Earlier this month, French filmmaker Romain Gavras arrived at the Venice Film Festival and dropped a metaphorical bomb with his latest film “Athena.”
Billed as a drama set in a Parisian high-rise community (also known as a banlieue), audiences might’ve guessed what to expect. Banlieues have been a mainstay of French social realist cinema for decades, from Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 cult hit “La Haine” to Jacques Audiard’s 2015 Palm d’Or winner “Dheepan,” Ladj Ly’s “Les Miserables,” Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood” and Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s “Gagarine.” Their mix of deprivation, unquenchable energy and propensity for drama have offered the grit around which many a cinematic pearl has formed.
Gavras didn’t wait around for the pearl. He took the grit and chafed it against history, seeing in the banlieue the ills and injustices humankind has endured – and revolted against – since antiquity. It became a volatile backdrop against which he could conjure what he calls a “myth of the near future.”
His brawny interpretation of a Greek tragedy, centered on three brothers in the throes of grief, at war with The Man and each other, singed the eyebrows off critics and left jaws on the floor (“One of the greatest films I’ve ever seen,” tweeted Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri. Read CNN’s review here. Ahead of its release on Netflix on September 23, Gavras sat down with CNN to discuss his explosive new film.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CNN: “Athena” joins a cinematic tradition of acclaimed French films set in banlieues. What did you want to add to that history and that conversation?
Romain Gavras: It’s almost become a genre in France – it’s been (in movies for) 30 years. That culture is the mainstream. Usually, it’s treated as a social realist type of film. We wanted to bring a Greek tragedy aspect into it; almost like a myth of the near future. It is set in France now, but it could have been set in the Trojan War, medieval wars, maybe a war in the future with Elon Musk on the moon. Because the situation is an archetype of how a war – a civil war, more specifically – can be ignited in real time.
Did Greek tragedy or the banlieue come first for you?
I think Greek tragedy. We chose to make it about the intimate pain of brotherhood, where their pain and rage and way of grieving is going to spill over neighbourhoods and then spill over the nation – which is often how wars started. In the film, a lie pushes people on the ground to towards conflict, the same pattern since the Trojan War to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand to Colin Powell. The territory (of the banlieue) is fertile for those conflicts, but really it was the way of unfolding that story that was the key for us.
As a filmmaker, is the language and storytelling structure of Greek tragedy useful?
It’s the way you translate it. We took away from it the real time element, the unity of place, making characters become myths and heroes or anti-heroes. We wanted to make a film that is what cinema does at its best – and it’s a weird word – but entertaining. Where you are in it and create an iconography and rhythm. Where you bring something to the cinematic language and to the cinematic table. I think that’s the responsibility as a director. I don’t really think we have a moral responsibility.
I’m intrigued by your position that cinema doesn’t have a moral responsibility.
I think we have a responsibility to towards our beliefs and towards cinema. Sometimes people are going to say, “violent films, music videos, video games and rap music are going to make the kids angry and riot.” I think it’s education, lack of money – real problems – that creates situations of tension. I think films can change cinema; I don’t think films can change the world. Sometimes – and Hollywood does this – there’s self-aggrandizing, where they think, “Oh, cinema is going to change the world for the better.” There have been a lot of films that have tried to do that and the world has just gotten sh–tier and sh–tier.
When did you decide to build this film around a set of long takes?
Quite early on. Tragedy starts with sunup and finishes with sunup. Twenty-four hours for a film is almost a real time experience. We wanted to be within that real time experience. Those long takes do that because you don’t jump in time.
How long did it take you, your cinematographer Mathias Bouchard and your cast and crew to choreograph and rehearse everything?
We rehearsed the whole film for almost two months, like you’d rehearse a play or an opera, with a small camera, the main actors pretending there were fireworks and extras around them, to see the dance between the camera and the actors and the rhythm. There’s no CGI in the film, we do everything for real. The planning, weirdly, was almost military and very precise to create chaos in front of the camera.
I assumed there was a bit of CGI somewhere in there. I bet your insurers loved it all being practical.
Because it’s a Netflix film, we literally had security people on set, insurance or whatever. A team making sure we were not doing insane stuff. First, they want you to shoot everything green screen because it’s the way people do it, but I feel you lose a lot when you do this. My 13-year-old daughter, she sees CGI everywhere, she’s like, “fake fire,” “green screen.” It’s not precise but it’s a feeling you have. And I don’t think you have it in this film.
You mentioned this is a Netflix production, which for a French film comes with some unique opportunities and challenges (Netflix films cannot play in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and rare screenings of Netflix Original titles in French cinemas in 2021 sparked industry backlash). What was behind the decision to go with them?
It was a very simple decision: I could not have made this film without Netflix. A French studio would not have given me the budget to do it and would have probably pushed me to get huge actors – and I think it’s better to have new faces. It’s great on the big screen, but at the same time, the first time I watched “Star Wars” or “Apocalypse Now” was on my TV. I had all the freedom that (I wanted). I made the film that I wanted to make.
After this intense production, what do you plan next?
I plan to sleep mostly. No, I think I’m going to feed myself. I love to read and watch films, and for two years I’ve just been in the tunnel of work. For a director, it’s very important to feed yourself. So I’m gonna do that mostly and think about the next film. It’s not lined up yet. I’m gonna think about it pretty hard.
“Athena” is available to stream on Netflix on September 23.