It was supposed to be an easy task: going to Locarno, watching films, admiring Lake Maggiore, being in a jury, seeing old friends and meeting new people. Acting was not a part of the plan.
It all began by chance — I didn’t pass a proper audition. At the second day of the festival, I met Isabelle, a young Swiss-French short film maker (meeting new people: done.) She told me she would act that evening in a medium-length film, shot in Locarno and directed by young French film maker Sophie Letourneur. I knew Letourneur’s work, especially her first feature Chicks (La Vie au Ranch), one of the girliest films of all time. Chicks tells the story of a group of young Paris Left-Bank girls, mostly talking, partying and fooling around (and talking). Its main achievement is its very personal mix of sociology (21st Century Girls, at least in a certain area of Paris, and their group dynamic) and coming-of-age storyline (they’re roommates, they live like in a tribe, they will split.) The actresses are amateurs that Miss Letourneur carefully chose, and worked with via an improvisatory technique. One gets the feeling that the actresses of Chicks didn’t know sometimes that the camera was rolling, and probably didn’t care.
Isabelle needed a partner for her scene, vaguely saying that it took place in a hotel by the lake. She asked me to come, stating we could make a good pair — I’ve never asked her why, I didn’t even ask what the film was about. Thrilled, nervous, trying to convince myself that I could approach the task with a curious, (film) critic’s eye, I said yes. The working title of the film is Les Coquillettes de Locarno (literally, ‘The Pasta Shells of Locarno’), something so sweetly absurd that I couldn’t refuse. The shooting was supposed to take place at 11pm. Arriving at the hotel, we found no set, no actor and no trailer. Just a gentleman working at the reception. The crew arrived ten minutes later consisting of: Miss Letourneur (tall), her assistant Laetitia, her cameraman and two actresses (tall Camille and Carole).
The first thing I did was to impolitely stare at the ladies’ dresses (Letourneur and her actresses): Letourneur’s print sported huge butterflies. Camille’s print was made of Donald Duck’s heads. It looked like three models on a catwalk picking the wrong clothes in a child’s cupboard. We shot quickly four or five takes in the lobby. Isabelle and I were just supposed to exchange greetings — briefly, coldly — with Letourneur and her girls, mocking their outfits. If I understood the plot, Letourneur plays herself in Les Coquillettes de Locarno, showing her latest short film Le Marin Masqué (“the masked sailor” the name of a nightclub) at the festival and improvising some self-mocking, self-humiliating adventure on the spot (à la Curb Your Enthusiasm).
We didn’t discuss much about the characters with Letourneur. I didn’t know if I was supposed to play myself. I was just told to be mean. I did two takes for a close-up: I tried understatement (being mute) for the first one, I did overacting (improvising a line) for the second. Letourneur told us she was happy and asked us to be ready for other scenes the day after, if we were needed. Before leaving, she told us: “I know it looks like messy nonsense on the set, but it will be far better on screen”.
We were needed and summoned to the Unifrance cocktail. I learned that the film’s cast was growing. Letourneur was recruiting actors playing themselves, and film-critics (Isabelle Régnier from Le Monde, Julien Gester from the French edition of Grazia) not playing themselves. Letourneur was constantly reworking the script according the moment, the place or the mood: planning first to ask actor Louis Garrel to play in her film, she had to change her plans when he couldn’t find a slot in his busy (jury) schedule. Les Coquillettes de Locarno turned then to some “Looking for Louis”, a fantasy on Louis Garrel and how Letourneur is haunted by him. Or maybe, she will change her mind.
On the set (a hotel up the hill), she asked us to do something familiar: pretending we were at a cocktail reception. Acting involved mostly having sips of champagne, under the suspicious eyes of director Claire Denis — she wasn’t playing in the film. Suddenly, during a break, director Abel Ferrara came to our group to greet Isabelle Régnier in his very own special way (let’s say “slightly wayward”). The same thought occurred to everybody: “was the camera rolling?” After Ferrara left us, we all turned nervously to the camera. No, the camera was not rolling. Abel Ferrara didn’t play in the film.
The same evening, we shot in some open-air night-club. The scene involved me, Letourneur, Julien Gester and Isabelle Régnier, chatting on the grass, smoking pot (supposedly). I learned that my character was supposed to be a film-editor, working for a director (played by Isabelle Régnier). I knew more about my part: basically a guy who is a sweetheart, pretending to be mean. I improvised another “mean” line, again mocking someone else. I tried to remember I was a sweetheart, pretending to be mean. I tried above all to remember that I was supposed to be in a film. Cut.
Another party, another scene, my last. This time, it rained cats and dogs. I was more or less an extra in the background for this one. I thought of Ricky Gervais playing an extra, dying for a line in the wonderful TV series Extras. I was told that, somehow, I would make the final cut. I rushed after to the video library to check Le Marin Masqué, being told that Letourneur would model Les Coquillettes de Locarno on that one. The film is an extend black and white holiday film, where Letourneur and her assistant Laetitia (playing themselves) head to a small town in Brittany, mostly talking, eating pancakes and going to sleazy night-clubs. It’s funny, fresh and Letourneur uses voice-over for the editing, meaning that neither a crêpe-restaurant owner in Brittany nor myself have to worry about our acting, or our funny voices. We’ll be saved.
I haven’t spoken since with Letourneur. We didn’t speak much in fact, but it had nothing to do with those stories of cold war between director and actors. I didn’t worry because the most formidable thing on a Letourneur’s shooting is that you never know when, when or how to act or even if she cares about your acting. I think she does — her work on Chicks showed an eagle eye for details. This blur must be called life (or art). I heard that the rushes were very good — pop, bright colors, to be edited in split-screen. The producer wants the film to be more than an in-joke for happy few (a.k.a. film critics) and to have its own life on the festival circuit. Needless to say, Les Coquillettes de Locarno is my most highly-anticipated film for 2012, because I wonder how Miss Letourneur will turn this blur into something focused, watchable. And not too embarrassing for myself.
© FIPRESCI 2011