In the shoes of Blanche Houellebecq: a joyful, twisting and shaky mess (review)

Guillaume Nicloux: “Michel Houellebecq and Blanche Gardin are two sides of the same coin”

The director goes behind the scenes of In the Skin of Blanche Houllebecq, his third collaboration with the author of Submission, after The Abduction of Michel Houellebecq and Thalasso

When will you decide on this third Houellebecquian part?

Guillaume Nicloux: There is never anything premeditated in these projects because they are disconnected from a traditional methodology and infrastructure. They obey a rule that cannot always be applied to cinema: to be in this energy which allows us not to put desire to rest and to be able to very quickly launch into making the film, with an idea of ​​experimentation. Because even if there is a written document, we make this film together at the moment when the object is set in motion, and it follows a particular procedure. For example, I give dialogue to some of the protagonists and not to others, I intervene during takes… And on this base, everyone can make their contribution, through spontaneous, unexpected verbal outbursts… I shoot with four cameras constantly to capture in a single take what is happening and not have to replay it. Setting up this organized mess takes a lot of time. And it's much more exhausting than a classic film, I assure you. I couldn't do two in a row.

What was the trigger for this In the shoes of Blanche Houellebecq ?

The desire to find Michel and very quickly to associate him with Blanche Gardin. Because these two constitute for me two sides of the same coin. Two very strong personalities who are completely opposed politically and ideologically, but who, from the start, have a common admiration. Michel really likes the comedian Blanche and Blanche really likes Michel's poetry, which she interpreted Love love on Arte. And I need to have their mutual trust to get started and I can write immediately thinking of them. Because if Blanche tells me no, for example, the film doesn't exist or becomes something completely different.

How do you work from the moment she gives you her consent?

From this desire to bring them together, is born the desire to project them into a geographical and geopolitical universe which joins a concern around decolonization and anticolonialism, which I had started with The Ends of the World then continued in a way more centered on communitarianism with Tower. With a more burning context here because the film is filmed at a pivotal moment when Polynesia obtains even more autonomy and where the chlordecone health scandal still resonates strongly in the West Indies. This is why we see two representatives of this independence movement and why the film opens with an independence writer, Maryse Condé, who imposes a tone on what will follow by saying a whole part of the fight can be carried out with the weapon of laughter.


How do you experience filming these films like no other?

These are very intense and very exhilarating experiences. A very strange mix of concentration and total relaxation. It's both very studious and very funny. Because I must never forget that this is a comedy. What dominates is this desire to experiment together, with the obligation to tell ourselves that something unique will come out of it and that we must come out different. It may seem very pretentious but we don't see it that way on set. At that moment, the other's view has no importance, there is no more ego, they, like me, disappear behind what is being made.

Are you moving in the timeline?

Yes, it is essential because the goal is to capture and take advantage of all the accidents that can occur in order to bounce back. This is why, for example, we shot the last shot of the car at the very end in The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, since Michel was traveling at 285 km/h… and there was a risk that we would kill ourselves! There is this excitement of thinking that tragedy could happen at any moment. But tragedy in comedy too. Accidents figuratively, not just literally

The François Hollande lookalike that we see is one of the coincidences of the filming?

No, that was totally planned. Because as they are rare, it had to be found before filming. I even suggested that François Hollande play his own role, as I had requested – without success because his presence alone would have cost ten times the film's budget! – to Sylvester Stallone in Thalasso. The former president refused and he was right a thousand times over. Because the double brings an element of fantasy which fits the story and allows us to extend the competition of doubles which constitutes its backbone. But all this is done with kindness. As if to complete a loop since in The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, Michel claimed to have been kidnapped by François Hollande because he overshadowed him. This meeting through a double allows them to reconcile since François Hollande's double welcomes him, frees him and saves him. There is therefore a kind of reassurance in which Michel can also confide that he was undoubtedly wrong in the way he presented things.

How do you manipulate personalities as flammable as Michel Houellebecq and Blanche Gardin?

I play on a permanent porosity between what people can fantasize about themselves and who they really are. But also the evolution of the situation in each person. So, two months before filming, Michel is still on the Nobel shortlist. Then following his interview in Front Populaire with Michel Onfray, he found himself demonized. And I place this new situation from the outset at the heart of the story by organizing a confrontation with Blanche Gardin who asks her for explanations. This creates the dynamic of the film that Michel must confront in order for things to move forward.

What was written before filming in these exchanges between the two of them?

Michel is aware that the discussion will take place this way. I organize with Blanche how she will ask these questions and launch the debate. Then I leave it to Michel to answer the questions as naturally and sincerely as possible.

How has your view of Michel Houellebecq evolved since your first meeting?

Change is part of human nature. I can't believe that aging doesn't affect brain cells or thinking. Michel has therefore changed, as our relationship has changed. It’s an alchemy that’s constantly mutating. I can't specify exactly what but yes, neither him nor me nor our relationship is exactly the same since we first met

What echoes do these films with Houellebecq have in your other feature films?

At my house, everything is intertwined. We can believe that my films are opposed to each other and do not necessarily have an apparent link, when I think of documentaries The Kings of Scam to a fantastic film like Tower or from this film with Michel Houellebecq to the one on Sarah Bernhardt that I just finished. But in a way, they respond to each other and they oppose each other. There are dynamics that make each film lead to another. I stay on the same road but in a different vehicle.

Have you already talked about a fourth part with Michel Houellebecq?

Not at all, nor with Blanche. But I had never talked about doing a second after the first, nor a third after the second. SO…

In the shoes of Blanche Houellebecq. By Guillaume Nicloux. With Michel Houellebecq, Blanche Gardin, Luc Schwarz… Duration: 1h28. Released on 13 March 2024

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