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Meeting with the artist



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This is how Benoît Grimalt introduces himself.  This introduction is sufficiently light and relevant to keep it as such.  The “but not only”, which he shares with many artists, illustrates a subtlety in his way of both drawing and filming the worlds he passes through. 


Benoît Grimalt was born in 1975 in Nice, where he lives and works.  He is a photographer.  But not only, because in 2008 he made his first documentary film (Not all fuels are the same, production entre2prises).  So he is also a director.  But not only, because in 2012 he published a book of drawings (16 photos que je n’ai pas prises, editions Poursuite).  So he is also something of a draughtsman. 

Retour à Genoa City

2017, 29 mn

 production Entre2prises

Mémé and his brother Tonton Thomas have been watching Les Feux de L’Amour [The Young and Restless] every day at the same time since 1989.  Twenty years after I left Nice, I go back and see them so that they can fill me in about the 3,827 episodes that I’ve missed.  BG

Mo Gourmelon:  The series subject is divisive.  You either look at it, or you don’t look it.  You either like it, or you don’t like it, with a slightly condescending if not contemptuous note from its keenest detractors.  The very first thing is that the broadcasting of a series relies on a television set.  Broaching the genre Les feux de l’amour (The Young and Restless) by way of your film Return to Genoa City made in 2017 is a shortcut which delights me.  The voice-over declares that “the series Les feux de l’amour is the longest running series in television history.  It has been broadcast in the United States since 1973 and in France on TF1 since 1989”.  Before talking about your choices to do with direction and editing, what is the point of departure of Return to Genoa City?  The credits in fact include the mention “based on an idea of Damien Froidevaux”.  Can you tell me about the preparation of such a project which is eminently personal and family-oriented and which goes beyond that single field of “the family film” to highlight the ritual of a series which comes on in the early afternoon.  This rite of the set time eludes younger generations who have scrapped television in favour of customized and flexible practices on broadcasting platforms, doing so in front of their computers, and merrily foregoing the TV set which used to have pride of place in the living-room. 


Benoît Grimalt:  I haven’t had TV for 20 years and I no longer watch any series.  I spent my whole childhood in front of the television. With my brothers, I followed Starsky and Hutch, Amicalement vôtre and others…  I remember how, after college, I was in a hurry to get back to the television and its living-room to watch Madame est servie

One night I discovered François Truffaut’s Baisers volés with Claude-Jean Philippe’s Ciné-club on Antenne 2.  That was a turning point and that film completely diverted me from the world of television (its programmes, its games, its news, its series…).  The cinema took over.  And since then I’ve never watched any series (with one exception, recently, with Twin Peaks, season one), but I didn’t manage to get beyond the fifth episode.  With DVDs, the “rendez-vous” aspect, which the series imposed, disappears.  What, to my eyes, created the interest of  a series (expectations to do with the new episode—more than the episode itself) no longer exists.


Damien Froidevaux is at the root of the Return to Genoa City project.  One day, we were on the terrace of a café and opposite us was a magazine cover showing Victor and Nikky of Les Feux de l’Amour (The Young and Restless).  Damien was surprised that the series still existed and said to himself that it would be amusing to ask a grandmother to tell us about the series from the beginning.  I told him that my grandmother, as it happens, has been looking at Les Feux de l’Amour since its first French broadcast on TF1 in 1989, and that I could try going to her to ask her to make a summary for me.  His idea amused me and I took up the challenge.  That’s how the whole thing started. 


MG: What particularly interests me in your film is the parallels you make between your grandmother’s and your great uncle’s world, and the world of the series: two consecutive plans, for example, to recount the marriages… And all of a sudden the actors in the series address the two faithful viewers. Victor says: “I’ve been here in your living room for twenty years, so what about telling us your story?” At the end of the process, photographs of your grandmother and great uncle are embedded in the frames of the interiors of the series, like members of the family or clan.


BG: Yes. The idea was to mix the family stories; one thoroughly full story and one rather empty story. Spectators who aren’t really living their lives, but who prefer to look at that accumulation of artifices. And to introduce Victor to viewers of his series. I don’t know if  he’s already met any, but perhaps if he was shown a few viewers asleep in front of Les feux de l’amour, he might start asking himself a few questions.

So, on the phone, I often asked my grandmother for news of Nikky, Sharon and Victor, both to tease her, and because she never said much about herself. In fact she spent 30 years of her life shut away in her living room.


MG:  Was the decision to have a voice-over made from the outset, as a way for you to mark your presence? And you appear in the recording tunings and as a direct voice at the beginning of the film, then at the end as an actor.


BG: To start with I didn’t want a voice-over. I’m very suspicious of voice-overs, in general, because they steer the viewers’ thoughts, and they no longer have time to focus on the images. I thought about using headings to fill in a few gaps in the editing. I really like headings, subtitles,  and captions… But the film would have lacked pace, and, in spite of everything, the voice-over was the solution for connecting the film’s different parts.

Pierre Zaoui stood in for Victor in the second part of the film. He’s an actor, I met him through a friend. He’s used to imitations and  dubbing. At the start we wanted to use the series dubber, but the budget would have doubled.

