French actor Swann Arlaud, 39, comes from a Parisian showbiz family. So, when he captured French hearts in 2017’s Bloody Milk, the story of a farmer whose cows are decimated by a disease, it came as a surprise. He won the best actor Cesar (French Oscar) for his portrayal.
“Initially, I doubted I could play the role since I’m Parisian,” Arlaud admits. “But the film was such a nice story. It’s a film that crosses genres. It’s part documentary, part thriller and part comedy. Also, it came at a time when people wanted to see stories about small farmers or workers confronted with difficulties and exploitation.”
For 15 years Arlaud had been working in television police dramas and playing smaller roles in movies, most prominently in the 2010 romantic comedy, Romantics Anonymous. Interestingly, he’d also appeared in Australian director Brodie Higgs’ English-language 2015 German-Australian film Elixir that was shot in Berlin.
“It was an experimental film and I had the main role,” Arlaud recalls. “It was not easy but if you work with a dialogue coach it’s possible.” Now he says he is not looking for an international career, “though I’m not against it.”
Certainly, at the moment, the endearing pixie-faced actor need look no further than France. He again tugged on heartstrings with his affecting real-life portrayal of one of the victims of a paedophile priest in Francois Ozon’s Grace of God.
“I was proud to participate in that film as it helped advance their plight,” Arlaud says. Last year he won a Cesar for best supporting actor for his performance.
Shortly afterwards, he had two films in Cannes: Erwan Le Duc’s absurdist romantic comedy The Bare Necessity and Zabou Breitman and Elea Gobbe-Mevellec’s animated feature The Swallows of Kabul.
In The Bare Necessity (Perdrix), which closes the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, Arlaud plays a poetry-loving, nerdy, small-town police captain, Pierre Perdrix, whose eyes are opened by a new wild woman in town, Juliette (Maud Wyler). When Juliette’s files are stolen by a nudist, she is not happy with the police response and turns up at Pierre’s home and insinuates herself into his life – and ultimately his heart. Pierre’s widowed mother Therese (Fanny Ardant) is a wild woman herself, so perhaps it all makes sense. Essentially, Arlaud is the straight man around whom all the mayhem revolves.
“The film has lots of laughs,” Arlaud notes. “It’s an offbeat universe and at the same time it’s poetic and a grand declaration of love. I loved the story, the adventure and I’ve always loved the absurd. It’s not the usual thing I’m offered, so it was a new experience for me to search out.”
His voice work on The Swallows of Kabul was likewise a new adventure. While he notes that The Bare Necessity also deals with important ecological issues, Swallows truly focuses on a serious topic. Set in 1998 and adapted from Yasmina Khadra’s book, it follows a woman who is sentenced to death by the Taliban regime for killing her husband (Arlaud’s Mohsen). The 2D hand-drawn watercolour-style animation is deft in showing details of the pomp and ceremony in the preparations for her execution. Breitman captured her voice cast during live performance, which lent an authenticity that appealed to Arlaud.
“It’s not like your regular animation and made it far more interesting than simply standing in front of a microphone,” he says.
Yet another challenge for the actor was to appear in How I Became a Superhero, the first French superhero film that releases in France in October. “I play the villain and that’s cool. I rarely have the opportunity to do that,” Arlaud says.
The film is directed and co-written by Douglas Attal, the son of leading French producer Alain Attal, who produces here. Douglas Attal is a huge fan of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen.
“It’s about a society where some people have superpowers and there’s a brigade of police dedicated to the superheroes,” Arlaud explains. “I don’t have powers but I retrieve their blood in a vial that people sniff and they have the power for five minutes.”
Given that the other cast members are Pio Marmai, Leila Bekhti and Benoit Poelvoorde, it’s clearly going to be funny.
“Yes,” Arlaud responds with a smile. “Superhero movies are not my usual thing, but there are exciting, fun things in this film.”
How is it different to a US superhero movie? “I guess in the US everything is big, whereas French cinema is usually closer to realism. But I feel there’s a new wind blowing through French cinema and I have the impressions that The Bare Necessity is also part of that.”
The Bare Necessity and The Swallows of Kabul play at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival. The Swallows of Kabul is in cinemas August 20, 2020. How I Became a Superhero will be released in 2021.