Pitch Perfect: Bavo Defurne on Directing Isabelle Huppert and Songwriting for Souvenir

An elegant ode to fading dreams and the possibility of second chances, director Bavo Defurne’s sophomore feature Souvenir channels Eurovision glamour into an unlikely romance.

It’s also an exquisite vehicle for recent Oscar-nominee Isabelle Huppert to transform into a larger-than-life songstress with a timeless allure. Putting memories of the stage behind her, Liliane (Huppert) now lives a life devoid of surprises and high expectations as a factory worker. A thousand miles away, that past makes itself present once again when a young co-worker (Kévin Azaïs) recognizes her. Infused with restored vigor thanks to the young man, who is also a burgeoning boxer, Liliane feels empowered to take another shot at a major singing competition and returns to the spotlight. There is nothing Isabelle Huppert can’t do, and seeing her portray a revitalized diva grasping at success one more time is a pleasure to watch.

Speaking from his residence in Ghent, Belgium, the Flemish helmer told MovieMaker about his initial trepidation when faced with directing an icon like Huppert, and dabbling in songwriting for the first time.

Isabelle Huppert and Johan Leysen in Souvenir. Image courtesy of Strand Releasing

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Was your interest in the Eurovision contest the film’s catalyst, or perhaps exploring the experience of a fallen star getting a second chance?

Bavo Defurne (BD): When I make a movie, it always starts with emotions. The emotions from the people around me, the emotions I feel in society, and things that I experience myself. I expand the emotions into a story, and in the stories I tell I look for contrasts—things which are exciting and bigger than life. I think my life, and everybody’s lives are kind of random, grey, and dull. When I go to the cinema, and what I make movies for, is to see life in another light, through other eyes.

That’s where it came from for me. Eurovision was a big goal for the character Liliane, something she didn’t achieve when she was younger. The movie is very much about that—dreams of your youth that you don’t really realize. At one point you tend to forget them. This movie is about a woman who meets someone who says, “I don’t think it’s over. There’s still so much to enjoy in life and so much to do. Maybe we’re different, but let’s go and enjoy life together” When she meets that guy, she’s a bit overwhelmed. She doesn’t know if she should go for it. Suddenly her dreams could come true, and now what?

MM: Did you write it with Isabelle Huppert in mind? If so, how did her involvement come about?

BD: Actually, yes. I know that it’s stupid to do that, because it’s not professional to write with someone in mind. I always had her in mind, not only because she’s a great actress, of course she’s a great actress, but also because the character of Liliane is a character that Isabelle plays very well. She doesn’t go for the middle. She’s either in the spotlight, or she’s totally absent. It’s black or white. There’s no in between for Isabelle, and there’s no in between for Liliane. That’s why I wrote it with Isabelle in mind.

Practically, I stayed open for any good actress. We did a proper casting with a casting agent, and when we came to the shortlist the agent said, “Now you have to name your first choice.” After the whole process of filtering, filtering, filtering and choosing, I had to say it was still Isabelle. The casting agent contacted her and she read the script. She saw all of my movies, even my short films, and she met with me. She told me she liked the script, and then she had a lot of questions about how I work as a director. She really took her time to ask, “How do you do this or that?” My first movie, North Sea Texas, is about young boys falling in love, and she was curious how I worked with these young actors, and how I work with sexuality on set, with emotions and visuals. She wanted to know it all, and I told her everything, and then it was okay. She said, “I’m going to do it.”

MM: With someone like Isabelle, who has worked with many important directors, how did you approach directing her performance? Were you apprehensive?

BD: I quickly understood that it was wrong to feel overwhelmed, because every actor needs a confident director. I must admit in the beginning I was a bit overwhelmed, but quickly I understood that even someone like Isabelle doesn’t want to just freewheel on set. She said, “Above all, I’m here not for the story really, I’m here because of your visual approach, of your work with actors, of how you make movies, I’m here for that.” She wanted to hear what I had to say as a director. I’m very grateful she took this risk on me. It is what she’s known for, after all, taking risks. She’s in movies from before I was born, you have to feel humble.

