EXCLUSIVE: Multi-hyphenate Emmanuelle Bercot returns to the Cannes Film Festival this year with out-of-competition entry Peaceful (De Son Vivant), an avowed melodrama she both directed and wrote. Bercot was last here starring in Eva Husson’s 2018 Girls Of The Sun and previously had a triumphant 2015 when her drama Standing Tall opened the fest (at the time, the first French film to do so in more than a decade), and when she later scooped the Best Actress prize for My King that same year.
Peaceful, which debuts on Saturday, is the story of Crystal (Catherine Deneuve) and her 40-year-old son Benjamin (Benoît Magimel), the latter living in denial about his terminal cancer diagnosis. Between them are Dr. Eddé (Gabriel Sara) and nurse Eugénie (Cécile de France) who are fighting to do their job and bring mother and son to acceptance. They have one year and four seasons to come together and understand what it means to die while living. Melissa George also features as Benjamin’s ex-wife.
Particularly notable about the film that reunites Bercot with Deneuve and Magimel for the third time is that she cast real-life New York-based oncologist Sara as Dr Eddé. Sara is a Senior Attending Physician in the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai West where he serves as the Medical Director of the Chemotherapy Infusion Suite and the Executive Director of the Patient Services Initiative.
In our discussion below, Bercot explains why she chose Sara over trained actors, what it’s like to be back in Cannes in a reteam with “family” and how she experienced Covid as a cultural “amputation.”
DEADLINE: Why did you decide to cast a real physician in the role of Dr Eddé?
EMMANUELLE BERCOT: It was an idea that grew bit by bit, it wasn’t the idea form the start. The film is inspired by Sara’s work. I had met him and he spoke to me a lot about how he works and so part of the film and the character is inspired by him. But I had planned to cast an actor for the role. It’s a character who is very humane, who has no cynicism. He’s a really exceptional person and I couldn’t see a French actor who could play this part. I recall that when Catherine read the script she also thought there were very few people who could do it, so I looked towards foreign actors who speak French but there were issues of availability and I always had in the back of my mind that this doctor had such a natural personality that it could work in front of a camera. When I spoke to my producers and they weren’t opposed to taking such a risk — because it was a risk — I did some readings with him and that day we made the decision to give him the role.
DEADLINE: You two had a sort of chance meeting; how did that come about?
BERCOT: It’s unbelievable. I did a screening of Standing Tall in New York and this man (Sara) was in the room. After the Q&A, he stood in line to speak to me and he said, “When I see your film, I have the impression that the work that I do might interest you. Can we meet so I can tell you about it?”
I saw it as a sign because I had this project in my head of a melodrama for Catherine and Benoît about a woman who loses her son to cancer, so I thought my project might be able to be inspired by what he’s going to tell me and that’s what happened. I mixed his work and the story I wanted to tell.
DEADLINE: You’ve worked with non-professional actors before, did you have to spend extra time with Sara on set?
BERCOT: He’s a doctor so he’s done major studies and is used to working a lot and he did work a lot even to learn his lines because he has a lot of dialogue. He made a huge effort. The biggest part of the work for me was to teach him what it was to act, but I’m used to that because in all of my films there are non-professionals. It’s work I really enjoy. It’s incredible and prodigious what he did — this is a guy we took from his cancer ward to a film set and he was able to be as real and authentic as he is in his doctor’s office.
DEADLINE: Was he starstruck working with Catherine Deneuve?
BERCOT: No, he’s not someone who is impressed more by one person than another, he’s very warm with everyone. I think he was amazed to be in front of Deneuve, but he’s amazed by everyone, and Catherine puts everyone at ease.
DEADLINE: You’ve worked three times with Deneuve and Magimel now, what is it about going back to the same actors that attracts you?
BERCOT: There are two things. First, I love working with people I love. I see cinema as a family affair, whether it’s actors or technicians I like to create a sort of family. And, I like filming people I love, so of course Benoît and Catherine have become people I’m close to. They both inspire me as well, so that allows me to write for them. It’s very special to write a film for them, they guide me.
DEADLINE: Speaking of writing and directing, you are also an accomplished actress. How do you juggle the different hats you wear?
BERCOT: (Laughs) I juggle very well! Concretely, it’s an issue of organization and planning, but each métier nourishes the other. I think the fact of being an actress helps me as a screenwriter, especially for dialogue. As an actress, knowing how to make a film makes me able to put myself at the service of the director. All of it is very linked and it’s great luck that I have to be able to vary and find as much pleasure from whatever I do.
DEADLINE: How did you experience the pandemic and the shutdown of cultural activities?
BERCOT: I lived it like an amputation. I love going to the cinema and the theater and listening to music, so there’s a feeling of that having dried up. There was no boredom because I worked all the time, but there was a sentiment of not having the nourishment that normally enriches us and inspires us in our own creation. The creation of others inspires me. The day cinemas reopened, I went to the movies.
DEADLINE: And now that we’re back in Cannes after such a dry spell, how are you feeling about the return?
BERCOT: First of all, it’s always an honor to be chosen to have your film shown in this majestic cinema. I’m happy for what the film talks about and the work of the doctor and the doctor himself so I’m happy the film has this exposure which reverberates from Cannes. (Laughs) We never know if it’s going to be positive or negative, but, personally, as its a melodrama, it’s a film that’s really made to elicit strong emotion. Since I’ve shown it very little for the moment, for me it’s really to see how the room will respond and if people will see it as I conceived it. That excites me.
DEADLINE: Even though restrictions have largely been lifted in France, have you had any concerns about attending the festival given Covid is still out there?
BERCOT: No. I think it’s time, in respecting the rules, of course. I think we’ve arrived at a sort of breaking point where the pressure cooker could explode and energies need to circulate. I think it’s very important to relax and especially in the artistic world that was so affected during this whole period. In some professions, people were able to continue to work normally, but here there’s a sort of trauma. I think all we can do that’s positive is welcome.