Interview with Julien Samani
What is the genesis of the film?
After a screening of La Peau Trouée in 2004, one of Joseph Conrad’s relative introduced herself to me. She asked me if I knew her cousin’s work. I told her no and she encouraged me to discover it. Back home, I read everything Conrad wrote including Youth which became one of my favorite books. I was looking for a book to adapt for my next film and my choice naturally turned to this novel which didn’t leave me anymore. Literature feeds me. Homer's The Odyssey is the book that led me to La Peau Trouée. Everything comes from a desire to push reality. For a guy who makes documentaries, this is ironic! The political or sociological dimension only comes afterwards for me. What comes first is imagination, interiority and what moves deeply a character. What Jung would call the power of dreams.
How was the work of adaptation?
Youth is an abstract book. The characters are poorly characterized, as well as places. Conrad tells of a feat of strength of memory, of an experience that in its interiority and coloring, begins and ends in [myself]. Nevertheless, there is a narrative that is the one of travel to another continent and the shipwreck. But the whole falls within the idea of memory and dream. All the work was to keep this dreamlike material, besides characters and their conflicts. It was necessary to build the different stages of the adventure, set the dramatic issues specific to contemporary times, to the characters but also to the ship. It was a thankless step because this abstract force behind this rite of passage might dissolve in prominent scriptwriting issues. I refocused myself only on action and energy that my hero spreads to confront his dreams. In general, my documentaries La Peau Trouée (2004), Sur la Piste (2006) and Les Hommes de la forêt 21 (2007) are always stories by men, immersed in hostile environments who are struggling against elements. What attracts me in there, it’s the self-transcendence. In these masculine stories, rushes loneliness, withdrawal and broken dreams.
Your film often borders on abstraction that enhances a space-time scrambling...
From the writing of the film, there was a dreamlike dimension. The real-time fades, it no longer counts, the space non-more. It was a complex equation to solve because we had to anchor the story in a contemporary reality but very soon I wanted this reality to be true. I told the decorator for example, that I did not want any car in the field, either in Portugal or Le Havre. We can hear them but I wanted to deviate a maximum from reality, in favor of a more romantic evocation of the contemporary. And this, in order to be inside Zico’s dreams. Whether it’s in the colorful constructions in the alleys of containers in Le Havre or in the unsettling docks in Portugal. I wanted, as in Conrad, to keep that innocence and a world disconnected from an unduly mundane reality. My character “dreams uselessly” and this is the way it will grow. The Abstraction is also to open up spaces. We wanted to start from the hero’s real fear, be close to every emotions to move to something more stranger. A Space in which we ignore where the threat comes from. At this moment, we need to wide the frame. We are with a character much more present than before: The ship.
Does Youth fit in the survival genre?
Completely. I really wanted to direct one. But this meant introducing spectacular elements, way beyond the budget I could ask. Hence the need to create off and adopt staging strategies where one does not have to show the ship caught in a storm. These constraints forced me to focus once again on the interiority of the characters, the essential of this story ultimately. I directed a minimalist survival where the epic and romantic dimension, the ongoing dramatic tension and the conflicts between these men dominate. Here, the danger comes from the captain’s madness who persists on staying on a completely rotten ship.
From Sailors from l’Ile d'Yeu that we can see in La Peau Trouée to sea dogs from Le Havre who we come across here, the mythology of the sea journey is present through your filmography. But it’s marked by ruptures. In Youth, the contemporary reverts abruptly, as in the scene where Zico consults his Facebook account...
Absolutely, at that time, Zico’s dreams are undermined. He has just risked his life, his friend died, he has been thrown overboard, it’s reality, and he must choose to stay or not. It was important that we feel the cruel twinge of his young man’s condition who fantasized a life.
In this scene, it isn’t one but two youths that look and oppose each other...
Yes, but I make no judgment on it. I wanted to show that my hero is alone with his dreams and that he stands on the sidelines of another reality. It was also a way of affirming that he chooses to stay knowingly. He stays because he can be lieutenant and he’s eager to get somewhere.
One thinks about Moby Dick by Herman Melville, with the nuance that the man doesn’t confront to a whale in your movie but to a ship. Does it stand for an allegory of fate?
The ship is clearly a monster. As it stands, the cast from La Judée was essential. We had to have an antiquated elegance, a marked patina, but also we had to feel that it’s still in service. I had in mind a specific type of cargo from the fifties, a mix between Karaboudjan and Tintin’s Aurora! We finally shot with two ships for thirty six days, of which three of them were spent at sea. The threat comes from this ship that rebels. I wanted to hear it rumble, like the impression of a monster striking heavy blows in the hold. There was a lot of work on the sound. Zico doesn’t understand what is happening. It's sunny, the sea is calm, danger comes from the guts of their ship. This is the fate of this cursed captain who dreamed too much. Géraud even said: “We’ve been transporting crumbs. We're given a wreck and we're meant to thank them? We can even die, that's no problem. It's never their fault.” It’s also the cruelty of the times in which we live.
When Zico goes into the engine room, it seems that he dies and is reborn in the guise of a captain. Was this the meaning of this scene?
The sequence where he goes in the hold until he emerges from the ship’s guts is dreamlike. Everything is idyllic: the swimming, the harmony among these men, the joy of them all but it’s only a dream. Zico was struck by the explosion. He gets up and soon he becomes the captain of his ship, that is to say, the master of his destiny.
Is Zico a projection of the captain when he was young?
For me, the captain and his assistant are both projections of Zico. One, a charismatic seducer slightly cracked, who has never stopped dreaming, even if he doesn’t know where he goes. The other represents a form of reason and surrender to risk. He sees everything that is not working. He’s the production manager, in short! This incredible outing is a bit like a metaphor for cinema.
Tell us about your choice of casting.
Kévin Azaïs interpreting Zico is a mixture of candor and energy. He has something ambivalent, a softness and at the same time, a lot of anger lurking in him. He took control of the script immediately. Throughout the filming, he kept watching for the moment when that candor had to make room for more firmness. He built his character alone, gently and humbly, asking me a few rare questions. He impressed with his intelligence and accuracy! To capture the power relationships between the characters, I told Samir Guesmi, who plays Géraud, that he should feel threatened by Zico, that he was supposed to be jealous at the point of hesitating to swing him overboard. I wanted the second to be a broken man, so we feel the bitterness of a man who doesn’t allow himself to be hopeful anymore and makes him becoming disturbing. Samir Guesmi brought a lot of shades and light to his character. And it's good. I always told myself that Géraud had boarded this cargo because he had a broken heart. The choice of Jean-François Stévenin, in the role of Captain Firmin Paillet, was the one of tender madness, as seen in his film Mischka. He has a charismatic presence and outdated, constantly on a wire between malice and madness. I was lucky that the three actors got along very well during the shooting. Finally, I asked Patrick Grandperret to do the voice, he immediately accepted. We recorded him in his house in Saint-Maur. This encounter was obvious. There is between us a community of thought and cinematic universes. He brought a unique and valuable emotion to the text.
How did you design the electro soundtrack?
We talked about music for five years with Ulysse Klotz. He plays electro music but I also wanted him to go towards something more lyrical. He was immediately played along. I was looking for a set of bass instruments, mystics. Immediately after the explosion, for example, he made an envolée for a quartet of cellos. I also wanted us to move towards more grotesque moments sometimes. For La Judée’s second departure, these cellos mingle to awkwardly volunteer bassoons. We both composed the music, note by note. It has been a real pleasure. We found this prelude of Carl Friedrich Abel, the stubbornness of his arpeggios, the generosity and depth of this viola da gamba were benchmarks to build the soundtrack.