Meantime, In Paris... André Schneider on Gay Drama 'Bd. Voltaire'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday August 30, 2017

Imagine a movie about a group of gay friends in the days leading up to a major terrorist attack. What would such a film look like? Well, to begin with, it probably wouldn't be made in the first place -- not here in the United States, where Hollywood still clings with white-knuckle intensity to narratives about heterosexual norms. Movies about gays are fine for frothy comedies or dark thrillers about serial killers or, on occasion, angsty coming out stories littered with teenagers tossed out of religious families, discarded by society at large, and forced into survival sex.

But say a cliché-avoiding movie about a group of gay friends and their lives before a terrorist attack did get made here in America. There would be CGI explosions, with deafening noise in sixteen digital channels. There would be all-too-realistic gore. There would probably be a sense, however subliminal, that the protagonists would have somehow brought it on themselves for being gay. And, in the wake of such a movie, a shrill clamor would no doubt arise accusing the filmmakers, and cinema in general, or promoting a "gay lives matter" sentiment at the expense of straight lives. The usual anti-gay suspects would loudly weigh in. (Just imagine it: Tony Perkins and Bryan Fisher could chair a Siskel and Ebert-like review session, anvils tied to their thumbs.)

Whether we're talking 9/11, or the Boston Marathon bombing, or even the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, gay people -- like straight people, like all people -- are, and sadly will continue to be, victims of terrorism and its malicious violence. Will their stories be heard? Once in a while we hear about a hero like United Flight 93 passenger Mark Bingham, the openly gay athlete who helped lead an attempt to wrest control of the doomed aircraft away from terrorists on September 11, 2001. But how many other GLTBs were among the day's thousands of victims? What did we hear about them? Not much, and that's not even the worst of it. If anything, the instant demand from anti-gay groups to deny surviving same-sex partners any sort of federal financial assistance tells us a story of overt homophobia and hostility toward sexual minorities.

But take heart, because a film very much like the one that someone here ought already to have made has now been made abroad by director Alexandre Vallès, working from a script he co-wrote with actor André Schneider. The film is titled "Bd. Voltaire" ("Boulevard Voltaire"), and the act of terror in question is the shooting rampage that killed 90 people in Paris, at the Bataclan Concert Hall, on Friday, November 13, 2015. An additional 40 people died at other spots around Paris and the Parisian suburb Saint-Denis, victims of insidiously coordinated multiple attacks.

Schneider and Vallès largely eschew the Hollywood paradigms for such movies. There are subtle moments of foreshadowing, but the filmmakers are not following the "Patriots Day" route or the "World Trade Center" motif. The movie is about life -- and, as such, it follows three gay couples through their final days, without feeling a need to show us the blood, gore, and violence of the events that are about to unfold. It's the way these lives are depicted -- bright and naturalistic against the darkly impending backdrop of calculated killing -- that Schneider and Vallès focus on.

And no, this is not a movie about promiscuous party horndogs. Rather, this is a film about people looking to build lives together; the tragedy is sharpened by the way those plans being derailed and those lives curtailed. Alan (Schneider) and Julien (Xavier Théoleyre) are looking for an apartment together; Alan has decided to move to Paris to be with Julien from now on. Meantime, Alan's ex, a singer-songwriter named Yann (Vallès) has just asked Raoul (Bastien Gabriel) to move in with him, and Raoul has agreed despite having been hurt in past relationships. The third couple are Jérémy (Walter Billoni) and his younger life partner of the past five years, Aurélien (Rudy Blanchet). They face more troubling problems: Aurélien fits the mold of the sort of possessive lover who freaks out over nothing, goes absolutely bonkers, and then -- by way of apology -- offers outsized expressions of remorse. Jérémy is significantly older than Aurélien, and is starting to feel worn down, and worn out, by the younger man's hotheaded antics. Will they remain together? Should they remain together? Are they even healthy for each other?

The film, shot in black and white and paced in a relaxed manner, offers cinematic virtues that you just don't see much any more. Instead of the clash-bang of super-heroes scrapping in the skies with equally super-powered foes, what we get here are long scenes of lovers strolling and talking, or sitting at a kitchen table and trying hash out their differences in a constructive manner. Rather than falling into bed for steamy sessions of graphic sex, these couples spend a goodly amount of time cuddling and exploring their feelings for each other. There are no rent boys trotted in for change-of-pace hookups; no one here is using drugs or seeing a third party on the sly; the apartments in which these people dwell are cramped, and decorated without any great sense of fashion or flamboyance.

