Don Juan, the latest film directed by Serge Bozon, is a musical starring Tahar Rahim as Laurent, a former philandering actor who is abandoned at the altar by his fiancée Julie (Virginie Efira) after she catches him checking out a woman mere moments before their wedding. He then sees Julie everywhere, in every woman he meets (all played by Efira in various wigs). She comes back into his life for real when the actress joins the theatrical version of Don Juan, in which Laurent plays the titular role.
In a recent interview with Bozon, the director spoke to W about the origin of what has been called a feminist or inverted version of Don Juan, penned by his writing partner Axelle Ropert. He also talked about his special relationship with Rahim, which Bozon said was the best that he’s had with an actor. Rahim is a sensitive soul who brings something tender to the world’s most famous lothario. He is also a hard-worker. “If I don’t do my homework, I’m dead. I don’t feel legitimate,” Rahim said when he discovered he would need to learn to sing for the film.
The two men formed a unique rhythm of working together: after Rahim would give Bozon the exact performance he was looking for, they would then allow another take that they called “freestyle.” From this a fruitful collaboration an unusual, moving performance was born.
Where did the idea come from to reverse the Don Juan story and write him as someone who is desperate?
It was gradual. In the beginning they were not actors, [Laurent] was selling houses. He was trying to seduce women. And gradually with Axelle (Ropert, the film’s writer) we said, “Ah, this is not so good.” So through a kind of trial-and-error, gradually we arrived at this inversion. [It happened at] the end of the script-writing process. Just by looking at different versions of the script, we found that something was missing, or something was already made, or something was perhaps too usual, or something was not intimate enough. And gradually we arrive at this almost-romantic loser.
I like movies about characters who are really obsessed. The greatest characters are the most obsessed, so they only think about one thing. You don’t have to [have them] say, “Where do you want to eat tonight or where do you want to go?” You know that everything will be directed to the one and only thing [they want]. It simplifies the directing and script writing.
[He notes directors Buñuel as well as B-movies by Tourneur and Ulmer, like Murder is My Beat and Detour, as examples of directors who are concerned with this sort of obsession.]
For me, there is a kind of B-movie quality of failure that defines the character—failure as obsession and obsession as failure.
It’s clear why it’s important for Julie to be an actress, but why was it also important for Laurent to be an actor?
It also came gradually, an idea of Axelle’s. When you have an inverted Don Juan, I think it’s interesting that you have the real Don Juan in the same movie, because otherwise the inversion is flat. You have to have both to feel the difference, the distance that is between them. Also what I found interesting is that she can play every character. That is the main compliment that everyone shares about her, and in the movie, she plays every girl. And he, as an actor, perhaps can only play one thing: Don Juan. I very much like the idea of a multiple woman and a singular man. A woman that can be many things and a man that can be only one.
What was it like working with Tahar Rahim?
He gives to the character a kind of innocence that was not in the script. And he likes to work, to work, to work. For example, Tahar doesn’t know how to sing, so he took like 55 singing lessons. Everything is recorded live in the movie; nothing is done afterwards.
He wanted it to be perfect?
Perfect is perhaps not the word, because in the end it remains fragile. It’s not easy songs, you know, it’s not “la la la.” The songs and their orchestrations are complex. I like that you have an actor straining to do something quite difficult for him. You have the impression that he’s laying himself bare.
Music, or its lack thereof, has been so important in so many of your films. Why did this one need to be a straightforward musical?
Before I had even written a single line I knew that it was going to be a musical. It was even the idea of my producer, because of La La Land and [Bradley Cooper’s] A Star is Born. He told me, “I know you like movies with songs. Before it was commercial suicide, but now we can do it again.”
As I said before, the movie is very stripped down. The story is very simple; you can tell it in one line. So I thought… let’s be concrete. If I say, “I feel bad. I still think about her. I’m lost without her,” each time it’s like five words, three words, and the scene is finished. With a song, those five words can be deployed and become a scene by itself. It’s not a line. This line can become like one flower on a tree. The flower becomes a tree because the music conveys all the emotion of those three words. And so, without the songs, I think my movie is like a skeleton. Without the music there is no movie! It’s not like an extra.
What were some musical films that influenced Don Juan? Not La La Land?
Not La La Land. I don’t like La La Land. I found it really brilliant in a certain sense, but it’s like a museum, a ritual. Los Angeles is like a living museum. The choreography is purely mechanical.
And older musicals?
I like a lot of musicals. But there have been many different traditions in musicals, even just in the United States: the MGM musicals, the barn musicals, The Astaire-Rogers musicals, the Arthur Freed musicals. I was not influenced by a single movie, and I must confess that I think my movie is very far from the classic musical movies. Usually, in a music scene in a classic musical, I do this [gestures], you do this, and somebody does this [gestures], and then there is a collective choreography, a collective joyfulness that is shared between us. In my movie, it is the contrary. There is nothing collectively shared. Instead, it dives into the fragile intimacy of the characters. It’s more like a voiceover. A voiceover can tell you how somebody feels. The songs are more like a way to dive into something somber and solitary than to share a joyfulness. The only musical that is close to this is Mods by Serge Bozon.
So many of your movies, including this one, feel a little haunted, like ghost movies. Why?
I don’t know! It’s beyond my control. In the end there is always this feeling, but I don’t know why. And in this movie it’s almost the only thing you get, the most central feeling. I think it comes from my obsession with B-movies. In Jacques Tourneur, for instance, there is always this haunted feeling.
Have you, like the Don Juan in your movie, had your heart broken?
[Someone nearby remarks, “So you are not a Don Juan?” At this Bozon shrugs sheepishly.]