Jean-Paul Salome: 'Mystery Is Cinema’s Chromosome'

French helmer – and UniFrance president – talks about his latest film “Playing Dead,” which screened Sunday at the UniFrance Rendez-vous in Paris.

PARIS – Elected president of French film export board UniFrance last January, Jean-Paul Salome is also a jobbing movie director. He slips easy definition. A film director who spent eight years at the helm of French writers, directors and producers guild ARP, he is “pragmatist, really knows how all parts of the business work, and wants things to happen,” enthused Cecile Gaget, Gaumont sales head. A director who likes high-concept cinema, makes mystery and action thrillers, often leverages star casts – “Female Agents” toplined Sophie Marceau and Deborah François, he has worked with British actresses in France – “Arsene Lupin” had Kristin Scott-Thomas and Eva Green – and in the U.S., shooting “The Chameleon,” with Ellen Barkin. Salome is certainly not a highbrow auteur nor for that matter a popcorn mainstream practitioner. But the last thing he wants is to be buttonholed, he said.

At this week’s UniFrance Rendez-vous he talked to Variety about his latest film, the French Alps set romp “Playing Dead,” seen out of competition at Rome and well-received at the Rendez-vous. In it, Francois Damiens (“Suzanne”) mails his role as a cantankerous has-been star who reluctantly plays the murder victims in a triple crime scene re-enactment.

Your latest film, “Playing Dead,” could be described as a comedic-mystery thriller. France imports or makes “Agatha Christie.” “The Mentalist” tops prime time on TF1, the biggest broadcast network in France. Other films of yours –“Arsene Lupin,” “Belphegor, Phantom of the Louvre,” even “The Chameleon” – have strong mystery elements. Why your – and France’s – fascination with mystery?

JEAN PAUL: This kind of mix between comedy and thriller, was the direction I wanted to take. Mystery is cinema’s chromosome. When I was very young, in the ‘70s, the movies I saw often had mystery, were sometimes scary.  My parents lived in Paris suburbs, and I saw French popular cinema and popular U.S. films. I saw many movies at the first local multiplex. I didn’t go to the Cinematheque in Paris because it was too far away. After, when I moved to Paris in my early 20s, I went to the Quartier Latin and saw a host of American movies: Howard Hawks, Hitchcock. But the first movie I saw was “The Red Circle,” by Jean-Pierre Melville, plus Claude Lelouch’s “The Crook.” I caught them the same weekend. At the end of the weekend, I told my parents: “I want to be a director” I think they thought I was crazy. Now I am a director now, I am always moving somewhere between “The Red Circle” and “The Crook.” between something more instinctive like “Red Circle” and something more methodical like Melville, who is a monomaniac.

And France in general?

Many directors in France grew up at the Cinematheque in Paris. Maybe not the generation after me, but my generation that is a bit older, directors like Arnaud Desplechin or others, they are a product of Paris’ La Femis and IDHEC film schools and the Cinematheque.

France also has a tradition of crime thrillers, polars….

Yes, there’s a tradition that is being renewed by directors such as Fred Cavaye and Olivier Marchal. But these are dark polars, I’m not so dark.

You could describe “Playing Dead” as an attempt to find a new way into procedural drama via the figure of an actor who’s so anal about method acting down to the last detail when playing a crime victim that he exposes the innocence of the confessed killer.

I like high concept movies. For me, if I’m going to work on a movie for two-to-three years, I need a high concept. For me it’s an obsession. I first thought of making the film when I read an article in Liberation that interviewed actors who played corpses in the reconstruction of crimes with the real-crime witnesses. Some actors had problems doing this.     

Another part of the comedy, for French audiences at least, is that François Damiens, a real star in France, plays a washed-up bit actor who can’t get jobs, who pretends he’s going to be in a film with “The Artist’s” Jean Dujardin when of course they starred together in Oscar-winner Michel Hazanavicius’ “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” in 2006?

Yes, and Francois was very happy to do that. It’s always funny to play a bad actor, though it’s not so easy to be bad and human. The challenge of the film was to take a character with a big ego and gradually make him more human and fragile.

A key element is the film’s location in the Rhone Alps. French films often have a superb sense of location.

Yes, not only as a background but in “Playing Dead” also to provide a sense of mystery. I always wanted to make a movie at an out-of-season mountain resort. It creates, for me at least, a sense of anxiety. Also, the resort is between two seasons, in the fall with just a little snow, some rain, which is, rather like the character, in the middle of nowhere in his life. And there’s an ambience that is rather like a acting troupe going on tour and staying at a small hotel in a small city.

“Playing Dead” is co-produced by France’s Diaphana and Les Films du Fleuve, the Brussels-based production company of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. What did they bring to the table?  

They came in when Francois Damiens came on board because he’s Belgian, which allowed us to shoot in France. I did some sound mixing and editing in Belgium and some of the crew was Belgian. The Dardenne brothers knew Michel Saint-Jean at Diaphana. I was on the Cannes Camera d’Or jury with the brothers in 2006 and have a good relationship. Michel took them the screenplay and they said they wanted to do it. They’d never produced a comedy. They read the script, were very respectful of my work: It was a good collaboration.

You directed “The Chameleon” in English with Ellen Barkin, Famke Jansenn, Mark-Andre Grondin. One big reason some French directors want to work in English is to get to work with certain actors.

Exactly. I like to work with English and American actors. I worked in Paris with Julie Christie [in “Belphegor”] and Kristin Scott-Thomas  [in “Arsene Lupin”] and they both said “Try to work in English.” For me, it was a pleasure, a small independent U.S. movie which we shot in 25 days. Ellen Barkin was incredible. It was very intense.

Your next movie will be in French?

I think so, again with Michel Saint-Jean at Diaphana. I began writing two weeks ago. It’s too early to say much but it’s about a guy who runs the bank of a very rich family. He also becomes its therapist, guru, concierge. It’s a dramedy, but I’m just beginning.

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