French writer, director and producer Michel Hazanavicius discussed his career path and the future of film as part of the 2020 Sarajevo Film Festival masterclass series, hosted in the Variety Streaming Room.
Hazanavicius is this year’s jury president for the festival. The conversation and subsequent audience Q&A, moderated by Ben Croll, covered the director’s earliest film styles, success with “The Artist” and upcoming animated film “The Most Precious of Merchandise” (“La plus précieuse des marchandises”).
The first half of Hazanavicius’ career, after interning with French sketch group Les Nuls, involved a genre he calls “détournement,” which translates to “hijacking” in English. The style, somewhat similar to parody or spoofing, sometimes involved making collage films or satirizing a film’s styles. What sets it apart from typical parodies is that the genre also involves utilizing all aspects of the form and production to express the intended effect.
“I like ‘détournement’ because I really try to respect the form of the movies, and it’s not just to make fun of it,” Hazanavicius said. “I try to work on the form and I try to work on the cinematography of it, not only the light, but the way the movies are cut and filmed.”
In his 2000s “OSS 117” spy films, for example, the concept of the cliché is integral. Hazanivicius said he emphasized the use of clichés throughout narrative elements, gestures, camera shots and more to centralize the theme.
The series is set in the 1950s, which Hazanavicius describes as a time focused on straight white men, and difficult for anyone with identities that deviated from those expectations. Some of the film’s characters match those views, sharing racist or homophobic beliefs. And though some may interpret the comments as validating their bigoted beliefs, he said the characters’ views are meant to be looked at through a critical lens to satirize biases from that time period.
“You can’t control your audience, you can trust your audience, and you can hope that you’re talking to intelligent people,” he said. “But remember this movie, ‘Natural Born Killers.’ There was a killing here in France and they found in the killer’s apartment a copy of ‘Natural Born Killers.’ So what does that mean? We have to do movies with rabbits and chickens and that’s all because nobody will be offended and nobody will be influenced?”
The director and writer took a completely different approach with 2011’s “The Artist,” which won five Oscars, including best picture, and three Golden Globes, among many other awards. Other than two lines at the end, the film has no dialogue. And as his earlier work often incorporated witty language, he said the new style challenged his directorial skills.
“I love the classical directors that come from the silent era and for one reason, because they can tell the story with images,” he said. “And that gives room for the dialogues to be dialogues. Dialogues are not here to tell the story. You have a lot of room with dialogues when the story is told by the images.”
During the audience-sourced portion of the masterclass, Hazanavicius also spoke on the trajectory the film industry might take in a post-pandemic world and his current project, “The Most Precious of Merchandise.” Though he envisions a world in which films are still going strong, the existence of mid-budget movies could be in danger.
“There will be movies. I’m not really worried about that,” he said. “The thing is where this movie will be shown on screen. So I think the platforms will [become] more and more important. It’s not such good news for the financing because, so far, the platforms don’t bring enough money to make movies like we used to do, and I’m afraid that theaters will be more for blockbuster or prestigious movies, but what we call the ‘films of the middle’ – the films that are expensive but not that expensive – I’m afraid they will be rare.”
As for “The Most Precious of Merchandise,” it’s just as unlike his old films as “The Artist” once was. The two-dimensional animation covers topics such as the Holocaust, and has a more serious and hopeful tone to it.
Even with so many completed films already under his belt, the director said he will approach his latest project based on what the story demands, rather than by emulating his past successful experiences.
“Kids are very different, and what works with one doesn’t work, necessarily, for the other,” Hazanavicius said. “Every kid has his own needs and doesn’t need the same attitude from his parents. For the movies it’s the same. So I discover the movie while I’m doing it. I discover what the movie needs from me and what I have to do to make … the best movie I can.”
Watch the full masterclass below.