Olivier Loustau on ‘The Boss’s Daughter,’ Rugby and the End of a Working Class Era

French actor-turned director talks about his debut feature

The Boss's Daughter Olivier Loustau, Christa
Courtesy of Wild Bunch

In one of the most memorable scenes in “The Boss’s Daughter,” a humor-laced across-the-tracks love drama, Vital, a factory foreman and its rugby team coach, asks his wife what she wants from life. And she can’t remember.

In another, Vital is at a party of the friends of Alix, the factory boss’s daughter whom he falls in love with.  A bumptious young friend of Alix’s asks if Vital has ever been to Nepal. He might as well have asked if Vital had ever been to the moon.

The directorial debut of actor-turned-director Olivier Loustau “The Boss’ Daughter” presents a caring and knowing portrait of working class life in France: Its solidarity and, for all its bonhomie, limited prospect. Lead-produced by Julie Gayet and Nadia Turincev at Rouge International, an enterprising French production house, and wrapped around the factory’s rugby team, it is the story of a man who makes a clean break with the past- his wife, job, friends – to have a second chance and lead another life, whatever it is, with the woman he loves. “The Boss’s Daughter” is distributed in France by Wild Bunch, which also handles international sales. Variety talked to Loustau, who also plays Vital, Gayet and Turincev before “The Boss’s Daughter” screens at the 18th UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema on Jan. 14.

One of the most striking points of “The Boss’s Daughter” is the lack of opportunity for its workers to live other lives, an opportunity which Vital seizes with Alex. I wonder if you would agree and comment on this.

Yes, I wanted to set the action of my first film in a working class milieu, where I grew up, and in so doing deal with the question of social determinism.

In the scene you talk about, Vital and Mado, his wife, try to talk to each other for once. They admit to each other that they are no longer happy together. Mado is resigned, thinking that it’s just fate, and can’t see that Vital is giving her a last chance to do something for their life as a couple.

“The Boss’s Daughter” is about the meeting of two desires for emancipation: Alix opens a door for Vital, a door to another life; Vital allows Alix the opportunity to leave the nest as it were, get away from the invasiveness of his father’s love. Alex and Vital break out of their social straitjackets and create for themselves a realm of possibility for self-realization. I like to think that love can build bridges between two people who come from different social milieus and create a utopic space, allowing them to escape from a seemingly preordained condition.

Olivier Loustau

There’s a contrast in the film between the scenes of Vital with his wife, shot in closed spaces, sometimes claustrophobic places – the kitchen, stairs, in bed- and scenes with Alix, on the motorbike or in the countryside…

I wanted to set up contrast between the routine and dreariness of the daily grind and the notion of freedom, and carefree bliss of love that’s new, full of promise, to literally place on the screen inertia and speed.

The scenes of the factory, the textile machines are shot simply but with a degree of tenderness, as if scenes from a world which is disappearing. You’ve described the film as about the “end of a cycle,” which can be taken many ways and for many characters. Could you comment?

Industry and factory machines are on the wane in the French economy at present, and in this sense, workers are now somewhat like dinosaurs. We are at the end of an era, for workers, and, in the film, for all the characters as a whole as well. It’s the end of a cycle for Baretti as a company, for Vital and Mado as a couple, for the relationship between Alix and her father, for the RC Tricot team…Alix is the detonator…

I wanted to capture the relation between man and machine, hence my choice of a modern factory, something graphic, full of color, something far removed from all the clichés generally associated with the working class world. It was key for me to film gestures, give the appropriate light focus to work, to show the poetry of all that…

The rugby world and film’s rugby team, its matches, parties, supporters, shirts, seems a rich metaphor for many things in the film.

Rugby is, for me, the collective sport par excellence, the one in which one cannot exist without the other person beside you, in which the individual is at the service of the collective entity around him. The values inherent to that sport seem to me those that sum up the best of the working class world: solidarity, courage, fraternity, self-sacrifice. Rugby also constitutes one of the last milieus in which one can encounter genuine social mixing, where there’s no concern about social, ethnic or religious origin. The only thing that matters is the jersey you wear and the colors you defend. It’s a family in the broadest sense of the word, where women also play an overriding role in the dressing room and in the stands. That’s why I wanted the rugby pitch to be the theatre where all the social conflict unfolds.

I believe the factory workers mixed professional actors and real workers, and the rugby team’s real players and actors. What were the benefits?

I wanted to remain firmly entrenched in reality, in order to be closer to the heart of the subject I was dealing with. In that sense, the non-professional actors brought the right tone at the outset, and the onus was then on the professional actors to adapt. We therefore managed to forge a very homogeneous group, made up of actors, real workers and rugby men, all of whom played and rehearsed together. That allowed for exchange, allowed us to break down the hierarchic codes of cinema. I learned that, alongside the likes of Abdellatif Kéchiche, who uses such a method, as Milos Forman used to do as well.

If the film is the end of the cycle, would you also describe it as the beginning of a cycle, in that Vital grows as a person, in his treatment of women, for example: His wife says tellingly: “I won’t fuck unless you’re nice and you can’t be nice unless you fuck,” but he’s much more caring with Alix.

