Todd McCarthy: Mathieu Demy Has Films (And TV) In His Blood

Mathieu Demy
Mathieu Demy at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival Ian Langsdon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

If both your parents were famous and beguiling filmmakers, at some point you have to make a choice between turning your back on lineage to become a teacher or lawyer or something completely non-showbiz, or just embracing your genealogy and accepting the struggle to emerge from two very imposing shadows.

For Mathieu Demy there was never any doubt about which road he would take. He first appeared onscreen at age 5 in One Sings, the Other Doesn’t under the direction of his mother, Agnes Varda, and made his mark in his 20s as a man with AIDS in the musical Jeanne and the Perfect Guy. His father Jacques Demy had a way with musicals as well, having directed the immortal The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, as well as Lola, Bay of Angels and Une Chambre en Ville.

Lately, Mathieu, who calls Los Angeles home but is currently working in Paris, has been very much in the spotlight as one of the main directors (and an actor) on the sensational French espionage series The Bureau (Le Bureau des Legendes). The show has just concluded its fifth season (in France quite controversially so) and has recently been accumulating an ever-expanding audience, both internationally (it’s now in 112 markets) and with an American public not normally disposed to watching foreign-language TV with subtitles. The show is streaming on SundanceTV in the U.S.

The massive success of The Bureau has cemented the dominance of something new in French visual storytelling, that of the “professional” series dedicated to a group of skilled specialists in a particular field all applying their own particular expertise to a united cause, a format that got a big early boost from the wonderful Paris-set talent agency comedy-drama Call My Agent! Howard Hawks would be pleased.

The Bureau is the brainchild of Eric Rochant, who put himself on the map with the romantic comedy Love Without Pity, which won the Cesar Award for best first feature of 1989. Five years later he was in Cannes with The Patriots, a very inside, albeit somewhat fictionalized account of two missions of the Mossad. He had found his niche and, after making four other features, made his name with the 16-episode series Mafiosa, much of which he wrote and directed. After writing and directing the feature Möbius, about a Russian spy, in 2013, he conceived and brought forth The Bureau, which offers deep satisfactions in the way it lifts the veil on the activities of agents of the DGSE, France’s General Directorate of External Security.

As far as Demy is concerned, Rochant’s breakthrough represents a major step for the French in terms of its storytelling discipline and international appeal. “With the end of the first season, there was clearly and before-and-after feeling as to the way it was perceived,” Demy observed. “It made a break with other French television, with the level of quality, to look and feel like cinema, to be able to bring out 10 shows per year, every year. We had a writers’ room, and there would be lots and lots of pages. Usually in France there would be a longer break between seasons.”

Due to the level of intensity imposed by Rochant, Demy feels that “French TV has finally caught up with the standards of the best international TV shows. We were very late, way behind the Americans, except for Canal Plus, which was the only place for good French TV.”

When he was paged to both act in and direct episodes for The Bureau, Demy (who played Clément Migaud, head of the bureau’s Iran service, in 16 episodes) was struck by the detail of Rochant’s narratives. “The scripts were very precise and clean, so because the content was all taken care of, we directors had to concentrate on the form and, with that, Eric was receptive to new ideas,” Demy explained. “The grammar and aesthetic of the show are very important because the events are complicated and you have to make sure the audience wouldn’t be too confused. So there was always a back-and-forth between controlling his ideas and being open.”

Demy stressed that, given the layers of mystery and secrecy and motivations and loyalty that thread through The Bureau and provide it with such intrigue and tension, the need to for exacting preparation and precision by the filmmaking team is greater than normal. All the same, the director said that the actual shooting of certain key, revelatory scenes took on a special suspenseful nature of their own in the way the actors addressed some of their pay-off moments.

“Obviously, you need to understand everything. The actors know their characters very, very well,” Demy stressed. “Let’s say you have one hour to shoot a certain scene. As an actor you have to concentrate your thinking, and it’s an exercise. You’re always looking for a special rhythm that will go to the very essence of the situation, quietly and clearly, and suddenly you have 10 minutes, then there’s one minute left, then 30 seconds, then three seconds. This kind of pressure helps you find the essence of a situation, quietly and cleanly.”

The final two episodes of The Bureau have given its French fans a real jolt. Evidently having said all he had to say about the DGSE, Rochant handed the climactic two episodes of the series over to heavyweight French director Jacques Audiard, with free reign to do whatever he pleased with the central characters. What he did proved, to put it mildly, quite controversial and not at all pleasing to many die-hard fans, but a Season 6 is already in the works, albeit without either Rochant or Audiard. In the meantime, Demy has been co-starring with Marina Hands in the French Netflix series Mytho, or Mythomaniac in English, which is currently shooting its second season.

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