Interview: Michel Hazanavicius' The Search - bleak Chechnya tale
The French director's latest film is a world away from his Oscar-winning, black-and-white silent comedy The Artist, but proved just as challenging to realise
When Michel Hazanavicius told his producer, Thomas Langmann, his idea for his next film after their runaway hit The Artist, his colleague simply laughed. "He said to me, 'How can you find something more difficult to finance than a black-and-white silent movie?'" the director recalls.
Despite its glitzy 1920s Hollywood setting, the monochrome and dialogue-free The Artist was a tough sell. But compared to The Search - a remake of Fred Zinnemann's 1948 film, in which Montgomery Clift's soldier helps a Czech boy try to find his mother in post-war Berlin - it's a cakewalk.
Updated to the second Chechen war in 1999, The Search follows a dispirited NGO worker named Carole (Bérénice Bejo) and her relationship with a nine-year-old orphaned boy named Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev), left traumatised and mute after his parents are killed by Russian troops.
In this bleak, 150-minute tale, Hazanavicius wanted the characters to speak in their native languages, rather than English - countering the usual Hollywood tradition when it comes to films set in foreign lands.
Hazanavicius' producer wasn't the only one who was shocked. His real-life partner Bejo "had a similar reaction", she says, "especially because after The Artist, he had so many beautiful propositions from America. Really good scripts."
Did she try and persuade him otherwise? "When someone has such a strong conviction, what can you do? Doing a Russian-Chechen-English-French movie - about a conflict that no one really cares about - it's hard. Being an artist is also saying, 'That's what I feel and that's what I'm going to do'," she says.
Hazanavicius had been toying with the idea for years. In 2004, he co-wrote a television documentary, Rwanda: History of a Genocide, with Raphaël Glucksmann, son of French philosopher André Glucksmann. It was this circle of friends that turned him towards the atrocities in Chechnya.
"The international community did nothing," he says. "There was no information. They lost the war and history is written against them because of that and because Russian propaganda is very, very strong. I think it was important to tell the story."
It meant decamping to Georgia for six months with his wife and their two young children, for a production full of difficulties. "We had five languages on set - that was difficult," he says. "To work with kids is difficult. To work with non-actors is difficult."
Then there was bad weather, basic sleeping conditions and dealing with the Georgian army. But everything paled next to taking on such a gloomy story. "More difficult was my personal work as a director, and that means how to represent violence, death, cruelty, politics, kids and melodrama."
Having Bejo by his side helped tremendously. "It's always easier when you're not alone," she smiles. The Argentinean-born actress, who gained world attention for her role as a wide-eyed starlet in The Artist, wasn't there for a holiday.
"I was on set every day with him, even when I was not working, because I thought the subject was so strong and the conditions were hard," she says. "I did not feel like going back to the hotel and doing my nails. That was not possible. I needed to stay connected to the work."
For Bejo, it meant bonding with Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev, her young co-star, who came from a Chechen village. "He's Muslim, so our cultures are very different," she says. "The relationship between a man and a woman is very different. I couldn't touch him."
In the scenes where Carole showed him affection, the boy would recoil. "I had to let him come to me whenever he wanted, and the way he wanted." She was impressed by his acting. "He got emotional very easily. He would cry in two minutes for 20 takes - that put a lot of pressure on me to do the same."
When the film played at the Cannes Film Festival last year, it divided opinion hugely. The official screening ended with a 15-minute standing ovation, with audience members crying, according to the director. The press screening was a different matter, with a particularly noisy reaction from Russian viewers.
"They booed and whistled, and they did it because they felt their nation was criticised and they couldn't bear it … I'm very proud of those whistles." Hazanavicius shrugs. "I can't force people to agree with me."
Even so, there must be a part of him that suspects The Search is going to have to endure a far more torturous birth than The Artist, which went from delighting Cannes crowds to claiming five Oscars, including best picture and best director. "I'm sure it won't be the same story as The Artist. I would be crazy to hope it could happen again."
Still, when The Search was reviewed, it wasn't all bleak. Screen International called the movie "highly marketable", given Hazanavicius' pedigree and the presence of Bejo, not to mention the casting of Annette Bening, who has a small role as an overworked Red Cross administrator.
As for their next step, it finally seems like they're Hollywood bound. Bejo has shot her first American film, The Childhood of a Leader, with Robert Pattinson, while Hazanavicius is juggling two projects, including a Disney movie, Bob the Musical, the story of a man who suffers a blow to the head and begins to hear other people's inner songs.
"It's a dream for a director, at least to try a studio movie," he says. "I don't know how they work, so I have to adapt myself as much as possible." And who knows? Maybe it'll be even tougher than The Search.
The Search opens on May 21