French Dramedy ‘Discount’: A Film About ‘Strength in Unity’

First time director Louis-Julien Petit talks about his buzzed-up title, which market preems at the UniFrance Rendez-vous

French Dramedy ‘Discount’: Film About ‘Strength Unity’

In “Discount,” a seemingly motley crew of five workers at a drab supermarché are told all but one of them will be replaced by automatic check-out machines. Reacting, they band together to swipe produce from the discount store’s shelves, soon doing a roaring trade as an alternative store in perishable fruit and vegetables destined for the trash. The flagship first feature of director Louis-Julien Petit and producer Liza Beguigui at Elemiah, a company focused on young auteurs, alternative social-issue cinema, “Discount” has found strong backing – Wild Bunch Distribution for France, which releases Jan. 21; the Other Angle for international.

An Angouleme Fest Audience Award winner, the film is a love song to community and to another all-important value. Via their store, the film’s heroes make a small bundle; more importantly, they regain their sense of self-respect. Variety and Louis-Julien Petit chatted a few days before his first film has its first market screening on the first day of trading at the 2015 UniFrance Rendez-vous With French Cinema, which kicks off Thursday in Paris:

What factors drove you to direct “Discount” as your first feature?

I wanted to make a film about solidarity, people helping each other. A film about men and women who react, in the name of a struggle that seems to them to be just but that society condemns. A film about a group of musketeers: “a one-for-all and all-for-one” venture, a film about strength in unity.

There was a miscellaneous news item (of which a great deal was made in all the media), about a cashier who was brought before her bosses for what was termed a “grave misdemeanor.” Her mistake: She was claimed to have “stolen” a bargain offer that was being made through the cash registers (three burgers for the price of two). I went to see her, expecting to meet someone completely demoralized and despondent, hurt. She was anything but. I found someone full of spark, extremely witty. She showed me all the letters of support and encouragement she’d received (money, restaurant vouchers – even holiday invitations). That was really a most decisive encounter. I knew I was going to make fun of that absurd accusation of pilfering.

I’m a member of an association that fights against discarding expensive set-decorating material that’s often used in films (www.miaa.fr). We’ve recycled set decors and clothes after they were used in films and we sell them in jumble sales, and often get €15,000 in one day, which allows us to make 100 meals a day for six months for people in real need.

The spectator comes away from the film with maybe two impressions: the ingenuity of people when thrown into crisis; and, most especially, working class solidarity. It’s as if the whole of the neighborhood know about the “alternative” discount store, but it functions so well because nobody let’s on.

In “Discount,” my idea was to place the crisis in the context of people who don’t simply complain but choose to do something. Who fight to maintain their dignity. They are characters who don’t want to make more money, just maintain what they’ve got (their jobs). In a discount store, there is no union representation; the only means of reaction available to those who are up against the arrival of automatic cash registers is to band together. I think that the only solution against a society that is heading toward gross individualism is union, getting together.

I also think that this story reveals a lot about our characters, and how they surpass themselves in their fight. They are forced to become conscious, like the audience, of the fact that those food products don’t eventually go to the aid of good people.

The customers of the alternative shop maintain their group values. Our characters end up arrested, but their fight continues. I think it’s the fight that’s important, more so than the final aim they’re trying to achieve. I wanted to create a “true reality,” more than a “functional reality.” For me, those five characters confront very real, life problems. First they act in their own interests, then they continue, in the interests of neighbors, friends – acts of solidarity.

I was an assistant director for 10 years in French and American films. I wanted to make a film where the point of view was that of the customers, the extras. I think that the confrontations between the professional and nonprofessional actors produced the most beautiful comic scenes in the film.

Though a French film, “Discount” seems set in a tradition of British working class dramas that runs back to Ken Loach, Stephen Frears or, more recently, “Brassed Off,” which have proved sometimes as popular in France as the U.K. Are these conscious influences?

Yes, the best social comedies were those of the post-Thatcher era, which allowed many directors to laugh at the crisis. “Brassed Off,” “The Van,” “Full Monty,” as well as those by Ken Loach (the master), and more recently “Pride.” In France, social comedy (dramedy) is very rare. It’s often either comedy or dramas. I wanted to try to tackle that genre. Laughing at our society is, for me, the best way of thinking about it, without being judgmental about it, just as a simple witness, a mere ordinary citizen.

The idea that workers have – selling of fruit and vegetables that would otherwise be thrown away at large markdowns — has I think been adopted by one French supermarket chain, Intermarché, France’s third largest supermarket chain, and proved a huge success. In other words, what you propose is not just fantasy….