In other words, watching this movie is akin to actually living the life of an ordinary gay couple, rather than being force-fed some fantasy version of a so-called "gay lifestyle." The tensions that arise between these couples are very much the sorts of tensions that afflict any couple, gay or straight, and the only partying we see is a dinner gathering that features wine and conversation. In short, "Bd. Voltaire" is about plain, ordinary people who happen to be gay; direct, unforced, and refreshing, it's a relief, even given the upsetting events it leads up to. Funny, unpretentious, and deeply felt, this is the sort of gay cinema one wishes for, all too often in vain, in the American market.

EDGE caught up with André Schneider to learn more about the film's origins and development, what it wants to say, and why it takes on questions of life and death -- and terror -- in the ways it does.

EDGE: Hi André!

André Schneider: Hey Kilian, how's it going?

EDGE: So, what a movie! How did you become involved with 'Bd. Voltaire?' Is it -- as the character Yann, played by director Alexandre Valles suggests -- the result of a filmmaker deciding to create a movie about his own friends?

André Schneider: No, not at all. It was a funny coincidence. In late 2015, my boyfriend was preparing a romantic comedy, and I had just signed a movie deal with Optimale, a French distributor who had purchased some of my previous films. Six or seven months went by, and my boyfriend still hadn't finished his screenplay, but I had to fulfil my contract and deliver a movie. I knew Alexandre Vallès was preparing something. I had met him on another movie and we'd become friends. I offered him my contract with Optimale and the little advance payment they were offering, and off we went on our merry way. After that, things worked out rather quickly; we shot the film in October 2016, and by Christmas, the film was already edited.

EDGE: By the way, what is the meaning of the title?

André Schneider: Finding a proper title is always a bit tricky and difficult. It has to be catchy. My first suggestion was to name it 'Friday the 13th,' but Alexandre said the title was already taken. 'Bataclan' didn't seem right for an international audience either, but 'Boulevard Voltaire' -- which is the name of the boulevard where the Bataclan is located -- seemed good. The French shorten 'boulevard' to 'Bd.' -- in English it would be 'Blvd.'

EDGE: Going in, what was your own thinking about a film that's heading toward such a tragic real-life situation? Did it feel cathartic, or in some way therapeutic?

André Schneider: 'Bd. Voltaire' was, for me at least, an easy film from an acting point of view. I've enjoyed myself tremendously throughout shooting it. But I must admit that I was feeling sick and sad on the last night of filming, when we actually stood in front of the Bataclan where the tragedy had happened only 11 months before. I think my colleagues felt the same, no-one uttered a word while we were there. It was an eerie atmosphere that night. The boulevard Voltaire, which is one of Paris' great boulevards with a lot of traffic going on, seemed like a ghost town, very quiet, almost mourning.

EDGE: The film has some wonderful moments of humor -- my favorite is the scene between yourself and Xavier Theoleyre, when your character Alan takes a call from his ex, Yann, and Alan's current boyfriend, Julien, gripes about it: 'When I fell in love with you, I wrote you letters. When he fell in love with you, he went to Shaman to explore his past lives!' That whole back and forth felt so true to both the irrational intensity of jealousy and its comic futility. Was all of that scripted? Were parts of the movie improvised?

André Schneider: Alexandre and I wrote the script together. I provided some ideas, he created 70 percent of the scenes. I wrote Xavier's part and my own. On set, I did some improvisation when I thought it was appropriate. It was Xavier's first film, and he was a bit nervous, so I thought, if I improvise a little on-camera, it would help him to loosen up and relax a little. We did have a marvelous time together.

EDGE: Let's dote on your character, Alan, for a minute. What's the story with that hat he's wearing (even in bed)?

André Schneider: There's a sex scene between Alan and Julien that didn't make it through the final cut. The first version of 'Bd. Voltaire' was 145 minutes long and had to be shortened. Wearing a hat during sex and afterwards seemed somewhat cute and innocently kinky, that's all.

