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Locarno — Lionel Baier: ‘Families Are the Most Dangerous Social Group on Earth’

Baier's 'Vanity' Plays Locarno's Piazza Grande

Playing next week at Locarno’s Piazza Grande — one sign of a potential crowd-pleaser — “Vanity” (“La Vanité”) is the seventh movie from Lionel Baier, one of Switzerland’s young filmmakers with a fairly high international profile. His scribe-helmer credits include  “Another Man” (2008), “Longwave” (2013), and “Stupid Boy” (2004).

Pedro Almodovar muse Carmen Maura, who won a 2012 Cesar for Philippe Le Guay’s “Service Entrance,” and Patrick Lapp (“Longwave”) star in “Vanity,” a euthanasia comedy produced by Bande à Part Films, founded by Baier and fellow filmmakers Ursula Meier, Jean-Stephane Bron and Frederic Mermoud.

World premiered in Cannes’ ACID sidebar, “Vanity” will be released in France via Happiness Distribution; Frenetic will open it in Switzerland. Loic Magneron’s Wide Management handles “Vanity” international rights. In “Vanity,” a terminally ill man decides to end it all with the help of a pro-euthanasia association. A day is scheduled, but it begins to looks like his death is not going to be a cake walk.

There’s almost a mini sub-genre of humor-laced assisted suicide films from Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit’s recent dramedy “The Farewell Party” and Olias Barco’s Rome top prize winner “Kill Me Please” to earlier titles such as Harold S. Bucquet’s Lionel Barrymore starrer “On Borrowed Time” (1939) or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “A Matter of Life and Death.” What is it about euthanasia which makes it so funny, or is the alternative – a completely humorless treatment – just too uninviting?

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You know “On Borrowed Time”? I love this film! Death isn’t a serious matter. Films always show people getting closer and closer to their ends. In various ways. It’s really accurate in comedy because the characters try harder to get away from their ends by doing funny things. To forget death.

As Woody Allen eloquently stated: ‘I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens…’

In French we use the word “distrayant,” which means entertaining and looking in another direction. That’s exactly what a comedy does: Helping us to await our death with grace. Euthanasia is a really modern question. It’s appeared now in Western societies because the post-war generation are getting older. They are now in their 70s or 80s. Baby boomers have had a life of choices: About sexuality, abortion, contraception, gender rights etc… So they want now to decide how and when they are going to die.

The tone in which the topic is treated is key, maybe one of the most difficult things in the film. Was it all in the screenplay or did it also grow and develop during the shoot?

The ambivalent tonality was a project of the film itself. I remembered “The Trouble With Harry,” which I saw when I was a kid. I was really impressed by its black humor.  It was the first time I understood that awful things such as murders or lies can be seen better with the distance of humor. Patrick Lapp, who plays David Miller, and who is quite famous in Switzerland, has this kind of cold humor that I was looking for. So Julien Bouissoux and I wrote a character for him.

Humor runs through your films. In “Longwave,” it’s more a comedy of manners, in “Man” more satirical. It’s sometimes said humor travels badly. Some French comedies have recently disproved that, but what has been your experience with this? And what are your expectations for “Vanity”?

French speakers are so proud of their culture; they sometimes forget that unfortunately it’s not universal anymore. So they base their comedies on dialogues and local references. So they are complicated to export.  The French market is big enough to make profits with this kind of films. I was more influenced by directors as John Landis or Ernst Lubitsch. Or Monty Python’s films. I like nonsense. I hope that  “Vanity” finds its way through the Spanish world because of Carmen Maura. And I have always great expectations for my films, so I tried to be really specific and personal to be truly universal. We will see if I succeeded. The casting is really European. Carmen Maura is Spanish, Ivan Georgiev is Bulgarian and I am half Polish. Great expectations I said….

“Vanity” concludes like an unexpected Christmas tale. It seems to make a humanistic suggestion about the importance of a non-biological family that aids the protagonist.

The family is the most dangerous social group on earth! I am not joking; 80% of crimes are committed by a member of the victim’s family. It’s why I never go to a Christmas gathering. It’s a question of safety. So my knowledge of Christmas Eve is theoretical. It comes from “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Un conte de Noel.” It’s more safe to compose your family yourself.

Again, “Vanity” seems like a dance between pessimism and optimism, knit through by a contained humor. Would you agree?  

Yes. I tried to direct one scene against the previous one. It’s what I admire in Lubitsch’s films. His work is like a shining star that I try to reach. Desperately…

Why did three Swiss directors decide to produce their own films? And how many films do you aim to produce per year?

I don’t know well other Swiss directors except my colleagues from Bande à Part (Ursula Meier, Jean-Stéphane Bron and Frédéric Mermoud). I always work with producer or co-producers. “Vanity” is a co-production with Les Films du Poisson in France, which is a company owned by three women. Bande à Part was the main production company, so technically, I am the producer of my own film. In reality, Frédéric Mermoud had this role for Bande à Part and Estelle Fiallon for Les Films du Poisson. I need this interaction with the production. Knowing how the film is produced helps me to be more creative.

Finally, what are the pros and cons of producing films out of Switzerland?

It’s a small country, so you know everybody. Which is a good thing when everything goes well, and a nightmare if it goes wrong. There is no real private financing system for films, but the regional and federal governments are quite generous. In the French part, we have a really clever relationship with the national television, which is open to experimentation and new form of films. The littleness of our territory forces us to go abroad for financing or films. Which is a chance today.

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