To avoid an umpteenth “film recounted by a narrator”, I tried to find a new form of voice-over (voice-over on the phone, a voice with a cold, a hoarse, voice, with ‘flu…). But the film was already complicated enough not to add a new element. It was important that the viewer wouldn’t walk out of the film, and we stayed with a classic tone.


MG: Did you immediately have a hunch about the biographical part in the choice of a series? So you were thinking that your grandmother wasn’t going to tell the story of Les feux de l’amour as suggested by Damien Froidevaux, and from the outset you’d taken the series as a pretext for telling the family story.


BG: I didn’t know that, but I had my suspicions. My grandmother was no longer very young and I knew that her brother would divert her from the main issue. At that time, the production company (entre2prises) was also working on films dealing with immigration. My grandmother could get into that theme. I tried to link the two stories and that worked. I remembered, after the fact, that there were some VHS tapes still languishing in boxes. That was a plus for the film.


MG: At what moment in the writing of your film did those family archives come into it, and how? Had you already started filming? Or had you decided from the start to include them? How did you choose the VHS excerpts and the photographs? You set the scene at the beginning by saying that the photograph of the port of Algiers is still there in the living room. 


BG:  The viewer might have had doubts about what I announced at the beginning:  “Mémé and his brother have been watching Les Feux de l’Amour since 1989”.  Luckily, the VHS images of the 1990s back up what I said.  Just when people weren’t expecting it.  Writing the film, I thought quite quickly of those boxes containing hours of VHS tapes that I’d filmed 25 years earlier with a Camcorder that my grandfather gave me.  And as luck would have it, I found some shots of my grandmother looking at the series, 25 years ago.

In my grandmother’s house the centre of the world was that television always on.  And on top of the television, a framed photo of the port of Algiers, almost the same format as the TV screen.  That photo has never moved and I spent my childhood looking at films, series and games with the port of Algiers as a backdrop.

The choice of the family photos was made above all based on aesthetic and narrative criteria.  I filmed the album while turning the pages, just like in any old film about “grandma’s memories”. 


MG:  I really like what you say in your voice-over:  the series Les Feux de l’Amour “only works because of the viewer’s forgetfulness.  Close-ups of characters experiencing a succession of revelations.  In the end the story disappears and all that remains is faces.”  Did you also want to make portraits of your family?


BG:  My grandparents were just hypnotized and put to sleep by that TV set, so they are less expressive than the characters in the series.  Luckily, my great-uncle interrupts that moment and thanks to him my grandparents become “alive” once again.

The idea was to compare a series life with a real life:  in both cases, all that remains in the end is faces in an album. 

MG:  You also say, again in the film:  “Apathy is associated with the Neapolitan character, the ideal viewer of Les Feux de l’Amour.  Perhaps expectation is a question of character, a bad family habit?  It’s possibly to escape from that that I started to film?”  Could you say something more about that?


BG:  I also made this film to try and understand what was preventing this family from “living”.  Why did they spend their time in that living room?  Looking at that television?  In the dark?  The reference to Neapolitans is a sort of joke but the Neapolitans in my family are like that, cloistered in front of a TV set.  The fact is, there are Neapolitans who do go out.  So this problem is intrinsic to my family which seems smitten by an epidemic or a curse.  A curse which is carried on with my father who spends his days sitting in front of the television (depression?  laziness?  homesickness?).  I could have done the same thing but, 30 years later, in making the film, I realized that the Camcorder saved me.  It enabled me to get away from that living room, put the family at a distance, and not collapse like it in front of a series. 


MG:  Is this why you say “this” family, and not our or my family?  How did that unusual scene play out where your grandmother’s apartment is emptied?  Then you pull out the TV on its stand on wheels and move it into the public place, in order to put it facing the sea, just when a boat coming from Genoa sails into the port? 


BG:  Yes, probably.  I started to observe them and say to myself that I wasn’t living on the same planet, that I had legs and that I couldn’t spend my life sitting in front of a television. 

Victor would survive all the viewers and find himself, in the end, alone in a living room.  He had to be taken out so that he could get some air (he spends too much time shut away) and so that he could visit the city.  He is shown all over the world but probably knows nothing about the cities in which he is shown.  In the end, it was necessary to take him outside in order to take the spectator outside who has spent 25 minutes in front of closed doors.


MG:  Your film develops in a light and mischievous way while at the same time calling upon a kind of nostalgia for a bygone time.  The tone pokes fun, but it is above all complicit.  Is it also to describe that family’s past that you filmed in order to set down its archives.  Was it your intention to make a fabulous homage to your family? 


BG:  The original idea was not to pay any homage, but to try to understand why that family remained locked in to that series.  That family became an object of study.  I now understand why Godard talked of the camera like a scientific tool comparable to a microscope or stethoscope.

Little by little, with the addition of VHS images and photographs, the film became a tribute to my family.  But it’s true that it’s a kind of tribute to transform them into film characters and let them go down in History.

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