Tom Dawson meets Xavier Giannoli, the writer/director of hit French film The Singer, and discovers how he tamed Gerard Depardieu
The French director Xavier Giannoli can pinpoint the moment cinema entered his life. He was five years old and asleep in his parents’ flat in Paris, when he woke up to the sound of tanks and machine guns. It turned out that the noise was coming from the flat downstairs, where a new neighbour, the famous French singer Christophe Willem, had moved in.
‘He was a cinephile, who had his own projection facilities and who watched films on celluloid,’ recalls Giannoli. ‘In time, he showed me King Kong, West Side Story, and The Asphalt Jungle. One day we’d watch an intellectual Godard film and the next Mary Poppins. I developed a clandestine relationship with film: we were worried that the police might come and confiscate the films, because it was illegal then to screen them in your own home on celluloid.’
Three decades on and Giannoli has retained his passion for film, particularly for filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick, and has become an acclaimed writer and director in his own right. His short The Interview won the Palme d’Or in 1998 and last year his third full-length feature The Singer – a moving May-December romance between an ageing dance-hall crooner Alain (Gerard Depardieu) and a troubled estate agent Marion (Cecile de France) – was selected in competition at Cannes. So what, I ask Giannoli, attracted him to making a film set in the far-from-glamorous milieu of provincial Gallic showbusiness?
‘Well, my previous film Only the Night had been a setback for me – it was a real slap in the face, because the audience wasn’t there for it. I started thinking about what I felt like when I listened to certain songs, why they touched me, why they swept me off my feet like certain films. I remembered a line from a French writer, “Maybe it’s more important to inspire affection than admiration”.
‘I came up with the idea of making the main character a dance hall singer, and after research I ended up meeting the chanter Alain Chanone in Clermont-Ferrand. Alain realised he wasn’t a great singer and he would never be star, but it was important for him that his job was well done.’
Certainly Giannoli elicits from his star Gerard Depardieu one of his finest performances in years, with the actor imbuing his role as a fading, promiscuous and smooth-talking chanter with dignity and vulnerability. Is there a secret to directing someone of Depardieu’s reputation? ‘I just told Gerard not to lie,’ replies Giannoli. ‘And I said to him that I was looking for an actor, not a star. He understood that straight away. I also told him that the character he played was the woman in the film – he’s the one taking care of his hair, who is sensitive and afraid, who is waiting at home for the phone to ring, while it’s his androgynous-looking co-star Cécile de France occupies the more masculine role. I think his work in The Singer shows him at his best.’
The Singer, GFT, Glasgow, and Filmhouse, Edinburgh, from Fri 28 Sep.