Lanie Goodman heads to Cannes to meet the French director Nicolas Bedos and discuss his latest film, Mascarade.
When Somerset Maugham’s oft-quoted literary witticism “The French Riviera is a sunny place for shady people” flashes on screen at the opening of romantic thriller Mascarade, it pretty much sums up what the audience is about to witness during the next 2 hours 24 minutes.
The latest film by French director, actor and screenwriter Nicolas Bedos (La Belle Époque) features a heavyweight cast – Isabelle Adjani, François Cluzet, Pierre Niney and Marine Vacth – but the real star of the show is the Côte d’Azur, in all its splendour and slippery schemes. Classic Hollywood buffs may recognise a smattering of borrowed references from everything from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard to Alfred Hitchcock’s Riviera-set To Catch a Thief, but all that sardonic wit and elegance runs parallel with the convoluted storyline, set in timeless opulent villas against gorgeous backdrops of coastal landscapes. And of course, in the mix, a murder.
When we first meet the devious ill-fated young lovers Adrien (Pierre Niney) and Margot (Marine Vacth) in their hotel suite, a furious Simon (François Cluzet), an enamoured but clueless real-estate developer, suddenly charges into the room, pulls out a gun and shoots Margot. The rest of the story, in a series of flashbacks, allows us to reconstruct the motive of the crime. Adrien, a former dancer injured in an accident, knows he will never dance again; instead, he wiles away the hours drinking and idling by the pool at the plush home of has-been actress and highly-strung diva Martha Duval (Isabelle Adjani) as her toy-boy escort, until something better comes along, namely beautiful but penniless Margot.
Their elaborate plan, which includes various disguises, partly explains the film’s title. But that’s not all. In contrast to Bedos’ warm-hearted nostalgic international hit, La Belle Époque, Mascarade may come across as a more cynical view of how the wealthy set live and shamelessly double-cross each other for their own gain.
A Rich Man’s World
I caught up with Nicolas Bedos at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Mascarade premiered out of competition. We’re sitting in a small lounge on the rooftop of a luxury hotel overlooking the Croisette where the 41-yearold director, dressed in a denim shirt and jeans, is holding interviews for the international press. He gives off a strong nervous energy – and shy, he is not. As an actor who has starred in more than ten feature films, Bedos is undeniably glib, often irreverent, and unquestionably versatile.
So what was it that initially attracted Bedos to the idea of writing and directing a thriller set on the French Riviera?
“The story was the product of a very long maturation, like La Belle Époque, where I started writing a novel and gave it up and wrote a script instead. Having written the novel was very useful because it provided a lot of backstories, but the script itself was about many different characters,” he explains. “Sure, it’s a work of entertainment, but also extremely personal – it grew out of the pain I feel about the period we’re living in. Stories came out of things that I had witnessed around me, and one suggested another. I also wanted to set it on the Côte d’Azur because for me, it’s got an image that is so over the top – it’s a place where you find a combination of money, parties, jealousy and corruption.”
Fortunately, Bedos continues, “in my own personal life I think that I’ve been able to protect myself from the conflicts of financial interest that we see at play in the film. It deals with the current anxieties and the reality I see around me, and it’s based on personal experience. When I was younger, at a certain point my parents cut off my allowance and I had to work to earn a living.
“The character of Margot, for example, was inspired by a young woman who became a good friend. She was an escort girl who worked at the bar of a very famous Parisian hotel where I was a pianist.”
At this point, the director leans over, confidingly. “I never had to sell to sell my body but I played on my looks, on my charm. I was very much aware of gazes of interest that older people around me expressed for me, and I realised that had I wanted to, I could have traded my looks for a certain cash income. “But of course, that was 20 years ago,” he adds quickly, with a laugh.
A Star is Born
At the same time, Bedos says, he has a genuine affection for Cannes and Nice, which he came to know as a child when his famous father, the much-revered comedian Guy Bedos, performed in festivals off-season in the south of France. So when it came to developing characters who lived in the region, Bedos was already on familiar ground, having spent time in Nice doing theatrical productions, as well as absorbing information by osmosis through reading the works of Françoise Sagan and Somerset Maugham.
And naturally, even if some of the film’s characters are technically villains, they are also likeable scoundrels. “It may take two to four years to develop the script so they have to interest me, move me, to bring emotion to me. And it’s my job to create them in all their complexity. For Isabelle Adjani, for example, her character is a grotesque, horrible person but she has that ability to make her character human and vulnerable and someone we care about.”
Martha, played by Adjani, is decidedly a modern version of the imperious, calculating but fragile Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, a role that Isabelle Adjani was initially reluctant to accept, explains Bedos.
“She was very hesitant and worried that I might take advantage of her or that I wouldn’t present the image of her that she wanted. The first day when we started shooting there was a distance and I sensed sarcasm in her performance. I had to convince her to give real emotion, to project herself personally into the character to make us, as an audience, feel closer to her. In other words, to make use of that ambiguity between the actress, the performance and her legend.”
Land of Plenty
By the end of the three-month shoot, which took place during the summer of 2021, was the director’s caricatural image of the Côte d’Azur altered in any way?
“Yes, and no,” he says. “On the unpleasant side, while we were looking for locations, all I saw were the horrible homes owned by the wealthy and I also witnessed first-hand the underbelly of the real estate game. Another example was the disagreeable attitude of the employees or guardians of these villas, who have nothing but disdain for the bosses they are working for.”
Bedos leans back on the sofa. “But don’t get me wrong,” he muses. “There were plenty of good times. On the positive side, I spent several weeks shooting in the Var in the village of Théoule-sur-Mer, that I’d never been to before. I loved the lush vegetation, the red rocks and the creeks. I would go off for absolutely glorious rides on my scooter around the coast.”
Chances are, audiences will snicker at the wicked ways of the rich and aspiring social climbers and revel in the breathtaking settings of Mascarade. A veritable carnival of amoral souls, there is still merriment to be found in Bedos’ incisive portrayal of the sordid complexities of ‘the good life’, which often borders on zany comedy.
“Mascarade is the expression of a nightmare!” Bedos concludes, with a provocative smile. And an enticing one at that.
From France Today magazine
Lead photo credit : Nicolas Bedos directing Mascarade © Magali Bragard
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