Of course, at the end of the film, we are being ushered into a new cycle, symbolised by the couple, Alix-Vital. It’s the beginning of renewal. Vital has grown up throughout this story, in a far greater sense than in terms of his relationship with women. It’s much bigger than that. It’s got to do with a broader outlook on the world, with the expression of desires that had for long been buried or excessively hemmed in. And for Alix, there’s now a less naïve vision of the world on her part; she can now more purposefully express what she is: a young woman who can freely make her choices.

What were your main influences as a director?

There are many. I’ll start with Abdellatif Kéchiche, and the way he sets up the “play” as it were, comedy at the heart of the manufacturing process of a film. But I can also mention French poetic realism, (Renoir, Duvivier, Carné…), Italian directors like Ettore Scola, Pietro Germi, Elio Petri, Dino Risi, or present-day ones like Daniele Luchetti, in the way he focuses on the popular classes, their humor. I can also mention British social comedy, with its blend of social conflict and love stories. And, of course, Michael Cimino, in “The Deer Hunter,” which is such a wonderful portrait of the American working class.

Having worked with so many directors, some great, what were your main concerns when you set out to direct your first feature?

I tried to be faithful to my subject and avoid any form of pathos or any overly excessive sordid preoccupation with the sordid aspects of life. Working with the likes of Tavernier, Kéchiche, Nicole Garcia and Nicolas Boukhrief allowed me to learn a great deal through simple observation. I tried, most of all, not to forget how extremely lucky I was to be making my first film and to be able to enjoy doing it.

Julie Gayet and Nadia Turincev

I don’t think there are that many films in France, or indeed outside France, about working class life. Did you feel you were filling a gap – an absence – when you produced the film?

Actually there are films about the working class or set against a working class milieu, but nowadays, besides Ken Loach, and especially in France, they tend to treat it as a curiosity, a serious issue, to be about, not from within. What we love in Olivier Loustau’s script and film is that he elegantly put upfront the love story in order to connect to the character as a human being, avoiding the entomologist approach we call “from a balcony.” And with humour as well – who said working class heroes have to be gloomy!

Though set in a working class environment, a real factory, it portrays in the character of Vital a worker who decides to determine his own destiny, it that sense I think the film talks about the birth of an individual.

Absolutely. And we tend to consider that once you are allowed and/or you allow yourself to exist as an individual, you get closer to the essence of the human being. But sometimes you pay the price for wanting to exist as an individual. Like Vital. Or like Raed Andoni in “Fix ME.” Which does not mean – God forbid ! – that you want to be isolated or dissociated from your counterparts. In films, a character not primarily determined by his social appurtenance paradoxically strengthens the representation of his group.

The film won an ACSE prize for equal opportunities. Rugby offers many of these. Wasps, one of Europe’s best sides at the moment, has seen much of its success because of its Fijian players. I feel the main narrative of the story is about someone who seizes his opportunity to not just be a worker, and the consequences this has for a tight-knit community, not only his boss…

Of course, in the game as in life, we are all inter-depending on each other ! Olivier Loustau could tell you so many beautiful things about rugby. We basically discovered this world through his eyes. And were touched by its values of solidarity, its social mix. Rugby in this film brings out a way of seeing human beings as belonging to a group all right but not only through their socio-economical determinants.

I believe that the film’s budget was contained. Do you see this as one future for the French cinema? Films made on a contained budget, which can come into existence because of that, when the French cinema, with the U.K.’s traditionally made the most expensive films in Europe.

The budget is contained indeed ! In pre-production, we had to choose between an extra week of shooting and our overheads and salaries. We gave an extra week, hoping to win some post-production support, which we ended up not getting. Not sure we can do this trick too often without endangering our company. So the future is in fair budgets, yes, but not to the detriment of producers’ survival.

I believe the world premiere of the film was held in the Ist Carmaux Social and Worker Film Festival. What might be its festival future now? 

It really made sense for us to launch the film at this Social and Worker Film Festival in Carmaux, the city of Jean Jaurès. Of course. Now the film has been released in France on January 6. Press is great, figures look good. Wild Bunch is both French distributor and world sales agent.

You produced the film. Lisa Azuelos co-produced. You can see at least a clutch of exciting women directors – Lisa is one, or Celine Sciamma, Katell Quillevere, Rebeca Zlotowski  – breaking through to recognition in France: Would you say the same about women producers?

Definitely ! We are very happy about it and say to all new comers : Bienvenue au club, les filles ! Since Rouge’s inception, we have oproduced quite a lot with women. In France: “Eight Times Up” with Christie Molia, “Fix ME” with Palmyre Badinier, and, now in production, nOmber One” by Serge Hazanavicius with Elisa Soussan. And not only in France : we are currently co-producing Mariupolis by Mantas Kvedaravicius with Uljana Kim from Lithuania, “Las Mimosas” by Oliver Laxe with Lamia Chraibi from Morocco and “Muere Monstro Muere” by Alejandro Fadel with Agustina Llambi Campbell from Argentina. The more the merrier, we team up with women directors as well, like Audrey Estrougo, whose “Jail Bird” is screening at the UniFrance Rendez-Vous.