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Emilie Cherpitel on ‘Eva & Leon,’ A ‘Mother-Meets-Son’ Movie

The art decoration of “Eva & Leon” is sublime, its impact immediate in the measured static shots of Eva’s chic and huge arrondissement Paris flat, classical in the carefully contrasting tones of white, gray, blue and salmon, setting off of furniture, curtains, drapes, sofas, cushions, gray and walls, high ceilings. A life-size flamingo stands by the mantelpiece. But such luxury is not enough. Eva, 35 (Clotilde Hesme), svelte, a dandy, an flaneur, cultured, immature, no children, absent mother, recluse father, termigant sis, lives a privileged life few can dream of, at least  seriously. But, as the film suggests, she needs Leon, 10, an orphan who has escaped from his reception miles away outside France to try to find his birth-mother, to give her life an emotional anchor. Emilie Cherpitel’s film portrays their growing relationship of an odd couple. Distributed in France and sold abroad by Pyramide, one of Europe’s top arthouse production-distribution-sales companies, whose sales slate includes Golden Globe winner “Leviathan,” “Eva & Leon” will screen at this week’s Rendez-vous. Variety talked to Cherpitel on the eve of the 17th UniFrance Rendez-vous:

One reaction to the opening shots of your film is to try to find out who’s responsible for the interior design of Eva’s flat and contract them immediately; a second, to give up on that idea because it would probably cost too much. What “Eva & Leon” suggests in the next 80 minutes is that all this luxury, culture, privilege, is not enough for Eva. She is a flaneur, needs Leon for her life to make any sense at all.

I don’t think she uses an interior designer. I think she could but she doen’t. What I’m trying to say with those beginning shots of the apartment is here is someone with good tastes, sophisticated and bohemian. You don’t know it’s a woman by then but the reference to her apartment was pictures of Loulou de la Falaise’s apartment, one of Yves St. Laurent’s muses, in the ‘70s, a mix of classical bourgeois and hippy bohemian…

The slightly dandyish touch to one or two details…

I’m so glad you use that word, I didn’t put it in my answers. That’s really what the direction was for Eva. The beginning is to say she is a dandy character, someone who spends a lot of time making life tasteful, beautiful and not a lot of time working, or thinking too much about what is going to happen the next day. She is not a very involved citizen. She is a flaneur, exactly, as you say. That’s what she is at the beginning of the movie and you’re right to say that it doesn’t make her happy. I don’t think that she’s aware that she needs her life to make sense. She kind of takes life as it comes. And when this little boy shows up – I think he could be a distant cousin of Le Petit Prince – he bursts out of nowhere, and he is quite an intriguing little boy, with very odd references, for a small boy like him…

Leon claims Napoleon is his father, has picked a grand figure to be his father, but he has no idea who he is. He is kind of like her in that. He aims high. And I think at first when she takes him in, it’s really a game. It’s more of an amusement, that’s why her neighbor is concerned about that too. She refers to him to be funny, but in cat terms – you feed him, and I think that’s it. At the beginning she is really just taking it as it comes. She doesn’t know what to do with him. She keeps him around, because he laughs at her jokes, basically. That’s pretty much it, and then she grows fond of him and it’s only then that she realizes how much better life can be with a companion, with a side-kick. In that way it’s close to a love story idea. It’s a very typical boy-meet-girl story. But it’s maybe a mother-meets-son. The girl is 35 and the boy is 11 but they’re going to bring each other a lot even though there were no reasons originally for them to spend any time together or even meet.

Leon is an orphan. Would you say that Eva in many ways metaphorically is one too?

Leo is not only an orphan, he is also born anonymously, he has no idea who his parents are. I think Eva knows. That’s the main difference between them, but her mother has Alzheimer and has forgotten that her daughter even exists. I think that makes her motherless too, in a way, and I think that’s what echoes in him. And she is very lonely. I feel you can tell that pretty early on. They are both very lonely characters. I think she is lonely also because she is eager to be free in some way and maybe that goes with loneliness. But she also has a childhood feeling that nothing is serious. Everything can happen. And she doesn’t blossom in her adult life because she is afraid she will lose that feeling if she does.

The film, as you have written, has a natural double direction: Eva, immature, learns to be an adult, Leon, over adult for his age, learns to be young….

I was trying to tell the story of an unexpected friendship, between two people with no reason to meet or hang out together. The reference to that would be “Harold and Maude,” the Hal Ashby movie, two people who are very different that end up very close, or even “Gloria,” the Casavetes movie. Immature adults are really fun characters to write about, because they are free and maybe what we aspire to in some ways, more immaturity and less responsibility. And over mature children –Le Petit Prince, for instance – are always very intriguing. There is a quote from Jacques Brel, who said something very pretty: “It took us a lot of talent to grow old without becoming adults”. Eva is very talented that way. She doesn’t aim to become an adult. Leon is just giving her a purpose to life, but he is not changing her.

“Eva & Leon” is your first feature. What were, for you, the keys to directing it? Things you wanted to get right, or to avoid?

I wanted to avoid the film taking itself too seriously. I was trying to talk of serious matters, but in a light way, a lighthearted way, légère” in French…the contrary of gloomy. My keys to directing?  I always felt that if I was sincere in everything I did making this movie it would show up on screen. I also knew that the set had to be a joyous place, because if you have fun, the kid has fun, and if the kid has fun, he will spontaneously be bubbly and witty, and all you want him to be, and same thing: It shows up on screen. The last guideline, however cheesy it sounds: If you want to move people with your story and you’ve made up fictional characters to tell it, you really have to love those characters.

Clotilde Hesme is one of the most admired actresses of her generation. How did you direct Florian Lemaire so that there’s a sense of chemistry, of complicity between them.

It was very different to direct Clotilde and Leon. With Clotilde, we talked a lot, about other movies references, about what I knew about Eva. With Florian, I realized that that the more I talked to him, the les his acting was going in the right direction. After a few days I realized I just had to shut up, and create an atmosphere around the scenes which would help him be Leon.

Your characters quote Maupassant and Scott Fitzgerald. What in film or literary terms were the major influences on the film? Was Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” an influence? 

More than “The Great Gatsby,” I’d say “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was definitely an influence, although it’s filmed differently. Eva even wears a sleeping mask at the beginning very similar to Audrey Hepburn’s. Also Louis Malle’s “Zazie in the Metro,” about a really mischievous girl in a very innocent way who is running around Paris. “Empire of the Sun,” with Christian Bale, a little English boy lost in a Japanese war, and being very happy: I feel children are easily happen, whatever situation they’re in.

You have worked as 1st or 2nd assistant director for some remarkable directors: Sofia Coppola, Ridley Scott, Michael Radford, and Wes Anderson. What did you learn from them?

What to me is very similar is quite simple but true: They don’t compromise on anything from how many days they’re going to shoot the film, to the quality of coffee on set. They’re interested in every detail. The other thing that is similar is that they work harder than anybody else around. If you want to direct, you have to lead from the front.

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