On the fringes

Laurent Bouhnik's debut feature, `Select Hotel', opens next week. Chris Darke talks to him and to the film's star, Julie Gayet, about life beyond the romanticised cliches of cosmopolitan Paris
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"I come from the absolute margins," declares Laurent Bouhnik. Crop-headed, leather-jacketed and sporting the obligatory International Bohemian's goatee, the 36-year-old French director comes across as, well, street. Or, as they'd say in France, "Lui, c'est un des gars" - he's one of the lads. His debut film, Select Hotel, opens in London next week and it's a suitably tough street-level drama centring on the flophouse hotel of the title. Occupied by an assortment of prostitutes and petty thieves, pimps and transsexuals and set in the neon-lit demi-monde of Paris's Pigalle district, the Hotel Select is home to the brother and sister duo of Nathalie (Julie Gayet) and Tof (Jean-Michel Fete). She's a twentysomething hooker at the end of her tether, he's a small-time crook and drug-dealer who's looking for a way out of their dead-end lifestyle. Things are further complicated when a shopkeeper, Pierre, whose establishment Tof has robbed, becomes sexually beguiled by Nat.

It's a world that Bouhnik admits to knowing well: "I found myself more or less on the streets at 16. I went from the middle class straight to the margins after a car accident tore my family apart." But he turned this insider's knowledge to his advantage when making the film. "I was born in Pigalle, it's my quartier. And I think anyone else would have found it hard to make a film like this there. I shot in places that would be difficult to get access to otherwise. You have to know when to leave and respect people. But if there was any trouble on the shoot, if anybody started pulling knives, then I knew how to calm it down. I know about that sort of violence."

Just as the film depicts the lives of those most marginalised by society, so it was made on the very fringes of the French film industry. Despite having made three award-winning shorts, Bouhnik found the transition from shorts to features was tough when it came to garnering support for the project. "When I showed people the scripts they freaked out, saying it was too violent," he explains. "So I made it with nothing and ran up debts. But I made it as if I had 10 million francs." He laughs and adds, "My next film's abut prison."

Despite, or perhaps because of, the straitened circumstances of the film's production, Bouhnik declares that he "made the film in total freedom". And it shows. Rooted in the street-life of contemporary Paris, the film is utterly devoid of the touristic cliches that usually comfort British audiences. Ably combining a long-take pseudo-documentary shooting style with moments of feral, hallucinatory impact, Bouhnik's is a very stylish film. But it's one in which the style suits the alternately visceral and romantic treatment of the subject matter. Bouhnik succeeds in giving Pierre's somnolent, obsessive trawling through the Pigalle backstreets in search of Nat the atmosphere of a solid bourgeois's descent into a squalid urban hell. Yet he's equally at home with the careful, affectionate detailing of Pierre's domestic life in the suburbs, where his wife is a striking healthcare worker and his young daughter may be having a lesbian relationship with her best friend.

"This film is what Brecht called `a tragedy of the little people'," Bouhnik explains. "Pierre is like the line between the audience, the people paying to see the film, and the characters like Nathalie and Tof, who are human beings beyond being social stereotypes. Pierre recognises his own darkness in these two characters and in this he understands that things are not black and white, they're between the two. And when one recognises this, one can start to live with others - which is what Pierre does."

In case readers may think that this all sounds a bit too much like Bertrand Blier's recent sardonic take on the Parisian lower depths, Mon Homme, forget it. With Blier, one senses that his tramps and hookers represent an idea of relationships between men and women, sardonically distilled into social archetypes. Bouhnik, on the other hand, is committed to each of his characters equally. This attitude puts Bouhnik within a tendency that's developed recently among young French directors, that of a "social" cinema recalling the 1930s films of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne.

"I never said to myself that I was going to do as Renoir did," explains Bouhnik. "But I discovered that Renoir never had a single hero, he had a group of characters that try to live together and my films have all been the same. They're about groups in which the so-called principal character becomes secondary in relation to a situation. If one looks at ultra-commercial American films," Bouhnik expands, "perhaps it'd be better to call them `products' - they work from the presupposition of a person in danger who arrives at overcoming these dangers. For me, life isn't like that. It's together that one improves things, not alone. What one sees in these `products' is that there's no other solution but to kill, crush and eliminate others so that the individual can triumph. That, for me, is philosophically impossible."

Select Hotel boasts an outstanding performance from Julie Gayet as Nathalie, the vulnerable, bottle-blonde prostitute abused by her pimp and cared for by her brother. Twenty-five-year-old Gayet is fragile and earnest in the flesh. I ask her how she captured Nathalie's combination of physical intensity and despairing passivity. Did she have to smoke a couple of pipes of crack before each take? Gayet seems genuinely shocked by the suggestion. "I never did!" she protests. "I worked from other people's emotions. I was just thinking of feelings and sensations and putting them in my body. Laurent said, `You're too pretty for the part.' He made me eat to put on weight and didn't want me to sleep. So we'd be up all night talking, going out and shooting the next day. We shot for three weeks like that."

As an actress more familiar with theatre and mainstream French comedies, Gayet admits to being deeply affected by the experience of portraying Nathalie. "Before the film, I thought that you choose your life. Afterwards, I realised that you don't always." And she has nothing but praise for Bouhnik: "This is it. That's my director for life," she exclaims. "De Niro and Scorsese. Julie Gayet and Laurent Bouhnik." Then she grins and slaps the table between us.

`Select Hotel' opens at the ICA Cinema on Friday 11 July