perfectly paced and features a superb cast, particularly from 22-year-old Timothée Robart in the role of the central character Juste. The standard of French acting it something that many in the industry have remarked upon, particularly renowned Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, who cites it as his principal reason for making films almost exclusively in France. Another prestigious foreign filmmaker Paul Verhoeven now seems to prefer working France too (Batut also worked as casting director on his forthcoming film Benedetta). Is it for the same reason that the veteran Dutch director is embracing French cinema?
“I don’t think so,” says Batut. “I think that France perhaps offers him the kind of freedom – in terms of taboo subjects – to express himself that he wouldn’t necessarily get in the US.”
The prize-winning power of Vif Argent was something “completely unexpected” for Batut:
“I take that prize not for me but for the entire team that worked on the film… There was a lot of desire on the part of my collaborators – be it in setting up the shots, the editing side, the sound… I had the impression that everyone wanted to really get under the skin of the film and what I think I achieved in doing was to hold a course or keep the wheels on the road in the middle of all these ideas around me that came on board with the project from the very start. So the shape of the film changed a lot from what I imagined it was going to be at the start to what it became at the end.”
This collaborative process isn’t, Batut feels, the norm in French cinema, where directors tend to see their role as bringing their actors in line with their vision.
As for the future, will Batut be more of a director than a casting director?
“I hope to continue being both,” he says. “I still have an attachment to certain directors and I’m curious about some filmmakers to whom I could bring something to the table in my work (as casting director)… but I also hope to continue working as a film director and I hope that this current situation won’t last and that we’ll have a time before long where we’ll be able to show films in a cinema. Everyone is still hopeful that we’ll see a return to normality before too long.”
Finally, when asked the question of which cinematic figure influenced him the most, the answer is Jean Renoir – son of the artiste Auguste Renoir and whose most famous work was probably La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) from 1939, in which Renoir also played one of the principal roles.
“He was the director that impressed me the most – his freedom, his intelligence, the sensuality of his films.”
Burning Ghost is part of the MyFrenchFilmFestival, which runs until the 15th of February. See link to the the trailer below.