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An existential hero

THEO PANAYIDES meets a film maker and novelist who appears fascinated by serial killers but who says they are merely metaphors

 

Every year, the inmates of La Santé – one of France’s most notorious prisons – award a prize for the best crime novel of the year (the rather mischievous point, I suppose, is that they know good crime writing when they see it). A few years ago they chose Je ne vous aime pas (‘I Don’t Like You’), the debut novel by Eric Cherrière – and were quite surprised when Eric, now 41, turned up in person to receive his award. “When they saw me, [they said] ‘But you look like a child!’,” he recalls with a chuckle. “And then they said: ‘When we saw what you write, it’s not us who should be in prison, it’s you!’.”

Eric’s first novel is about a serial killer. So is his second novel, Mademoiselle Chance. So is his film debut Cruel, which unspools behind us – part of the Cyprus Film Days festival – as we talk in the lobby of the Zena Palace in Nicosia. Like the hero of Je ne vous aime pas, Pierre Tardieu in Cruel (played by Jean-Jacques Lelté) kills people more or less at random, and not only does he kill them but he likes to toy with them first, keeping them prisoner in the cellar where his grandpa once hid Jews during the war and noting down details of their final hours in an exercise book.

So when did Eric first become fascinated by serial killers?

He shakes his head: “For me, it’s a concept,” he replies. “It’s not real”. He’s tall and thin, rather geeky-looking; his face is pleasant, even boyish. His hair is floppy and he’ll sometimes pause to brush hair out of his eyes as he talks, like an adolescent. “My serial killers in Cruel and my two novels don’t exist in reality. In reality, serial killers kill for psychosexual reasons, because their fantasmes [i.e. fantasies] involve sex and death. My serial killers kill for existential reasons. They kill because they are human, and they don’t know how to live.”

Cruel plays with that concept a little, subtly misdirecting the audience in a nod towards the kind of film it pointedly isn’t. Pierre’s first victim (that we see) is a young woman, and he appears to have sex on his mind as they talk in the cellar: “Could you find me attractive?” he asks. (“Yes,” sobs the desperate woman, willing to make any sacrifice.) But in fact sex has nothing to do with it: Pierre’s next victim is a man, and in any case he’s later involved in a ‘normal’ relationship with a woman who knows nothing of his murderous tendencies. His problem is something much deeper than sexual dysfunction: it is, as Eric says, “existential”.

The killer is merely a metaphor. “I never considered my serial killers as serial killers. I considered them as human, like you and me”. Pierre’s violence stems from the loss of childhood, the alienation of daily life, the burden of existence itself. “How do we react to the frustration of life?” asks Eric rhetorically, warming to his theme. “How do we react to the anguish of Time passing – Time is passing, we are going to die, how do we react? I think we react by violence. Of course we don’t kill people, but by a form of violence”. Making his protagonist a killer is a reflection of a general malaise, an amplification of the violence that exists inside all of us. It’s the same idea as a scientist, investigating Nature with his – and Eric makes a gesture that looks like a microscope or a magnifying glass, his words having failed him. He sighs unhappily: “It’s difficult for me to speak in English”.

I think I understand what you’re saying, I assure him.

“You understand between the lines,” he replies, with a rueful laugh.

I’d actually offered to do the interview in my miserable French, but he prefers to practise his English. It’s easy to see why: Cruel is a hit, having opened in Busan (the biggest festival in Asia) and travelled all over the world; he’s only here for a couple of days, then travels to Rome for another screening. Festivals have interpreters, of course, but being able to discuss the film fluently in English will surely make a good impression – and Eric must be keen to do all he can for Cruel, given how hard it was to make it.

How hard was it? For the answer, one only has to look at the brevity of its opening credits. Most European films open with a list of funding bodies and production companies, but Cruel only has a single production credit: “De Pure Fiction présente”. De Pure Fiction is the company he formed with his wife in the middle of shooting – and let me tell you, he laughs, “creating a company with your wife in the middle of shooting your first movie is the worst thing you can do in your life! Your life is a nightmare when you do that! But my wife hasn’t divorced, it’s all right,” he adds with a flourish of gallows humour. At first the idea was to make the film guerrilla-style, more or less without money – but the project grew, people had to be paid, so Eric and his wife sold their apartment, got a little cash from the regional government in exchange for shooting locally, and formed the company to help with financing. “Cruel is a movie that has been produced completely out of the system in France,” he explains emphatically. “Because it’s very, very, very low-budget” – around €200,000 – “and we don’t do movies with that kind of budget in France”.

His wife Isabel was vital to the project; she too is a writer (of novels), but also has a knack for convincing people “to continue” when they’re thinking of quitting. There’s a home-made quality to Cruel. The child in the childhood sequence that opens and closes the movie is Eric and Isabel’s own son (he looks about four years old). Pierre’s flat is Eric’s grandmother’s flat, “when I was a child I slept in the same bed” as the killer. The shirt he’s wearing now, he says, pointing to his shirt, was worn by Pierre in the film; “The way the killer meets his wife is the way I met my wife, in a librairie [bookshop]”. It’s more than just low-budget penny-pinching, it’s a hidden authorial signature: “For me, it was important to have that kind of truth. I’m the only one who knows it, this truth, but when you are desperate” – when things are going badly, when the film doesn’t work in the editing room – “it gives you something strong. ‘I continue, I continue, this is what I want to do’.”

