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Director Aurel on Cannes Selection Animated Feature ‘Josep,’ Memory, Movement, Music

Josep
Credit: Les Films d’Ici

The sole French animated title in this year’s Cannes Official Selection and now screened by sales agent The Party Film Sales at next week’s Marché du Film, “Josep” marks the feature debut of editorial journalist Aurélien Froment. Better known as Aurel, the award-winning cartoonist has filed illustrated reports for French daily Le Monde since 2007, while authoring graphic novels about jazz and international politics.

He’s also spent the past decade developing this feature debut, which is co-produced out of Catalonia, a formally inventive, decade-spanning portrait of Catalan artist Josep Bartolí. A soldier against Franco, a lover of Frida Kahlo and victim of the Hollywood blacklist, Bartolí lived a life of epic sweep, only this film is no biopic. Instead, it focuses on Bartolí’s time in French internment camp shortly after the Spanish Civil War, and on the friendship he forged with Serge, the French gendarme who guarded the other side of the fence.

The non-linear narrative alternates formal approaches and perspectives as it offers an impressionistic view of this little-known artist. The 2020 Cannes Official Selection title will see local release later this year via Sophie Dulac Distribution, with newly launched banner The Party Film Sales – a fusion of Paris based outfits Jour2Fête and Doc & Film – handling international sales.

“There’s a poetic vision that you can feel instantly in the the writing of animation films in France, something that you don’t find so much in other animation cultures, which connects to the romanticism that you we can feel in our art, in art history in France. You can sometimes see that in French animation,” says Clémence Lavigne,  co-head of sales and acquisitions, The Party Film Sales.

“Josep” is one example. Variety talked to Froment about “ Josep,” which won Annecy’s Work in Progress.

What drew you to this project for your feature debut?

I discovered the story of Josep Bartolí around ten years ago, thanks to the book his nephew dedicated to him. His nephew wrote a book about the Spanish exodus of 1939 that he illustrated with his uncle’s drawings. That got me interested, so I learned a bit more, I met the nephew, and from there I spent the next ten years learning more about Josep’s life.

Perhaps I could have infused my various into another narrative, but ten years ago I fell upon this man’s story. I was already interested in Spain, and specifically that moment in Spanish history, so when I learned that I could approach that material through the life of an illustrator, the project immediately clicked for me, and I decided to develop it over the long-term.

How did you land on the film’s prismatic narrative, which depicts Josep in a very indirect way?

Screenwriter Jean-Louis Milesi made that choice, because he could immerse himself in the mind and inner life of a French gendarme from that period, but did not feel legitimate immersing himself into the mind of a Spanish refugee. He wanted me to breathe life into Josep through our shared vocations as illustrators. What’s more, this is not a well-known tale. Nobody knew Josep, and thanks to the film I hope that changes, that his work and his story will be recognized. That’s why it was important to frame his dramatic life through the perspective of someone telling his story.

I also found it interesting to intertwine different eras because this is a film about memory, about the different people we meet in our lives; it is an ensemble film. I also like to build a single object from very disparate elements.

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Josep Credit: Les Films d’Ici

How did those choices affect your stylistic approach?

Because the narrative jumps back and forth in time, it seemed obvious that each different era would require a unique graphic style. That being said, I also wanted to try to pay tribute to Josep and his own artistic evolution; I wanted to match the different eras of the film with his graphic style at that point in time. While in the camps, his style was very refined and spare, and from the moment he arrived in Mexico he started to integrate color, his images becoming less violent, more everyday. At the end of his life he was verging on abstraction. So I wanted to match those graphic periods.

The film is marked by a real sense of stillness. You allow whole exchanges to play out on fixed images, and don’t always animate the characters’ movements and gestures. What are the roots of this very unique aesthetic?

The choice to reduce the degree of animation only applies to the historical part of the film, to the flashbacks. In those sequences, we are in the memory of an old, dying man. He lived these events almost sixty years ago and therefore those memories are not fluid. His recollections are marked by isolated moments and images that imprinted themselves in his mind. The images only begin to come alive – to animate — when Serge helps Josep escape. It’s as if something had finally unlocked. So when the story moves to Mexico, while that too comes completely from memory, the animation is now fluid because the grandfather has found some release.

I also wanted to find the link between the animated image and the press cartoon. On the page, you have a limited amount of space with which you have to resume an entire sequence of events. So I wanted to pay tribute to this form by trying to reserve the full-on animation for occasional instances of “magic,” while using evocative, still images to actually move the narrative forward. I challenged myself to find expressive images that could tell the whole story, because I really wanted the film to bring that style of press cartooning to life.

My desire to transpose the still image to the silver screen without fully passing into animation also stemmed from one of my recurrent frustrations as a cartoonist: No matter what you put on the paper, you can never make up for sound. I immerse myself in music, and regret that my drawing can’t come with a soundtrack! Of course, making cinema changes that.

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Josep Credit: Les Films d’Ici