By James Van Maanen
Is The Grocer's Son feeding a famished foreign film contingency? Sure looks that way. This "little" film, which became a mini-hit in its native France, building momentum the longer it ran, seems poised to do something similar on these shores - in a smaller way, of course, since the US is reading less these days, what with No Child Left Behind, not to mention the American non-appetite for subtitles. Still, the film is clearly appealing to people who love stories about people (the real and complicated kind) in a gorgeous locale (the French countryside) doing something slightly off-beat (delivering groceries to seniors unable to travel to their nearest market). Booked into NYC's upscale Lincoln Plaza Cinemas for a one-week engagement, the film has performed so well that it is now entering its third week, while opening at the downtown Cinema Village - and rolling out soon in at least a dozen more cities across the US.
Buoyed by a rave review (accompanied by a very large photo) from Stephen Holden in the New York Times, The Grocer's Son is shaping up as the foreign film sleeper of the year. According to Film Movement, the first-week gross was $18,646, while the second weekend alone netted $13,789 - a 30 percent increase over the first weekend - and the film will probably gross $21,000 for its second week total, which gives The Grocer's Son the fourth highest per-screen average of any film that week and makes it one of the top-grossing specialty films in the country. (If anyone is still unaware of the New York Times' ability to make, if not break, a foreign language film, the evidence here is pretty definitive, particularly since neither the New Yorker nor New York magazine, two other bastions of specialty film, bothered even to list the movie as opening that week, and the film received no advance advertising. (The Village Voice gave it a good review and so did GreenCine Daily when it debuted as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema last March.)
With only his second full-length narrative movie, French filmmaker Eric Guirado also seems poised for advancement. He was here in NYC earlier this month when I cornered him for a half-hour interview just prior to a screening of his first narrative film, Quand tu descendras du ciel (2003), which was part of the French Embassy Cultural Service's Cinema sur l'herbe program in the city parks this summer. Short and hirsute, with a very open, square face and wearing a plain, kind of puffy shirt and loose dungarees, Guirado looks the type who could easily be cast in a French revival of Hair. And he seems as genuine and friendly as you would expect from the fellow who made these two exceptionally humane films.
Since The Grocer's Son is only your second full length narrative film, after some shorts and documentaries, I'm wondering how long you have actually been working in cinema?
And how old are you?
I'm going to be 40 in September. I began making shorts. In the same way, I tried to make my first documentary. I did not want to have to choose between documentary and feature films: For me, I need to do both because it is two different ways of seeing, of filming, of telling a story.
I've only seen Quand tu descendras du ciel and The Grocer's Son. They both have a certain documentary sense about them: They feel real and they look real. And they are both very humane - which is a quality I often find in documentaries. While we have some filmmakers here in the US about which I would use this adjective, I don't think there are all that many. Perhaps on some - or several - levels, Hollywood does not encourage "humanity."
I am very happy to know you have seen both films!
And I was very happy to see Stephen Holden's rave review in today's New York Times. Even though, as usual, he gives away too much of the plot.
Yes, but the review is very good, no?
Yes - and it will be very good for your film. Although The Grocer's Son [was originally] scheduled for only a one-week run, I know it will be out on DVD eventually because Film Movement is releasing it, so a larger audience can catch it then.
I did not really know that company, but I am happy to be with them because I feel that they do things sincerely.
I have been impressed with Film Movement for quite some time now. I think they are a very decent group: honest, and they have terrific - and very diverse - taste. If you look back on all the films they have released over the past few years, that taste level is quite apparent. So, tell me what is next for you. Any projects on the horizon right now?
I think I am going to keep working on films about people, with this kind of psychology - and very quietly detailed. I like simple people, ordinary people, but I like find something extraordinary about them.
And that's just what you do - if these first two films are typical examples. You got a fine and very different performance out of the actor Nicolas Cazalé, whom I have seen before in Le Clan, Le grand voyage and Chaotic Ana. You have an interesting way with your leading characters in both films: the first, in which you get the audience to root for the person and like him very much but then you also show a scene or two that demonstrates a major flaw - as in the scene at the sister's dinner table, in which the young man is really out of line. How did you come up with the very first scene of the film, when the young man is leaving the farm and his cow comes out into the middle of the road to be with him? Did you ever see something like that in real life? It was wonderful.
No, but I wanted something symbolic of his naïveté and that he has a lot to learn.