Did he ever have moments when he thought he’d made a mistake in starting the project, though?

“I think you always have the doubt,” he replies. “And you always say to yourself: ‘I make a mistake, I make a mistake, I make a mistake. It’s a disaster. No, it’s not possible’.” He shrugs eloquently: “And then I am here in Cyprus – wow! You know, you meet people … After this I go to Roma, to festival of Roma. You meet people who say ‘The movie’s interesting. It’s interesting’. So, OK, you have to continue. Being there is wonderful when you have passed many problems, disasters”.

One might almost say that Eric himself is an existential hero, like his killer. One might say that making Cruel was his own “form of violence” – but against what, exactly? Maybe the frustration of having wanted to direct a film for the past 15 years, making TV documentaries for a living while meeting with producers; that’s why he finally turned to novels, he explains, so he could get something done without having to share his vision with a litany of backers. And of course there’s Toulouse, the town where he lives. “Toulouse is a small town, after all,” says Pierre in the movie (speaking, one presumes, for his creator). “We always see the same faces, the same people. We watch each other growing old, and don’t even say hello”. Toulouse is also in the provinces, a long way from Paris. “I’m not in le réseau,” admits Eric, “I’m not in the network. It’s very difficult. But I’m not stupid. I have friends, I have connections”.

profile2The success of Cruel has brought new connections; the film has already been sold in Turkey, Mexico and much of Asia. One still has to wonder, though: Where does it come from, this darkness? It’s all very well to say ‘Oh, the killing is just a metaphor’ – but Cruel is aptly named (it’s a ruthless little film), and let’s not forget that debut novel which even hardened criminals found a bit disturbing. (His books are a lot more explicit, says Eric; he doesn’t show violence in films, “I don’t know how”.) What’s he like as a person? Why do all these visions of sick, sadistic bogeymen dance in his head?

I don’t know; nor does he, probably. What was he like as a child, or a teenager? “Shy and completely extroverted,” he replies cryptically. “I was melancholic, and very happy”. He’s not being coy, he really has two sides. His parents divorced when he was young and he grew up in two environments, in the city with his father and in the country with his mother; the latter seems to have been the more pleasing, and even now he has “a great passion for Nature” (Cruel has some beautiful shots of rippling ponds and dappled light amid the horrors). He’s a film buff, the kind of boy who must’ve buried himself in movies; his all-time Top 10 is heavy on action and Westerns, and a line from The Wild Bunch – “In our hearts we all want to be children again, even the worst of us” – was a big inspiration in writing his killers. One might call him a solitary type in a sociable profession. “When you make a movie, you are alone,” he says simply. “But you can’t be alone. You have to find people.”

Eric Cherrière works hard; that’s what happens when two writers get married. “Long hours to write, write, write, and rewrite and rewrite,” he sighs. “And talk with my wife, she reads what I write and we talk, we talk, we talk”. Sometimes he’ll seek seclusion in his house in the country: “I work for 10 days, I see nobody. I don’t see my wife and my kid. I’m in another place. I just watch Nature and the land, I just see the clouds and the trees”. And then? Does he start to miss people after 10 days? Oh no, he replies – but then it’s Isabel’s turn to write “and to be out of the world”, so presumably they switch places! He spent today in Limassol, he tells me, as a guest of the festival: “I [spent] four hours just watching the sea – and four hours writing, writing, writing.”

His next book will be dark and violent – but his next film will be more of an adventure yarn, not so disturbing. I suppose it’s just as well; there’s enough real-life violence in the world without adding to it in movies. When you watch real beheadings on the internet, how can fiction be deemed overly-violent? “I don’t know how to dialogue with that kind of images,” he muses, speaking of militant Islam’s various atrocities – a curious admission from a man who creates monsters for a living, but of course the work is different. In the end, I suspect he tends to look inwards, loving nothing better than to lose himself in the calming beauty of Nature and the voluptuous embrace of Cinema. “Do you think you can change the world?” I ask. “No,” he replies instantly.

No?

“No. I can just make movies which are like me, and the way I see the world,” replies Eric, with one of those pleasant smiles which must’ve nonplussed the incarcerated readers at La Santé. “And you write articles, as you see the world. And that’s all – and it’s very little. But it’s big, in a way”. I suppose it is.

 

ERIC CHERRIERE’S TOP 10 MOVIES
1. The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
2. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947)
3. The Blade (Tsui Hark, 1995)
4. The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava, 1963)
5. Explorers (Joe Dante, 1985)
6. Youth of the Beast (Seijun Suzuki, 1963)
7. Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)
8. One-Armed Swordsman (Chang Cheh, 1967)
9. A Fistful of Dynamite (Sergio Leone, 1971)
10. Graveyard of Honour (Kinji Fukasaku, 1975)

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