CANNES — Few recent novels have impacted more in France than the “Vernon Subutex,” from Virginie Despentes (“Baisse Moi”), published as a trilogy from 2015 to 2017.
A Canal Plus Création Originale – Original Series – sold abroad by Studiocanal, starring Romain Duris (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped”) and opening 2019’s 2nd Canneseries this Friday, “Vernon Subutex”, which bows on Canal Plus on Monday, is one of the most anticipated French premium of the year. Whether it is at all a faithful adaptation of the novel is another question.
The plots still there.In the 1980s, young Vernon Subutex was a living legend, owner of a record shop worshipped for its tastes its partying. 20, 30 years later, after his shop went bust, he’s getting evicted from his flat.
Reaches out to former contacts still involved in the music industry. After a night with rock star Alex Bleach, Vernon becomes a wanted man when Bleach winds up dead of an overdose, leaving behind in Vernon’s care three mysterious video tapes. But his contacts have sold out. Only vernon, still chain smokig, still listening obsessively to music, has stayed the course.
The novel delivered a corrosive diagnosis of the ills of the modern age, the series’ focus lies elsewhere. At Cannes for the world premiere of “Vernon Subutex,” series co-writer and director Cathy Verney explains the ways in which the series is different from the novel:
At the Canneseries TV festival opening ceremony, several speakers – Canneseries president Fleur Pellerin, for example, talked enthusiastically about how series can now reach out to broad audiences while maintaining artistic ambition. What that one of the attracts for you oaf adapting “Vernon Subutex”?
Actually, Virginie contacted me about her book. When she contacted me it wasn’t a best seller. I’m glad, because I’d have felt constrained to deliver exactly the same work on screen as in the book. Devotion is not a good way to adapt a book. When I was writing, the book became a best seller so suddenly tI had that pressure on my shoulders. But I didn’t feel I was making a series for the public at large to discover the book, because it already had 1.2 million readers. I wanted to give a fresh interpretation, a different vision.
Not a completely opposite vision, not at all. I tried to stay true to the book. But when you are making a book into a series you are forced to step away and betray it a bit. The series is less angry in its attacks, it’s more nostalgic.
The series shows a certain ambivalence towards Subutex. On one hand, he hasn’t changed, while his friends have sold out. Several – Bleach, for example . even recognizes it. On the other, Subutex is a kind of Peter Pan. What the series asks is how can grow up, become an adult, without selling out.
That’s the element that touched me in the book and what I wanted to highlight in the series. When you grow up, you shouldn’t have to renounce your youthful ideals. That’s one strand in the book. I wanted to put it stage center. The book portrays society in a very acid, bitter way via Vernon’s internal monologues. I didn’t want him to come out with those words in the series, but to keep those words to himself.
There’s an air of innocence to Subutex in the series.
He’s a little childlike and innocent, like the idiot in Dostoyevsky. I don’t know if it’s lack of consciousness or wisdom.
It’s helped by Romain’s interpretation…
When you’re reading the book and start reading about the character, the contours of the character are kind of hazy and as you go along you get a slightly clearer picture. But for the series, you need exact outlines. Romain magnified what I had in my mind. He was even better than what I had in my own mind. He really became possessed by the character.
Romain broke through in Cédric Klapisch’s 2002’s “L’auberge espagnole” playing a character who again had an extraordinary time when young, and now has to accept the people who were so close to him are now more distant. But his character won’t let go of the past….
That’s why I chose Roman. All the French population associates him with that kind of character. We feel so close to him, he’s like a brother or friend. He really loved it and had great fun. He represents this youth that has been left behind.
You also directed. What you don’t see in your direction is the nervy, ultra-editing, or close ups of much made-for-binging series. Your direction is more classic.
I really like to be at the service of the actors’ acting. I didn’t worry about the technical side of things. We had a camera on the shoulder, we wanted to stay close to the characters. I wanted something which is immediate, energetic, more spontaneous, walking with Vernon, discovering things as he discovered them.
What’s also different in the series is that you can play music. Did you chose the music or was it in the novel?
A lot of the tracks mentioned in the novel I listened to while writing. But the choices were my subjective choices. I looked for other artists not in the novel. There was a lot of heavy negotiation. My music supervisor had a lot of work to do, including finding the rights holders of deceased artists. It was moving when we finally made contact with them, Alan Vega’s widow, for instance, or the sister of the Dogs singer.