I wager that no one in your audience will have ever seen a scene like that is a movie before. And it immediately puts the audience on the side of the character in a surprising, cliché-free way. In The Grocer's Son, you take quite awhile to let us warm up to Antoine. It is difficult, I think, to bring the audience into a character who is angry and closed. Yet you manage it well.
When I wrote this film, I was aware that it was going to be hard to begin this way because it takes some time to find some sympathy for him. There is none at the beginning. I knew it was going to be a problem.
I think the viewer finds the sympathy in the same way and around the same time as the character himself starts opening up to the world of his father's job that he must start doing. That job is going to be very interesting to American audiences, I think, because it is so different from anything we know over here. And maybe it was different from what many French people knew, too - especially those who live in the big cities.
Maybe, yes. I did a documentary about the grocer and his truck, when I was first beginning to write the film. First, I did work with my memory because I know these people. But the writing took much too long - many years - and this was too much time, I think. The film took such a long time because we could not find enough money, and so finally I decided to stop writing and go back into the countryside to refresh something in the script. I said to myself, Let's go back to the real thing, because I am sure I am missing something here. So I spent a lot of time with these people, and then came back with a different point of view. I was more conscious of the detail, of the psychology and how it takes a lot of time to make a relationship among these people.
I have been thinking and planning to make this film for a very long time. The Grocer's Son should have been my first motion picture, in fact. But it was not possible at the time. So I said, okay, I will wait.
And instead you made Quand tu descendras du ciel? Was that shot on video, by any chance?
No. It was film. But it was not easy because there were very many night shots in it. But this film was actually very important for me to make, too. It was based on a true story, and one that I wanted to tell.
[Quand tu descendras du ciel is about a young man who comes to the city from the family farm; on his first job, he gets involved in a plan by the city fathers to rid the town of unwanted people: the destitute, drink and homeless.]
Not long before you made this film, we had a mayor here in NYC, Rudolph Giuliani, who also wanted to rid the city of people like these - which was not such a good thing. One of the wonderful things about your film is that you show this problem from various angles so that it's not just one-sided. I think I like this film just as much as I like The Grocer's Son. The latter film is more professional and a step up commercially, but both are equally fine in terms of character, story, and meaning. Before we finish, is there anything you would like to say? Here's your chance to get on a soapbox and talk about whatever you'd like...
Well, I would like to say that, next time, I would like to work on... Something new. I don't know how it is here in your country, but in France, the difference between the poor people and the rich people is growing. It is more and more wide.
It's the same way here! The gulf is growing wider and wider!
I am very worried about this. Because I don't know how long it can continue or how it will end.
With another French Revolution.
I worry about the same thing. How much richer can the very rich get, while the poor are growing poorer? And the middle class is barely hanging on. So this may be your next project?
Yes, I am thinking about writing about this. Because there are many times that I am thinking of a true story that happened four years ago about one poor man who finished by killing his neighbor, who was very rich. But this story itself is very complicated and tricky. You know, in the old times, rich people tried - not to hide exactly, but to be discreet.
But now, the style is to show everything - to flaunt it all. And to rub the faces of the poor and middle class in all this enormous wealth...
Yes! And now we have our President Sarkozy and his brand new wife. And this is amazing. Sometimes you would like to tell him: Please, just calm down!
Or get real. What does he think he is achieving? Well, I hear that his popularity has declined somewhat.
So perhaps he will start listening to what other people have to say. Although, our current President certainly does not bother listening to what anyone else says. I think the two of them have certain characteristics in common.
They were even together! What was he thinking of, Sarkozy, to spend his holiday with George Bush? Why was he doing that?!
And it's not that Bush is so popular in France. Why did he choose to do this?
The French people did not understand why he did this. And the week after that, the French people, who did understand that their President might have needed a rest, instead they see him going on this very big boat of the very rich. At the same time he is telling the people that everybody must be willing to make a sacrifice. And then here he is on this boat, celebrating! Where is his sacrifice?
What did you think of the woman who was running against Sarkozy, Ségolène Royal?
We had a big problem, because on the left, Royal was not good enough to be President. I am rather left-wing, but she was just not good enough, and she said a lot of stupid things along the way. It was very embarrassing.
It's what we often say here: that we must choose between the lesser of two evils.
Yes, the lesser or two evils.
[It's time to close so that Guirado can introduce his film to the crowd in the park.]
This is wonderful time for me, to be able to be here and show two of my films to America. I come from the countryside myself, and my parents were very poor...
Were they farmers?
No, but my mother was a house cleaner for the rich, and now, you know, they tell me that they are so proud of me.
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