David, Stéphane Foenkinos on ‘Jealous,’ Breaking a French Cinema Taboo, Karin Viard’s ‘Instinctive’ Acting

Celebrated French novelist David Foenkinos and cineaste brother Stéphane Foenkinos discuss ‘Jealous,’ their follow-up to Audrey Tautou starrer ‘Delicacy’

PARIS — In France, there is only one Karin Viard. She is not as famous abroad as other French actresses – think Marion Cotillard, Isabelle Huppert. But in her native land, she rates not only as France’s most popular actress, judged by her four biggest box office hits last decade – which take in “The Famille Belier,” and Dany Boon’s Nothing to Declare” – but also, by the same criteria, is a bigger box office draw that any Hollywood star, including Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr.

Yet over a near 20-year film career, the 51-year-old actress has taken on roles – in Cedric Klapisch’s social-divide comedy “My Piece of the Pie,” and Maiwenn’s cop ensemble drama “Polisse” which give her a left-of-center edginess.

In a role which fits her like a glove, Viard plays role Nathalie, a mother still raw from recent divorce who suddenly conceives an all-consuming envy for her nearest and dearest, led by her 18-year-old daughter Mathilde, a beautiful ballerina and loving daughter training for a make-or-break audition to the Paris Opera Ballet.

“Jealous” also marks the second film by brother Stéphane and David Foenkinos after 2011 hit “Delicacy,” with Audrey Tautou, based on the novel by David Foenkinos, a multi-prized French writer. There are scenes, however, which are pure cinema such as when Nathalie goes to pick up her daughter from her dance academy and, arriving early, watches the girl dance through the studio glass walls with a mixture of pride, fascination and dawning horror as she realizes that such physical grace  – and, she thinks, beauty – is now beyond her. “That scene saved us 20 pages of screenplay,” said Stéphane Foenkinos.

Produced by Mandarin Production, one of France’s top shingles, and sold abroad and distributed in France by Studiocanal, “Jealous” opened on Nov. 8 to a final box office of 753, 563 admissions and €5.2 million ($6.1 million) in France.

Variety talked to the Foenkinos brothers in the run-up to this week’s UniFrance Rendezvous for French Cinema in Paris, where “Jealous” screens.

Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote an article in which he predicted that the spread of advertising on TV with the launch of private channels in Italy would create an unhappy society where people are offered symbols of social success but don’t have the means to buy them. It seems to me that with the spread of Internet, the popularization of Facebook, people’s discomfort at others’ success and the strain of attempting to appear successful oneself, has grown all the more. In other words, jealousy is one of the great cardinal sins of our age. But would you agree?

Stéphane Foenkinos: It’s interesting what you ask about the age of social media. Of course, it enhances any kind of envy and jealousy and people try to appear always at their best. In this more general perspective, jealousy is highly relevant. Concerning Nathalie in particular, I don’t know if she needs any social media to envy others. “Everybody is happy, it just jumps in my face,” she says at one point. That’s what she resents other people. So social media was not the genesis of this script, but it’s certainly one of the social contexts. Even if it has been exaggerated by social media, however, for us jealousy is timeless.

Was this one reason, and were there others, for choosing the subject?

Stéphane Foenkinos: Many things, but what triggered it at one point was the taboo around parents competing with their children and being jealous of them. We try to be realistic and show that Nathalie wants her own daughter’s good, but at one point can’t help being jealous. From that perspective, it’s something that has never been treated in French cinema. We liked the fact it was kind of taboo. It allowed us both energies, one for comedy and another for introspection.

On “Jealous,” you went straight to movie, without David writing the novel.

Stéphane Foenkinos: It was a conscious decision. After “Delicacy,” we decided not to adapt David’s books for now. Some others are doing that. Reason one was to have no element of comparison for the audience. Even with “Delicatesse,” we lost some viewers: They said they loved the book so much that they didn’t want to watch the film.

But your novels, David, are still being adapted?

David Foenkinos: The two films that have been made are “I Feel Better,” from Jean-Pierre Améris, and “Le mystère Henry Pick,” with Fabrice Lucchini, which will shoot in a month. The most important for me will be “Charlotte,” an international English-Language production.

Act less, George Cukor told Jack Lemmon, until Lemmon felt he wasn’t acting at all, to Cukor’s delight. This is not the case of Karin Viard in “Jealous,” however, in that Nathalie spends half the time until the third act out of control, and not controlling her facial expressions, and the other half representing roles: The charismatic power-teacher, the bereaving wife canceling a holiday trip, the mother delighted at her daughter’s 18th birthday. This allows Viard of course to spend much of the film acting. Could you comment?

Stéphane Foenkinos: It was a challenge and you are right about the fact that our main concern was that she would not over-act. With people on the edge, like Nathalie, there’s a danger of falling into grand guignol. What was interesting with Karin was that she would only envision each scene one after another. She would think of the film as a whole, but go sincerely into each scene because she knew her character would act impulsively. In the same scene as you have noticed, she would go from nice to psycho because she really trusted her instincts  and would never judge her character.

I sense that one of the challenges when writing “Jealous” could have been to maintain three elements: Comedy, Nathalie’s tail-spin into near pathological resentment; narrative tension about how this will finally pan out… I wonder if you could comment. 

David Foenkinos: That’s very accurate. It’s the film’s main gamble. We had to pretty well push the envelope at one and the same time on the comedy and a certain way of distorting reality, while maintaining an empathy for Nathalie, being close to her and understanding her.

You are of course not only writers but directors. How did you split the work, if at all?

Stéphane Foenkinos: We are very complementary. Even if I’ve been in the industry longer, David is much more a filmmaker in a way, so we talk a lot. Before going in prep, we would write and exchange scenes and David will be the guardian of the temple in a way. On set, because we have worked a lot before with our team, because of my involvement in casting, I would be more with the actors and David more with the DoP and the technicians working a lot on the framing. But really every decision is taken by both of us.

And what were your major guidelines when directing?

David Foenkinos: We don’t make a film a year. We worked on “Jealous” for three years, both the writing and all the art direction, visuals, to decide exactly what we wanted to see, going over these ideas with the head cameraman. We are really well prepared when it comes to the shoot – since we make so few films – with a very, very precise vision of the film. This film’s shoot offered far more pleasures, things that we had mastered. It was very difficult to make a first film like “Delicacy.” On “Jealous,” it was really exciting: I have the impression that the film which is on the screen is practically 100% the film which we had in our heads. That was a large joy for us.  For us it was very important to not stress things too much, either in the writing or direction, to not show things excessively. Also, we had great actors, the most important thing in comedy.

Stéphane Foenkinos: Talking of our brilliant cast, it included French Canadian Anne Dorval (“Mommy”), Anais Demoustier (“The Villa”) and our own alumni Bruno Todeschini (“His Brother”) and Thibault de Montalembert (“Call My Agent”). They were a perfect match for Karin’s intense acting. A special nod to our first-time actress newcomer Dara Tombroff, a real life dancer who enters gracefully the movie world.

As creators, I feel that your two films are wide audience but have elements of art cinema. “Delicacy” had moments of sudden poetry, emotion and near surreal humor, began from the POV of someone who dies. “Jealous” pushes the envy to the point of near pathology. Again, could you comment?

Stéphane Foenkinos: We have a phrase in French: “Auteur films with a popular vocation.”

David Foenkinos: It’s true that Karin Viard is rather in the same line, having a reputation for making auteur films as well as starring in more popular films.

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