EDGE: I don't know if you have seen the film with English subtitles, but Alan's pet name for Julien is 'my l'il crab louse.' LOL!! What is that all about? Did they bond over an inadvertently transmitted STI or something?

André Schneider: That is actually something that I improvised during rehearsals. Even 'crab louse' sounds pretty in French: 'Mon p'tit morpion.' It's a not-so-ordinary term of endearment, and after all, crabs spend most of their lives wandering through forests of pubic hair. Now, there is a slight similarity to the average gay man here, don't you think?

EDGE: I'm a fan of movies that take time to let scenes breathe and conversations unfold naturally, and that's what happens here. Even the way we see couples talking and snuggling in bed feels naturalistic. Was this style attractive to you and a reason you signed on for the film?

André Schneider: From the very beginning, Alexandre was very specific about the visual aspects of 'Bd. Voltaire.' Beautiful and eerie black and white shots, almost like postcards, and an editing technique that should remind us of the Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave made famous by Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol. To compose the music, Alexandre signed Jean-Pierre Stora, a famous composer who scored quite a number of movies from that era of filmmaking. I found all that mighty appealing and interesting, but I was already on board from the very start when we developed the story and the characters. Plus, renting an elegant apartment and living in Paris for six weeks was a beautiful prospect, too.

EDGE: It was also refreshing to see gay characters treated like ordinary people -- not politicized or fetishized in some manner. By showing us the characters' mundanity and humanity you're also showing us how gay people, too, are victims of terrorism... not, as some people (at least here in the U.S.) seem to think, deserving targets of terrorism!

André Schneider: At the end of the day, we're all humans, aren't we? Death doesn't care about sexuality, skin color, or religion. Death is the only sure thing that awaits us all: no one escapes, no one is privileged. So, at least there we're all united. That's also kind of comforting, isn't it? And wouldn't it be fabulous if we could transfer that knowledge into something beautiful? I mean, death is only one final step in life. If more of us could accept that we're all sharing the same destiny and therefore aren't soooooo different at all, what a wonderful world this would be. But I'm sorry -- what was your question again?

EDGE: Music is very important in this film, and not just to Yann, the singer/songwriter played by Valles. At one point, music 'becomes' the conversation at a dinner party, accompanying a montage of friendly chatter and couples showing each other casual gestures of affection. Was this a direct reference to the tragedy at the Bataclan concert hall? A means of reclaiming art, and its enjoyment in the public sphere, from terrorists determined to steal art, culture, and a sense of security from us?

André Schneider: Absolutely, yes. Art and culture have a strong spiritual value, comparable to the religious beliefs that many people share. We have to cherish that. At the very first, as Yann is narrating a prologue, he talks about his love of music and his associated love of life's unexpected and unpredictable twists and turns. He then links that directly to the issue of terrorism -- to the fact that by design terrorists strike at unpredictable times and in unexpected ways. Is this film encouraging us to embrace life's uncertainties and celebrate them even though there are people out there determined to exploit fear and uncertainty? Certainly. There is no other choice. If we allow panic and fear to take control over our lives, the terror has won. Those attacks in Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona and so on weren't that big, but they were very effective because they created confusion, hatred, agony, and chaos. Frightened people act irrationally, and it's easier to control a unsettled and scared society, isn't it? 'Bd. Voltaire' celebrates both life and love in all their lightness, profoundness, and beauty. You see a lot of heart and soul and warmth there, tenderness, laughter, smiling faces. You have to embrace life, it can be over so quickly, literally in the blink of an eye.

EDGE: Is this film going to have an American theatrical, streaming, or DVD/Blu-ray release, do you know?

André Schneider: We've sent the movie to a number of American distributors, like Breaking Glass Pictures and TLA, but so far we didn't get any response. So I guess we'll have to wait how that turns out.

EDGE: What other upcoming films and projects do you have going on that we can look forward to?

André Schneider: I'll be doing another movie in France this year: 'Symptômes' ('Symptoms'), a thriller. It's going to be rough and intense, physically and psychologically. Alexandre will be directing. After that, I guess I'll be ready for a little hiatus after completing 14 movies in ten years. Before 2020, I'd love to do my first movie in the U.S., but getting the necessary funding won't be easy.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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