Award-winning French actor Swann Arlaud impresses in Erwan Le Duc’s absurdist romantic comedy The Bare Necessity.
He also breaks our hearts as an abuse victim in Francois Ozon’s upcoming Grace of God and is currently playing the villain in France’s first superhero movie How I Became A Superhero from Warner Brothers.
In the scene-setting opening of The Bare Necessity a female “revolutionary” nudist steals the journals of the female protagonist Juliette (Maud Wyler). Juliette is unimpressed by the police work of Swann Arlaud’s insular, poetry-loving small town police captain, Pierre Perdrix, and when she turns up at his home and meets his oddball family she realises he has a lot to cope with. She quickly inserts herself into the family to further her case and after some hijinks on a mountain it’s only a matter of time before the pair fall for each other.
I spoke to the 38-year-old Arlaud at the beach headquarters of Director’s Fortnight, the Cannes section where some of the best and most original films screened this year.
Your performance grounds this very quirky film. What was the attraction?
SWANN ARLAUD: The film has lots of laughs. It’s an offbeat universe and at the same time it’s poetic and a grand declaration of love. I loved the story, the adventure and I’ve always loved the absurd. It’s not the usual thing I’m offered, so it was a new experience for me to search out.
What was the idea of the nudists?
SWANN ARLAUD: It’s about being funny, but at the same time the film deals with some deep issues in the world we live in today, like ecology.
I saw Bloody Milk (Petit Paysan) for which you won best actor at the French Cesars (Oscars) last year. You were not well known before that.
SWANN ARLAUD: I’d been doing this job for 15 years, working in police dramas on television and playing smaller roles in movies (most prominently in the 2010 romantic comedy, Romantics Anonymous). But with Bloody Milk everything changed. It led to a lot of offers.
Why do you think the film (about a farmer whose cows contract a deadly flesh-eating virus) struck a chord?
SWANN ARLAUD: It was a film that crossed genres. It was part documentary, part thriller and part comedy. Also, it came at a time when people wanted to see stories about small farmers or workers confronted with difficulties and exploitation. Initially I doubted I could play the role since I’m Parisian. But this film was such a good story.
You then played the real life victim of a pedophile priest in Francois Ozon’s Grace of God. It was an incredible performance of a man who was truly damaged by the experience.
SWANN ARLAUD: I met the real man after the film because Francois didn’t want me to resemble him. He wanted me to create the character, even if what he had written was true. I finally met him after the projection of film and something very strong happened. This incredible man had fought a really tough fight and he is heroic for that.
He’s alright now?
SWANN ARLAUD: Yes. He said the film helped advance their plight. It’s a moment in cinema that can really advance a cause. I was proud to participate in that. After Bloody Milk I felt like I ascended to a new height.
What are you doing at present?
SWANN ARLAUD: I’m about to film a French superhero film, How I Became a Superhero. It’s the first French superhero film and is directed and co-written by Douglas Attal, the son of leading French producer Alain Attal (who produces here). I play the villain. That’s cool. I rarely have the opportunity to do that.
What is the story?
SWANN ARLAUD: It’s about a society where some people have superpowers and there’s a brigade of police dedicated to the superheros. I don’t have powers but I retrieve their blood in a vial that people sniff and they have the power for five minutes.
Who are the other cast members?
SWANN ARLAUD: Pio Marmai, Leila Bekhti and Benoit Poelvoorde.
It’s clearly going to be funny.
SWANN ARLAUD: Yes.
Attal is a huge fan of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Do you like superhero movies?
SWANN ARLAUD: They’re not my usual thing, but there are exciting things in this film.
How is it different to a US superhero film?
SWANN ARLAUD: I guess in the US everything is big, whereas French cinema is usually closer to realism. But I feel there’s a new wind blowing through French cinema and I have the impression that The Bare Necessity is also part of that.
You’re very good at displaying emotions. Where does that come from?
SWANN ARLAUD: I don’t know. I’m just like that. I’m a bit excessive with my emotions. I didn’t have a difficult childhood, but there were things that marked me, like everyone.
What is your family background?
SWANN ARLAUD: My father is an art director in the cinema and my mother works in the theatre. I initially studied fine arts and didn’t want to be an actor or follow in the family tradition. But I now love what I do. I’ve also co-directed a short film (Venerman in 2018) and would like to do more directing. But I’m not in a hurry.
Would you like to act in English?
SWANN ARLAUD: I worked in English with Australian director Brodie Higgs in the German-Australian film Elixir (2015) that was shot in Berlin. It was an experimental film and I had the main role. It was not easy but if you work with a dialogue coach it’s possible. It’s true that there are incredible opportunities for cinema outside of France. I’m not looking for an international career, but I’m not against it.