Earlier this month, French filmmaker Romain Gavras arrived at the Venice Film Festival and dropped a metaphorical bombshell with his latest film “Athena.”
Told as a drama set in an upscale Parisian community (also known as a banlieue), the audience would have guessed what to expect. Banlieues have been a mainstay of French social realist cinema for decades, from Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 cult hit La Haine to Jacques Audiard’s 2015 Palme d’Or winner Dheepan, Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables, Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood and Fanny . “Gagarine” by Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh. The mixture of scarcity, unquenchable energy and tendency to drama have provided the substance that has formed many pearls for cinema.
Gavras did not wait for the pearl. He took the place and he aggrieved against history, he saw in the banlieue the evils and injustices that humanity has suffered since ancient times. It became a volatile backdrop against which he could create what he calls “the myth of the near future.”
His muscular rendition of a Greek tragedy centered on three grieving brothers, The Man, at war with each other, left critics in awe and jaws on the floor (“One of the greatest films I’ve ever seen,” tweeted Vulture’s Bilge Ebi. Read CNN’s review here. Ahead of its September 23rd premiere on Netflix, Gavras spoke with CNN to discuss his explosive new film.
The following interview is lengthy and has been edited for clarity.
CNN: “Athena” joins the cinematic tradition of famous French films set in the banlieues. What did you want to add to that history and to that conversation?
Romain Gavras: It has become almost a genre in France, it has been (in films) for 30 years. This is the dominant culture. It is usually treated as a type of social realist film. We wanted to bring an aspect of Greek tragedy there; almost like a near-future myth. It is now set in France, but it could be set in the Trojan War, medieval wars, maybe a future war on Elon Musk’s moon. Because the situation is an archetype of how a war – a civil war, more precisely – can be triggered in real time.
Was it Greek tragedy or banlieue first?
I think Greek tragedy. We chose to make it about the intimate pain of brotherhood, where their pain and rage and the way they grieve will spill over into neighborhoods and then spill over into the nation, which is often how wars start. In the film, a lie drives the people of Earth into conflict, the same model from the Trojan War to Archduke Franz Ferdinand to Colin Powell. The territory (of the banlieue) is fertile for those conflicts, but really the way to spread that story was the key for us.
As a filmmaker, is the language and story structure of Greek tragedy useful?
It’s the way to give back. We took away the element of real time, the unity of place, turning the characters into myths and heroes or anti-heroes. We wanted to make a film that is cinema at its best – and it’s a strange word – but entertaining. Where you are and create iconography and rhythm. Where you bring something to the cinematic language and the cinematic table. I think that is the responsibility as a director. I don’t think we have a moral responsibility.
I am surprised by your attitude that cinema has no moral responsibility.
I think we have a responsibility to our beliefs and to cinema. Sometimes people will say, “violent movies, music videos, video games, and rap music will make kids angry and riot.” I think lack of education, lack of money – real problems – creates tense situations. I believe that films can change cinema; I don’t think movies can change the world. Sometimes, and Hollywood does this, there’s a self-aggrandizement where they think, “Oh, movies will change the world for the better.” There have been a lot of movies that have tried to do that and the world just got sh-tier and sh-tier.
When did you decide to build this film around a set of feature films?
Pretty early. The tragedy begins at sunset and ends at sunset. Twenty-four hours for a film is an almost real-time experience. We wanted to be part of that real-time experience. They do so because you don’t jump around in time.
How long did it take you, cinematographer Mathias Bouchard and your cast and crew to choreograph and rehearse everything?
We rehearsed the whole film for almost two months, like you would rehearse a play or an opera, with a small camera, with the main actors pretending to have fireworks and extras around them, to see the dance between the camera and the actors. the rhythm There is no CGI in the film, we do everything for real. The planning, oddly enough, was almost military and very detailed to create chaos in front of the camera.
I assumed there was a bit of CGI in there somewhere. I bet your insurers loved one everything being practical.
Because it’s a Netflix movie, we literally had security people on set, insurance or whatever. The team that makes sure we don’t do anything crazy. First of all, they want you to shoot all green screen because that’s the way people do it, but I feel like you lose a lot when you do this. My 13 year old daughter, she sees CGI everywhere, she says “fake fire”, “green screen”. It’s not exact, but it’s the feeling you get. And I don’t think it’s in this movie.
You mentioned that this is a Netflix production, which presents unique opportunities and challenges for a French film (Netflix films cannot compete at the Cannes Film Festival, and rare screenings of Netflix Original titles in French cinemas in 2021). it sparked an industry backlash). What was behind the decision to go with them?
It was a very simple decision: I couldn’t make this film without Netflix. A French studio wouldn’t give me a budget for it and would probably push me to get huge actors, and I think it’s better to have new faces. It’s great on the big screen, but at the same time, the first time I saw “Star Wars” or “Apocalypse Now” was on my TV. I had all the freedom that (I wanted). I made the film I wanted to make.
After this intense production, what do you plan to do next?
I plan to sleep most of the time. No, I think I’ll feed myself. I like to read and watch movies, and I’ve been in the work tunnel for two years. For a manager it is very important to nurture yourself. So mostly I’ll just do that and think about the next movie. Not aligned yet. I’ll think about it pretty hard.
“Athena” is available to stream on Netflix on September 23.