FilmInk speaks to French director Stephane Foenkinos about the tragedy-tinged comedy ‘Delicacy’ starring Audrey Tautou as a woman grappling with grief and new love.
A prolific casting director, Stephane Foenkinos has worked with a who's who in French filmmaking including Jean-Luc Godard, François Ozon, André Téchiné, Claude Chabrol and Anne Fontaine. Stepping his credentials up another notch, he's also worked with Terrence Malick, Robert Zemeckis and more recently with Woody Allen, helping the legendary American director cast Midnight In Paris. Now Foenkinos makes his directorial debut with Delicacy, which he co-directs with his brother David, based on the novel of the same name penned by the latter. And as one would expect from an expert casting director, the actors shine in this enchanting comedy/drama, which stars Audrey Tautou as Nathalie, a young woman thrown for a loop when her beloved husband dies unexpectedly. Plunging herself into her job, she lets her emotional guard down one day when she impulsively kisses her awkward but big-hearted Swedish co-worker, Markus (the charming François Damiens). From here, the film follows their tentative but sweet courtship. Shifting between broad comedy and touching drama, it's a delicate balance to get right (as the film's title foresees), but the co-directors beautifully reveal the way that pain and laughter so often mingle.
I was reading that when you first read David's book, you thought that it would make a great adaptation. Why did you think it would translate so well to screen?
I liked the thin line between drama and comedy. It's what I've always liked in other people's work and maybe it's what I like in life. I like when you laugh into tears and the opposite is true as well. And I just loved the story - how you can be born again after such a tragedy and how your body surprises you before you even realise it consciously. Also because I was a casting director for so long, I knew these were great parts.
I know you've had a really prolific career as a casting director, but had you wanted to direct a film for a while? You and your brother had co-directed a short, but had you wanted to direct a feature?
We wanted to find the right subject. We didn't want to make a film to make a film. That's very important. I was really happy casting and I'm lucky that I'm hired as a screenwriter in France and I do other things. And my brother is a very successful novelist so it's not that we needed to do it, but we wanted to share the experience. After the short movie we did five years ago, we were toying with the idea of doing a feature, but I think the subject chose us.
You were saying that you were initially attracted to the balance between drama and comedy. Was it a difficult balance to translate to screen or did it come naturally?
We were careful all the time. It was amazing to watch Audrey Tautou perform because she always wanted everything to ring true. So we knew not to do too much. And at the same time we were careful that François Damiens didn't go overboard because he's so funny. He really restrained himself and it was really difficult for him because he loves improv. He's very famous in France for his Candid Cameras where he does these awful characters and approaches people on the street. So, for him, acting needs to be natural, over-the-top, but it's also a way of improvisation. With Markus, he couldn't do that. But he was perfect because he was naturally so much the character.
He had a real soulfulness...
Oh yes. All the time. You cannot resist him. The most important thing for us was that as strange, improbable and awkward as the couple seemed, it had to feel real at one point. We had to feel that these people were meant to be together.
Given the unique tone of the film, did you have any references in terms of films that inspired you or were used as reference points?
We have many influences and we're happy to share them. We are movie lovers and we watch a lot of films. I don't know if it's the sibling thing, but we like the Dardenne Brothers and The Coens. It's a mix between the two. I think it's interesting because the Dardennes have this really dark style and I think, they're the best screenwriters, with their cameras and with their pens, that we have seen for some years. The Coens are great because of the dry humour. And we also like slapstick. We like Blake Edwards, and Jacques Tati really inspired us for Markus.
Audrey Tautou's fantastic in the film and obviously she'd boost the film's profile, but were there any hesitations that in hiring such a popular actress, audiences might bring their own projections or expectations to her role?
Yes, absolutely. But for us, she was the first choice. There was not even a way to look at it differently. We wanted her so bad that we never even envisioned someone else. The producers kept asking us, ‘What if she says no?' and we were like, ‘No! We don't want to know!' But it's not only the fact that she's a big star, it's just that we had to find the right person and she was it. We went to see her onstage. She was playing Nora in A Doll's House and she was amazing. You see this tiny woman and you would think she's a giant.
Given the book was a massive bestseller in France, how was the film received there?
The film did really well; it had over eight hundred thousand spectators, which is pretty good for France. We got nominated for the César [France's highest screen accolade]. We just lost but it's okay. We were happy to be nominated. It's our first feature and it was important to us that the professionals accepted and welcomed us.
What is very important though is that when we chose to do the film, the book was not a bestseller at all. When the producers signed on, the book had been released on hard copy and it sold pretty well, and it was on many awards lists. But it was kind of a miracle that while we were shooting, the paperback edition was released and it sold five thousand copies a day - which is crazy! You couldn't go anywhere this summer without seeing someone reading it. Everyone had it in France! And nobody really knew that the film was in the making. So when we released the film, it was at the height of popularity for the book.
Having worked on so many films as a casting director for some amazing directors, are there any experiences that are particularly special to you?
I I have to mention Jacques Doillon because he's the one who got me started and pushed me to work with my brother. And working with Woody Allen was a dream come true. It's the first time that I had so much responsibility on a film - and it was with Woody! And we knew how important choosing his actors is for him. It was a real challenge because not only did I have to find historical figures, I could not talk to anybody about it. When actors come to the casting, they didn't know why because we couldn't divulge the plot. Everybody wanted to be in that film. Some real big French stars asked, ‘Why don't you call me?' and I couldn't explain!
Did Woody surprise you at all?
He surprised me in the fact that he really supported my ideas. Everybody warned me that on set, he's not really talkative. So I warned everybody. But he was not at all like that. I don't know if it was Paris, but he would go on set and talk to all the actors. I saw a very lively man on set.
Delicacy is released in cinemas March 3.