One scene defines very well the thrust of “The Clearstream Affair,” one of Films Distrubution’s biggest new plays at the UniFrance Rendez-vous, which begins today in Paris. Having moved waves publishing a book which claimed opaque unaccounted for trading at Clearstream, a financial clearing house in Luxembourg, French journalist Denis Robert, played by Gilles Lellouche (“Point Blank”) sees police break into his home to supposedly seize incriminating evidence. He dashes out of house and collapses on the grass, like a landed fish, gasping for air. Published in 2001, Robert’s book, “Révélations$,” was a before-its-time expose of skullduggery in high places, especially Europe’s banking system. It sparked a second round of revelations, that led to the prosecution of a former French primeminister Dominique de Villepin. He was finally cleared, but Clearstream anticipated by years the discrediting of high finance precipitated by the financial crisis mid-last decade. Produced by Christophe Rossignon at Nord-Ouest Production, “The Clearstream Affair,” from Vincent Garenq (“Baby Love,” “Gulty”) teasesout not only the intricacies of an ongoing scandal lasting much of last decade, but the extraordinary human toll on Robert. The individual vs. the system is not always as romantic a set-up as it is popularly portrayed.
From “Guilty,” now “Kalinka,” you focus on injustices, corruption, the defencelessness of the individual, confronted by the legal system, financial world, high politics. Why?
For me it’s always been visceral. I can’t help but jump at any form of injustice. We are taught at school, as part of our education, all about great values: “Honesty, not to lie, bravery, work hard to make it in life.” It’s all just one big lie, complete hypocrisy. If I had to give my kids any kind of advice about making it in the world, I’d tell them “be a coward, lie, and things will work out fine for you.” But I can’t resign myself to such cynicism and my characters always fight for an ideal. Getting back to the film, today, ordinary citizens can’t get away from paying taxes, but the very rich and the multinational companies always find the way to get around the system, worldwide, with the help and blessing of tax havens. In this period of crisis we’re living in, where ordinary citizens are made to bear the brunt of this crisis, it’s an immoral state of affairs that is no longer acceptable.
“Political rivalry, international arms-dealing, industrial intrigue, spookery, financial kickbacks: the Clearstream affair has all the appeal of a Hollywood Blockbuster”, so The Economist begins an article. Was one of the challenges of making the film the avoidance of cliché?
If I make films that are drawn from real historical facts, it’s precisely to avoid screenwriting clichés. I need my films to feel like something people have really lived and experienced. I wasn’t interested in The Clearstream Affair as such; I was interested in the character of Denis Robert, who was investigating the world of finance, tax havens. I was also extremely fascinated by Judge van Ruymbeke, a great figure among French judges. I was interested in their common values, their fight. In France, this issue was erroneously focused. It was reduced to a question of personal hate between De Villepin and Sarkozy, which was of no interest whatsoever. The real, deep sense of the issue was overlooked: Financial opaqueness and arms contracts, and the link between that and the financing of political parties. Those are bigger, deeper, more fundamental issues, which were kept away from the general public.
You tell the story of “The Clearstream Affair” from the point of view of an individual, the investigative journalist, Denis Robert, who was also one of the film’s co-screenwriters. You repeat scenes of Denis Robert in his car, mobile in hand, driving through gorgeous countryside. There’s a sense that, while completely driven in his search for the truth, he is also a bit of a self-styled White Knight, ingenuous and not always sensitive to the consequences of his accusations on others he loves….
He is an idealist, who sacrifices all for his investigation, his family included. There’s always that sacrificial dimension to whistle-blowers. They take enormous risks for moral reasons, and, in the short term, only ever cause great harm and inconvenience to themselves. We’re seeing it in the recent “Lux Leaks” scandal. Exposing how a state carefully puts together a system that allows multinationals to avoid paying taxes makes you liable to being brought to justice for “violation of secrets that affect state security”. It’s the cynicism of the age we live in. But in the long run, as happens with Denis Robert, whistle-blowers will be duly recognized because we live in an era where, with the speed of Internet, it will be increasingly difficult to keep things quiet.
“The Clearstream Affair” combines elements of thriller, film noir and documentary. What film style did you try to impress on the film?
The style of the film is informed by the story that’s being told. Here, what interested me were the figure of the journalist and the figure of the judge, and their search for the truth. And, because of the events being narrated, the film just became a political-financial thriller. I wanted to move away from the purely documentary style of “Guilty,” and have some fun doing something more cinematic, but keeping that “true story” feel, which is fascinating for the spectator, and gives him a better opportunity to decode the world he’s living in.
It seems to vary between the colder Technicolor tones of the flashbacks used for the Taiwan sale of French frigates and warmer family scenes…
That’s your subjective perception. I didn’t consciously set out to use flashbacks for any deliberate calibration. In fact, quite the opposite: I work them into the narrative present like they were the same entity. That serves to constitute a kaleidoscope of interwoven stories that present a portrait of France and the world that isn’t exactly flattering, but sadly true and accurate. That’s what interests me about this “Clearstream Affair”: the portrait of society that is given. France is a country where the highest-ranking politicians suspect one other of using hefty arms contracts to illegally finance their political campaigns.
Nick Fraser, at the BBC’s “Storyville,” who’s half-French , once commented that French TV rarely digs the dirt on the French establishment. Would you agree? Are more films are needed?
In France there is a tradition of talking about those issues, but perhaps more through books, which do not command as broad an audience as the cinema. What I do know is that this Clearstream Affair was very badly told to the country – very far removed from what there really was to it, so the French never really grasped what it was all about. The film will bring much needed clarity. If it is indeed true that cinema does not question the French establishment, I don’t think that’s down to censorship. I think it’s more to do with a lack of interest on the part of French filmmakers in these kinds of issues. Our film did not come up against any kind of censorship, barring the stupidity of certain magistrates who prevented me from shooting in Parisian courts. Judges as a corporate entity seem, unfortunately, more worried about their image as such, than about historical truth. That’s pathetic on their part, when one thinks of the values they supposedly embody.
The actors’ performances are very important in your film. Once more, you gather actors with long curriculums, despite their relative youth.
The original driving force for me behind making any film always is the characters. I like this homosexual who would like to have a child, played by Lambert Wilson. I like that usher accused of pedophilia. The idealism and refusal to conform on the part of that journalist and that judge (Gilles Lellouche and Charles Berling)…Perhaps it’s because I project so much love into those characters, the actors get that and more easily accept their roles. Who knows?
How do you think “The Clearstream Affair” will be received abroad given that, until Nicolas Sarkozy’s name appears in the film, uninformed audiences could take the film as fiction? And in France?
It’s a very French story. It has certain very distinctly French traits, but it’s also very universal and very present-day. The difficulties this journalist and this judge face are common to all countries, because they are difficulties caused by tax havens. I haven’t got a clue how the film will be received abroad, or in France even, because it’s still not out. But I’m dying to see how it goes.