MM: Tell me about the visual approach, which seems to be detail-driven in all aspects of the production.

BD: I come from a background of experimental film and visual filmmaking. My movies don’t have a lot of dialogue; even my first short movies didn’t have dialogue. This movie of course and my last movies have dialogue, but I still prefer visuals as the means of expression. For me dialogue is just one part of the whole, like the cameras, the light, the sets, even the costumes. Cinema is basically and the art of choice—choosing the right details. Every detail is part of this big machine of expression, but this whole machine is full of little things that all tell something, and they all take part in the story. 

MM: Liliane inhabits two very different worlds. There is the strict, meticulously arranged factory environment, and the magical environment of the stage. Were there two different approaches to the cinematography and the production design for these two places?

BD: Take first the meat factory—it’s very cold, very rigid, no emotion. That’s how she feels before she meets this young guy. She feels like a robot, like life’s not worth living. Then when she meets the boy and goes to sing again she’s like a flower, colors emerge and she becomes more brilliant. That’s why we chose all of these various sets. I really have to thank my set designer, who was willing to go deep into that visual story. My set designer also works with a lot of draftsmen, men who draw in comics. There are a lot of comic strips in Belgium, so actually for every set there was first a drawing. The draftsmen make a lot of drawings, and once they get approved by me and my whole crew, we make them into this universe. That’s how I like to make movies, and thats what’s fantastic about this craft—to make up worlds.

MM: Tell me about your first time as a songwriter. How did your collaboration with Pink Martini for the two music tracks in the film originate? Both songs feel tailor-made for this narrative.

BD: I met Thomas Laudredale and Pink Martini at a concert years ago with Yves Verbraeken, who is my co-everything for this film—producer, writer, and creator. We had the North Sea Texas world premiere in Palm Springs and I think Thomas saw it there, and he said, “It’s beautiful, I wish I had made the music for it.” I said, “Well, that’s a pity, but I’m preparing a new movie with music, so why don’t you work on it?” He said yes before we had Isabelle confirmed. He does speak French, but he’s not a French speaker, so Yves and I wrote the lyrics of the songs. We brought the lyrics to Thomas, who wrote the music on piano, here in Belgium, once in Paris, and then once in my hometown of Ghent.

I’m not a lyricist but I think the songs work, because they express the emotions of the characters. One song is called “Souvenir.” It’s about looking back at life and thinking the past was better. That’s how Liliane feels in the beginning of the movie, and then the happy tune, “Joli Garçon,” is about meeting a pretty boy, and how hope comes back into your life. It wasn’t so different than writing the screenplay. I’ve never written other songs besides these, but I liked it, so maybe we’ll do that more, but I don’t know. It was fun to do, but the music world is very different from the film world. Film is very strict, because there’s always deadlines, while in music there’s a flexible, more of a rock-and-roll kind of feeling … and that’s good! I think for my next movie I’ll try to keep that spirit of musicians in mind, to be more open for creativity and cooperation. Sometimes cinema is a bit too militarist, and not democratic enough. It was fun and a learning experience to work with Pink Martini.

MM: Your first feature, North Sea Texas, is a much quieter film about young love. Souvenir feels somewhere between melodrama and magical realism. Did the approach change between these projects because of their content?

BD: All of my movies, even my short movies, play with archetypes and classic elements. North Sea Texas is different in the sense that it’s a bit more silent and poetic, but also I felt that was what needed to be there, because it’s really a portrait of a boy, and he’s very shy and silent. It’s a very internal world. It’s his internal world. I don’t think my reflexes are different, in the sense that Souvenir is the world of this singer, so we really make her world, which is a bit more of a colorful world, and a bit more expressive. But again, I really start from the character’s emotions. The shape of the movie and the form of the movie is guided by the main character. Their emotion will inspire me to change my style if needed. Imagine if I made a thriller, it would really look different. MM

Souvenir opened in theaters in Los Angeles March 16, 2018, courtesy of Strand Releasing.

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