Unsung Auteurs: Julie Gavras

June 22, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: French filmmaker Julie Gavras, who helmed Blame It On Fidel! and Late Bloomers.

Growing up in the shadow of a famous filmmaking parent is hasty route to becoming an Unsung Auteur. If you work in similar thematic terrain, the work of the child will be constantly compared to that of the parent, and if the subject matter is different, the work of the child will often be dismissed. French director Julie Gavras is the daughter of the Greek-born but French working veteran filmmaker, Costa-Gavras, who has received longtime career acclaim for his politically minded films, such as Z, State Of Siege and Missing. He still stands as one of the true greats of the 1960s and 1970s, and his daughter bravely chose to follow in his footsteps.

Julie Gavras initially, however, intended to pursue a career in law. “I’m from a movie family — my father’s a director, my mother’s a producer and I have brothers who work in the business — so at some time I decided that I was not going to do it,” Gavras told Filmmaker Magazine in 2007, “so I went to law school. I didn’t decide to become a film director, but I met people who had a story that interested me so I did a documentary. I started directing documentaries, which was fine with my first decision not to be like my family, because nobody [in my family] makes documentaries.”

Julie Gavras at The Berlin Film Festival.

Gavras eventually began her film career in earnest as an assistant director in Italy and France, where she worked on a variety of TV commercials, television movies and feature films, as well as on her father’s 2002 WW2 drama Amen, which follows the efforts of a German soldier and Jesuit priest to inform The Vatican of the horrors being visited upon the Jews in Europe. Julie Gavras directed her first short film in 1998 with Oh Les Beaux Dimanches! before moving on to another documentary in 2000 with From Dawn To Night: Songs By Moroccan Women. In 2002, Gavras released The Pirate, The Wizard, The Thief and the Children, a doco which looks at a class of nine-year-olds working on a film project at their school.

In 2006, Julie Gavras made her fictional feature film debut with Blame It On Fidel!, which was adapted from the novel by Domitilla Calamai but obviously held much personal resonance for the director. The film follows a nine-year-old girl who experiences a major upheaval in her life when her parents become radical political activists in 1970-71 Paris. “I read the book and I loved it,” Gavras told Filmmaker Magazine in 2007. “What’s in the movie is not my life, but it’s so close to what I could say I felt as a child, so I decided try and make something out of it. I think I kept a third of the book, which is the events of the beginning and the main idea: a little girl from a very bourgeois family who sees her life completely transformed because of her parents’ political activities. I added the Chilean parts because when I was 12, my father did a movie called Missing, and Missing was like my political awakening. I was 12, and for the first time I understood one of my father’s movies. Before, they were not movies for children but the story was simple for a child to understand: it was a father looking for his son.”

A scene from Blame It On Fidel!

Gavras followed Blame It On Fidel! with the charming 2011 comedy Late Bloomers, which FilmInk discussed with the director during an interview in Paris. While it’s a topic occasionally handled in the odd drama, the realities of ageing is rarely a theme tackled via the romantic comedy. But that’s just the space Gavras fills with Late Bloomers, which stars the late William Hurt and Isabella Rossellini as a couple who suddenly awake to the fact that they’re ageing, and respond in completely different ways. The director cannily zeroes in on all the comedic potential offered by the genre’s conventions. “Blame It On Fidel! was very personal, and I wanted to do something completely different next,” the likeable and laidback Gavras recalled while lounging in a Paris hotel room. “I love romantic comedies, but I thought, ‘How can I do things a bit differently?’ A romantic comedy is all about two completely opposite characters and how they manage to get together. By exploring the different ways in which men and women respond to ageing, I saw the opportunity to exploit that comic potential.”

The desire to weave a story about the challenges and joys of growing older, however, was never the film’s starting point, with the director originally actually motivated by the experiences of her father. “A few years ago, my father was taking one of his films around the world to promote,” the director recalled, “and each time he visited a country, they’d do a retrospective of his work. There was something funny in the fact that he was coming to show his new film and hoping to still make films, and people always wanted to bring him back to his past. So the starting motivation of this film was when you get to this age where the way that people think of you is different to the way that you feel.”

William Hurt and Isabella Rossellini in Late Bloomers.

This disconnect is very much at the heart of Late Bloomers, which sees William Hurt’s respected architect, Adam, unnerved and frustrated when his wife, Mary (Rossellini), starts planning for ways to ease them into their twilight years. “During my writing period, the thing that often came out was that men are in denial of ageing, whereas women try and see ahead and plan. Obviously, Adam and Mary are only in their sixties, and they’re too young for things like safety bars in the bathroom. It’s just her way to piss him off. In all the moments of a couple, there are turning points. Just like moving in together or having children is one, turning sixty and having all the kids gone is another turning point. How do you deal with that new moment in your relationship and remain in love?”

Late Bloomers was originally written and conceived in French, but Gavras was insistent that the lead couple be played by two actors who hadn’t appeared romantically alongside each other before, which ruled out the majority of older French actors, and also saw the film’s Parisian setting change to London. “I always had Isabella in mind. I discovered that she made this little series of films called Green Porno where she’s dressed up as an insect and talks about insect sexuality. They’re really funny, and just seeing the way that she’s dressed and how she moves, I knew that talking about age wouldn’t be the issue with her that it would be with other actresses. With William, although he’s not British, I pushed for him because I saw him as having both a romantic and a tough aspect.”

William Hurt and Isabella Rossellini in Late Bloomers.

The fact that there were two revered names attached to the film also helped secure funding, but Gavras says that in France (where 250 films are funded per year), they’re generally free of studio influence. “We’re quite lucky,” the director acknowledged to FilmInk. “Even though I work with a major French company called Gaumont, from the moment you agree on the script and what the film is going to be, you’re completely free. Obviously I would not have been able to take two unknown French actors because of money restraints, but that condition exists everywhere. We do make a lot of films thanks to state funding. There’s always this big discussion in France about whether we need to make 250 films a year to make at least 25 good films. I probably agree that you need to make a lot to have a few good ones.”

And we could do with more good films about characters tackling their twilight years, with Gavras (who has sadly not made a feature since Late Bloomers, instead working largely in TV) acknowledging that France is very youth oriented. Did the film stir up any age anxieties for the director? “I turned forty while doing promotion for the film,” she smiles, “but one thing I’m sure of is that I definitely don’t want to be twenty again. I hope that when I’m sixty, I’ll say the same thing about being forty…”

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Ted Post, Sarah Jacobson, Anton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda Haines,Leslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett Haley, Lynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.