PHILIPPE LE GUAY: ‘The comedy comes from the tenderness we feel for the characters.’.
(photo credit: BARAK BROWN)
Spending vacations in Normandy as a child inspired director Philippe Le Guay to make the comedy/drama Naked Normandy, which had its Israel premiere at the 34th Haifa International Film Festival (which runs through October 1) and is currently playing in theaters all over Israel.
A story that combines elements of The Full Monty and Calendar Girls, Naked Normandy is about a group of struggling Normandy dairy farmers who are asked to pose nude by an artistic photographer inspired by Spencer Tunick, the man who travels the world asking large groups of people to get naked and takes pictures (including at the Dead Sea).
Although Le Guay describes himself as a “very urban, Parisian guy,” he has fond memories of the village where his grandparents had a house. “It was a paradise for children; I remember iconic images of the harvest.”
But while he remembers it as idyllic, he is very aware of the dire situation of French farmers today, who often stage protests but feel their calls for help make little impression. “Two hundred farmers a year commit suicide,” he said. “They used to sell their products to a cooperative, now they have to sell them to a huge industrial monster,” and no longer make enough to support themselves. “They work 16 hours a day. The pressure is so great and the margins are so narrow it brings great despair.”
But while these facts are widely known, “there is a difference between knowing and caring.” To make people care about these farmers, he put them in the comic situation of having to decide whether or not to strip naked for American photographer Newman (Toby Jones), who is traveling through Normandy searching for a place to film his next nude extravaganza and finds the perfect spot in the fictional village where the story is set.
Part of the problem is that the farmers are not just a political interest group, but complex, flawed human beings with different interests who can’t always agree or work together.
Le Guay realized that “taking a tough reality and putting a little fantasy and fiction in could bring this story to life.” To do this he created some vivid characters who illustrate the conflicts as well as the solidarity among the farmers. There are two characters feuding over a piece of land so fiercely that they have little energy for anything else, while a man who believes that organic cattle feed will break their dependence on price-gouging international conglomerates has a hard time getting support for his plan from his more conservative neighbors. The complexity of the external and internal problems the farmers face is voiced by the mayor of the town, a farmer himself, Georges Balbuzard (François Cluzet). Cluzet is one of France’s biggest stars now and will be familiar to moviegoers from his performances in The Intouchables and Irreplaceable.
Another character, Vincent (Arthur Dupont), returns to the town and realizes he can’t make a go of the family business, an old-fashioned photo shop.
“The comedy comes from the tenderness we feel for the characters,” said Le Guay, citing the example of the butcher who can’t bear the idea of his blonde bombshell wife, who was the winner of the Miss Calvados beauty pageant 20 years ago, stripping down with the rest of the town.
To get his actors ready to play these characters, Le Guay created a kind of boot camp for his cast, where they lived with farmers for nearly two weeks and learned to perform many farming tasks. He also used many real farmers and small-town inhabitants as extras.
The result is a quirky ensemble that resembles the character actors Frank Capra used to assemble for his classic comedies.
Le Guay has directed other films that mix serious social commentary and comedy, including The Women on the 6th Floor (2010), a look at how a group of maids from Franco-era Spain change the lives of a wealthy Parisian family.
The director, who is currently writing a script about a love triangle that involves two lovers who meet in their dreams, said that both Naked Normandy and The Women on the 6th Floor present a “vision of Utopia, of what can happen when different worlds mix.”
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