Belgian director Bavo Defurne’s sophomore feature, “Souvenir,” is a lush, emotional romance he co-wrote and co-produced with his husband, Yves Verbraeken.
At a pâté factory, a lonely older woman, Liliane (Isabelle Huppert), meets Jean (Kévin Azaïs), a boxer. He recognizes her as a runner-up from the European Song Contest, where she performed decades before under the stage name Laura. She has since become a trivia question on a game show she watches with a drink in her hand.
When Jean coaxes Liliane back into performing, the pair fall in love. As she stages a reluctant comeback, her relationship with Jean is tested. Huppert is a revelation — she even gets to perform a few songs by Pink Martini — and she makes Liliane’s melancholy palpable. Azaïs is adorable and enchanting as her champion and her lover.
Defurne’s stylized film is a throwback in the Douglas Sirk mold. He chatted with Gay City News via Skype about making “Souvenir.”
GARY M. KRAMER: What is striking about “Souvenir” is its old-fashioned sensibility. Can you talk about your approach to the material?
BAVO DEFURNE: It’s how I feel I should tell a story, and I think it’s because that’s how I experience storytelling and film art. It brings you into a world that is not realistic, but real. It’s an emotional world, a fantasy, a fairy tale. I don’t want to make it fake, I want to make it more true in that it’s stylized. I do like to blur things and detach a little bit from the everyday, which is depressing and very ugly. That’s my taste.
GMK: The film depicts the relationship between a 22-year-old boxer and a 60-something woman. What is the appeal of this May/ December romance?
BD: He’s a fountain of youth character — this magic goblin in front of her — while she’s lost in the forest. First, she’s scared, then she learns that he really can help her find her way in that dark forest. It’s deliberate that we show the sexuality between them in a romantic way. I’m very romantic. We tickle the audience.
GMK: Isabelle Huppert sings in the film, which is fun. What can you say about the music in the film and her performance?
BD: She wanted to sing very much because she believes the voice is part of the character. The music is Pink Martini, and I was happy to work with them. Yves and I wrote the lyrics for the three songs and we met Thomas Lauderdale [Pink Martini’s pianist] and magic happened. It was a great and crazy experience. One song became an earworm on the set, the electrician and staff were singing it for days. I must thank “Songwriting for Dummies.” It’s by the guy from the band Survivor who wrote “Eye of the Tiger.”
GMK: Usually it’s a gay man helping an aging, faded diva. Why did you choose to make Jean straight and a boxer?
BD: A lot of my moviemaking, including my short films, are about archetypes. Jean is an archetype of masculinity — youth and strength. I like this high contrast. She is fragile, feminine, unsure, and unhappy, and he’s the opposite. Kévin is like the character he plays.
GMK: What observations do you have about giving up something you love as Liliane and Jean both do?
BD: What should I give up? I wouldn’t know, but it’s like a sacrifice for something better or more important or glorious. My short “Saint” is about Sebastian and giving up things. I didn’t realize that theme! Is that something that I can translate to my real life? I don’t know…
GMK: What are your thoughts about comebacks? Do we all get a second chance in life?
BD: It’s about the struggle of a comeback and the fight to be relevant in an ever-changing world. She is from yesterday, so what role can she play today? A 23-year-old is like a century older than an 18-year-old. We are all dealing with the question: Am I still relevant? Does the world still need me? Do I still connect in the world? That’s the question — to find a way to be yourself. I don’t want to be nostalgic and say the past was better. That’s not true. It’s over. But I’m obsessed with the past and how people live. It’s harder to see what’s happening now. We’re too close to it. You can’t use the past as a manual for today. You need to use your brain and be open to what’s happening. Jean is so different from Liliane, and they complement each other very much.
GMK: Jean and Liliane both work in a pâté factory. What is the worst job you ever had?
BD: After I finished film school, and had made some short films, I worked in telemarketing. I didn’t do it very long. I was 23 and this younger guy next to me asked, “Are you the Bavo Defurne?” I said, “If that exists, it would be me.” He was a film student and his world crumbled because I was working there. It was a big disillusion. He saw the reality of an experimental gay short-filmmaker is that you have to do these shitty jobs. For “Souvenir,” I made the telephone job into a pâté factory, because it’s more cinematic and photogenic. The factory is one of my favorite sets. It’s our version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” We needed a high contrast between the song and dance world and where she really is.
SOUVENIR | Directed by Bavo Defurne | Strand Releasing | In French with English subtitles | Opens Mar. 2 | Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th | quadcinema.com