Pierre Godeau on Directing Exarchopoulos, Gallienne in ‘Down By Love’

Prison passion picture bows a new French movie from Pan-Europeenne, LGM and Studiocanal

"Down By Love" de Pierre Godeau
Courtesy: Studiocana

PARIS – A showcase for two of France’s most notable break-out actors this decade, Pierre Godeau’s “Down By Love” stars Adele Exarchopoulos, a Cannes Palme d’Or winner for “Blue is the Warmest Color” who stars in Sean Penn’s upcoming “The Last Face.” Playing opposite her: actor-director Guillaume Gallienne, whose “Me, Myself and Mum” was a double-prize laureat at 2013’s Directors’ Fortnight, winning him French Academy Cesars for best actor and screenplay. He went on to receive another Cesar for “Yves Saint Laurent.”

Screening at the 18th UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, which wraps Jan. 18 in Paris, “Down By Love” is distributed in France and the U.K. by Studiocanal, which also handles international sales.

Adapting “Defense d’aimer.” a singular confessional memoir by Florent Gonçalves, the former director of Versailles Prison, the romantic drama relates a case by any standards of amour fou which Godeau moulds as a tragedy: the illicit passion between a model prison director (Gallienne) and a beautiful inmate (Exarchopolous).  Godeau, who debuted with young French generation portrait “Juliette,” a 2013 Wild Bunch Distribution succès d’estime, directs his second feature outing. Producer is Pan- Europeenne, a prominent French production outfit, (“The Burma Conspiracy,” “Romantics Anonymous,” “Mr Nobody,” now new French B.O. hit “The Roommates Party.”

Variety interviewed Godeau during the UniFrance Rendez-Vous.

“Down by Love” adapts a book, “Defense d’aimer,” by Florent Gonçalves, the former director of Versailles prison, about his affair with an inmate. What attracted you to the book?

I first heard about the story on the radio, and I was immediately drawn to it. It was the definition of a forbidden love story, taking place in a very cinematographic setting: a women’s prison. At the time, I had no knowledge of life in prison, and it seemed implausible for me that a director could have a love affair with an inmate. My desire to tell this story stemmed from this need to understand how it could happen.

In prison, Anna studies “Phedre,” maybe Racine’s best-known tragedy. To what extent are your conclusions about the forbidden relationship in your film any different from Racine’s in his stageplay?

As I was writing the screenplay, I quickly realized that this story was a real tragedy, so I decided to use “Phedre” as premonitory material. The conclusions about forbidden relationships in my film and in “Phedre” are of course different, but I wanted to use it in the film to provide Anna with keys to understand her relationship with Jean. I liked the idea that Anna would use what she is learning in prison to put words on her feelings towards Jean.

The film deals quite a lot in the opening scenes with social typecasting, the pressure to conform, in two scenes: the prison fashion show and the daughter’s dance performance. Prisons try to teach people to conform. In this context, Jean and Anna are absolute non-conformists, right I suspect through to the end of the film….….  

I believe that Jean is the one who is particularly attracted to this idea of non-conformity. He seems to have a complex about his role as a civil servant. For example, he constantly tries to step outside the norms by making new improvements, and by thinking out of the box. He always says that he is an artist, and maybe he is living his love affair as his masterpiece. Anna, on the contrary, wants to fit in and redeem herself. She furthers herself thanks to the affair when she realizes that she does not want to feel guilty anymore.

This is very much a two-hander, a film dominated by two actors. How did you direct Adele Exarchopolus and Guillaume Gallienne?

The film tells the story of two people who were never supposed to meet. I therefore wanted to bring together two actors who are entirely different. I could not have found a better fit than Adele and Guillaume. Guillaume has a background in theater, and has been a member of the Comédie Française for 20 years; Adele is self-taught and has worked with directors – like Abdelatif Kéchiche – who prioritize improvisation. So as you can imagine they were very different to direct! For instance, with Guillaume, it was all about precision and mastering rehearsals, whereas Adele does not get into character before the camera is rolling… My job was to make them feel comfortable, even if they were not using the same tools.

Here, Gallienne plays against type, or at least how he’s been known to date. Was this one of the reasons for choosing him, or for his accepting the role?

I liked that fact Guillaume was like a virgin in this type of role, as I wanted it to feel like a first time. Indeed, Jean, just like a teenager, is completely submerged by this passion. I am certain that this was what convinced Guillaume to accept the role. Jean is the story of someone who puts himself on the line, and that is what Guillaume did when accepting to play opposite Adele, who is like a fish in water.

What decisions did you make about directions with regard to visuals and also sound, which seems to have been worked on a lot?

When they are together, Jean and Anna want to escape reality. We worked a lot on the lighting and the framing to create a feel of less and less in jail through the film. In contrast, the sound had to remind us constantly that they are in prison. We went multiple times in real jails to record the sounds, so that we could reconstitute in the most realistic way the mood that reigns in prison. In order to feel the extraordinary aspect of this love story, it was crucial to be reminded of the crude reality of prison life.