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Nicolas Pariser on ‘The Great Game,’ Being 20, Activism

French director talks about his prized first feature

Nicolas Pariser on ‘The Great Game’
Photo courtesy of Locarno Film Festival

PARIS — France’s 2015 Louis Delluc best first feature winner, Nicolas Pariser’s “The Great Game” begins, in apt anticipation, with a shot of a man stepping into an unlit hotel hallway. It then takes the spectator on a trip down the dark corridors of power as a once budding novelist and ex-radical-leftist meets – not by chance – a silken backroom grandee at France’s Ministry of the Interior, a combination of the FBI and Homeland Security. He enrolls him into a ploy to bring down the current minister by provoking him into absurdly repressive measures.

“The Great Game” makes seemingly clear reference to France’s Tarnac Affair where nine back-to-the-farm anarchists were arrested in an early-morning raid over anti-state terrorist claims in a case still rumbling through French courts (the charges of terrorism were dropped by a judge in August 2015).

A drama of ideas, expressed directly by characters – a relative rarity in French cinema these days – “The Great Game” draws a chilling picture of massive citizen surveillance and backroom machinations in the corridors of power in the interests in a revolution in its enforcement. Yielding to a portrait of activism – in politics, in love – which gives the film its final sense and sensibility, “The Great Game” screens at the 18th UniFrance Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, sold by Bac Films. Here, Nicolas Pariser talks about his laurelled debut feature.

Ultimately, in a political thriller, the two most memorable shots are of women reacting to declarations – one written, one on a station platform – of a man’s love. Was one of the largest challenges of the film to balance its mix of political thriller and romantic drama and seek ways in which one world the political – the other, the amorous – talk and reflect and impact each other?

It’s true that this was one of the main challenges of the film. The thing that most interests me in cinema and literature, their most vibrant aspect, is the link between our intimate life and the collective sphere, between our personal and amorous life and politics or history. For example, I really admire Warren Beatty’s “Reds” for that reason. He managed to strike the perfect balance between these two dimensions. And I’m also specially moved by the moral dilemmas involving romantic loyalties and political duties, whether in Corneille or Mizoguchi, for example.

“Bliss was it in that day to be alive But to be young was very heaven”: Edmund Burke on the French Revolution. Those who begin a revolution very rarely end it, Alexis du Toqueville, “The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution.” The now-turning-40 characters in “The Great Game” seem to me to reflect both these sentiments…..

I’m not a political activist myself but it seemed that there was something missing in the French films made by my generation (although I’m very attached to this cinema), in relation to the political commitment of people when they’re around twenty years old. I wanted to provide a view of the characters of my generation that was loving, but also honest, and not get fixated on a question that seems to me to be pretty futile: What was the point? I preferred to think about the relationship between politics and the fact of being twenty years old at a certain moment in time and what these “twenty years” represent for us as adults. Obviously, I wanted to point out that the political struggles of the left in the 1990s were often defeats, at least they leave us with a sense of unfinished business – which does not mean we cannot be faithful to them and even extend these struggles by other means.

In its portrayal of political skullduggery, “The Great Game” portrays a battle in the dark corridors of power: One line of machination, then a counter-offensive. This is convincing: but is it accurate? Reviewers have noted echoes of the Tarnac Affair, for example….

I have insisted on my description of “the reverse of contemporary history,” borrowing a phrase from Balzac in a credible manner. However, I have taken a fictional approach rather than a documentary or realistic approach. Taking the example of the Tarnac Affair, I don’t think that there was a conspiracy by the State against another party. Instead, I think that there was a mixture of incompetence, unconsciousness and stupidity among different agents of the State. But I prefer to write about and film intelligent people who know more or less what they’re doing, rather than film chaos and stupidity.

One of the most attractive elements of “The Great Game” is its inclusion of two characters that are women who are attractive, intelligent and articulate. Was this by chance, or is it a potential hallmark of Nicolas Pariser the auteur.

This is perhaps unconscious – perhaps I have been betrayed by my infinite love for women such as those portrayed in the films by Howard Hawks! There is a sentence in my film, where I gently make fun of the idea that there are no differences between the sexes. Let’s say I have trouble imagining male and female characters who are absolutely interchangeable. However, all the main characters in my film are equally intelligent and sensitive. And while it’s true that Sophie Cattani, Audrey Bastien and Clémence Poésy are all very beautiful women, Melvil Poupaud and André Dussollier aren’t bad either.

Where would you situate yourself in both terms of influence and the landscape of contemporary French cinema?

I’m a director and cinephile and I consider that I belong to this very French tradition that crystallized during the New Wave. The filmmaker who influenced me most directly is probably Eric Rohmer. I was fortunate to study under him for two years at the Sorbonne. I can’t talk here about all the French filmmakers that I admire (there are too many) but Sacha Guitry and Claude Chabrol also had a fairly direct influence on my work. In terms the contemporary French cinema, I know many French filmmakers my age. We all make very different films and I think that variety is a major opportunity for French cinema. To be more specific, let’s say that I feel closer to filmmakers who try to distance themselves, in one way or another, from the overwhelming influence of Maurice Pialat in French cinema of the past twenty years, such as Axelle Ropert or Emmanuel Mouret.

It’s a question that I think a lot of our readers will make once they see the film. Your first thanks, given a line to himself, are to the great Pierre Rissient. What was his contribution to the film?

I worked as Pierre Rissient’s assistant for four years and I’m sure I would never have started making films if I hadn’t been so lucky. I was a film lover but making a film seemed inconceivable. Thanks to him I could see that it was the opposite to the daily lives of many people. In the noblest sense of the term, he was a free spirit (a kind of cinematic equivalent of George Orwell or Simon Leys) that probably also influenced me in my readings and reflections. Finally, he gave me some extremely valuable advice for each of my films.

A banal but must-ask question. What are you working on now?

I’m working on the screenplay for my next film, a political comedy about a fictional mayor in a large French provincial town.

Emiliano Granada contributed to this article