Intermarché and some French supermarket chain have recently taken some measures against food waste. However, Intermarche’s initiative is more limited to a marketing campaign about “ugly” vegetables. Though it’s a very good lead to have been taken, food wastage is still, however, unfortunately very much an unresolved problem. Some are conscious of it as such, but this consciousness is still not widespread enough.

Let me explain further: In France, the commercial brands are responsible for the quality of the product — that’s why they throw away and squash certain food products; they sometimes put toxic elements in those foods. That might seem abominable to us, but offering such food costs money to shops. Since they are responsible for the quality of the product, if they really wished to offer such products they’ll need to have employees whose job would be to sift through and properly check products, transport them, have drivers, cold storage facilities, petrol for vehicles – in short, employees and social costs and expenditure …What’s really outrageous is that, as I’ve gathered from information given to me by managers of those shops, they are ashamed of throwing away food, and they are not aware of the existence of associations who could recover those products that have not been sold. And then, on the other side, those associations often don’t have enough volunteers, let alone the technical means to recover such products on a daily basis.

I don’t wish to pander to easy demagoguery, but I think that those food products should be made available to people those who live in a state of precariousness. If this film can help to make that link between the associations and those commercial brands, and, why not, also lead to greater awareness among general audiences (and on the part of the government as well), and open everyone’s eyes to the problem…well, I’d be very proud (as in Belgium); 30% of the food produced in the world is thrown away, while half the planet is dying of hunger.

Like other recent French films, “Discount” isn’t a pure comedy, but rather in some ways a dramedy. The structure is comedic – the supposed no-hoper workers at a discount story prove more business savvy than their budget crunching bosses – but the treatment is dramatic. 

I wanted to make a film in synch with the complexity of the society we’re all living in. For me, “Discount” is not simple black-and-white, right-and-wrong. The character of Zabou Breitman (Sofia Benhaoui), as a shop manager, is also subjected to pressure from those above her within the power hierarchy, in opposition to our “ordinary heroes,” who decide to cross certain legally permitted lines. The real question is: “What makes society push honest people to transgression?”

I think the question of economic viability, profitability, exerts pressure at every level within a company. It’s not a question of rich against poor. That’s too simple…

On the other hand, I also wanted to laugh at this society that pushes people to more and more profitability, to increase awareness about “positive rebellions,” pitch the crisis against people with flaws who might take the lead in such a state of affairs, because sooner or later everybody will be “discounted,” everybody will be replaced by someone or something. They have two options: Either to look away and take the first way out; or look up, face things and react. And it is that reaction that makes some scenes so comic, because it draws upon a dramatic, absurd reality.

In a film where the human impact of cost-cutting is crucial, how did you choose and work with your actors?

I wanted actors who were prepared to be “actors-workers,”, i.e., actors who didn’t think more about their characters than their image. I wrote for Corinnne Masiero and for Sarah Suco, with whom I’d done short films. Pascal Demolon and Olivier Barthelemy came in later, with Zabou Breitman as well. I wanted to find a family (and they gave me that). I wanted “real” actors, sensitive to what the film was about, to create an intimate link with the audience. It’s my first feature, and it took us five years to get it done. Thanks to the support of the actors and to their commitment, we managed to put the finance together.

How will “Discount” be marketed in France?

It took us five years, with my producer Liza Benguigui, to put this film together. I was 25 when I signed up with Liza, who was 24. Liza always said: “We’ll do this.” We shot the film without having a distributor, which is quite rare. We signed with Wild Bunch Distribution for France once the film was finished, in August, and we won the Audience Award at the Angouleme Festival. After winning that prize we did a huge promotion tour (50 cities in France), and the film was seen by increasingly sizable audiences. Then came theatrical. The film will be released on January 21, on some 180 screens. We also wanted to accompany the release with certain “solidarity” initiatives. All the profits accruing from the Allocine.com trailer will be given to “charity restaurants.” So the more people who see the trailer, the more advertising and publicity there is and the more there is for charity restaurants.

Are you now working on a follow-up to “Discount”?

I’m working on other “positive rebellions,” other characters who take their destiny into their own hands. I think it was important yesterday [in reference to the Charlie Hebdo-sparked hostage-taking and murders], and even more so today, not to lose hope, to unite against growing hate. I’m 31, and “Discount” is my first film, and I really wish to believe in that….