Friday, December 8, 2023

Interview with the Belgian winners of Cannes’ jury prize

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On the sidelines of the 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival NE Global’s arts & culture editor, Federico Grandesso, sat down with Felix Van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch to discuss their film Le Otto Montagne (The Eight Mountains) which went on to be awarded the Grand Jury Prize.

The film stars two Italian actors – Alessandro Borghi and Luca Marinelli – and tells a story about friendship and of children becoming men as they try to erase the memories of their fathers. Through twists and turns, the two always end up returning home. Pietro is by nature a city boy; Bruno is the last child from a long-forgotten mountain village. Over the years Bruno remains faithful to his mountain home, while Pietro comes and goes. Their encounters introduce them to love and loss, reminding them of their origins, as the two discover what it means to be true lifelong friends.

NE GLOBAL’S FEDERICO GRANDESSO (FG): You experienced making an international film that came from a popular book. What gave you the idea to make a movie in Italy about a very popular holiday book?

Felix Van Groeningen (FVG): It’s very well written. It’s very sparse, actually. It’s not thick, but it’s epic, like a movie. After making a film in the US, it wasn’t my ambition to just make films there. We never really moved there or anything, so we were actually looking for a project to do in Belgium. I was actually working on something, but at a certain moment, this book came along, which we read because we wanted to write something together. Actually, we were both really moved by the two character’s friendship. And, of course, by those two characters who are very pure and honest in the journey that unfolds. It’s simple, yet it talks about everything that’s essential and important in life, like family, friendship, love, destiny and finding your way in life.

Charlotte Vandermeersch (CV): That’s the cycle of life and death; the seasons in nature and in life. We thought it touched upon what I said yesterday right after the screening – we wanted to make it an ode to life in all its fragility and strength. This is what we felt in the book. It’s such a big story but told in tiny little things. We thought it was just a very tender story and something worth telling right now. It has no cynicism, just an exploration of what life is and how to be friends; how to deal with loss and death, and how to love and communicate by connecting each other to yourself and to you.

FVG: When the book was presented to us, the producers had the idea of making an international movie that we could have done in English. But for us, it was clear that the book was so authentic, and so you felt that it was inspired by real people in real places. Very much so. Personally, we thought that if we would do it, it had to be in Italian. We later went to meet the writer of the book, who lives very close to where the movie takes place, and we fell in love with the landscapes and the surroundings.

FG: How much time did you spend learning Italian?

FVG: Yeah, actually I wanted to learn Italian and then we said “maybe we should just make a movie” (laughing), but on the other hand, there’s something crazy about this project and where we were in our lives and what we wanted. It all just came together. I mean, we’re looking for deeper meanings, and I guess being in the mountains to do this movie helped this process.

FG: You said that it was very personal and very related to your moment. So can you elaborate on how have you learned or overcome that?

CV: We’ve been together now for 15 years. This project started three years ago when we were going through some stormy times in our relationship. Despite that, we had already decided that we wanted to write together. Then the lockdown came, and it was just like for everyone else – sitting at home at the desk, having a difficult time. By working on this other life, through the paths of Bruno and Pietro, and their questions about what they want, how they communicate, which mountains they climb, what difficulties they have, what their idea of beauty is – all of this is through the prism of talking about these lives. It allowed us to reflect on our own lives. We could talk about them and not about us directly, which helped us a lot. We both really cherish the project and we put it there above our own differences or anything between us. This was really a healing experience for us; to have something like this mountain to climb together.

FVG: And with this project, the bonding experience is so strong. Maybe we missed that over the years, being away and being busy… On different mountains. Actually, writing together, I realized that Charlotte brought so much to this story from her point of view so the combination of the two points of view, one being female; one male, and partners, friends and parents – we have a son who’s four years old – this really makes sense for this story to make it richer. At the end of writing the first draft, I felt that I wanted to direct it with her, so I asked her.

FG: How do you insert an Asian element into the story? You are both Belgian, you moved to Italy and then you put Asia in the spotlight?

CV: This idea really came from Paolo (Cognetti), the author of the book. This Nepalese element is there because he’s travelled there and he’s a real mountain person. If you want to go to a mountain, you go to the Himalayas, right? It’s the most magnificent place for that, and Nepal is a Himalayan mountain country. Pietro has lost his heart there, but he was not very explicit about it in his book. So we really needed to invent this for the film. There’s no Nepalese love in the book because we thought that made sense. If he loses his heart there, it’s not to a European woman working in an orphanage or something like that. We thought it made sense to really honor the community and to bring it through his Nepalese girlfriend. You feel that he finds a home away from home because she’s home there. First, you have the alps in the Italian part of the story, then we see the Himalayas, It’s really another level. It is a lot higher. I mean, the village you see in the film is at 4,000 meters, 4,200, even. and they have land there and they grow vegetables. It’s amazing, that at that level, we have glaciers in Europe. It’s an old mountain civilization that you still have there in a very original state, one which is fast becoming extinct in Europe. That’s part of the disappearing ‘old world’ that he finds there, which is still very much alive in the Himalayas. In Europe, it’s dying.

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Managing Editor of European Union & Italian Political Affairs


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