Un héros très discret (A Self-Made Hero, France 1996)
Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 February 2010
Un héros très discret is a major French film which won the screenplay award at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. It was released in France in the summer of the same year and created an enormous amount of interest. It was the first film by Jacques Audiard that I managed to see and I’ve always thought it of it as one of the best French films of the 1990s. Un héros très discret did respectable business at the French box-office and attracted a good deal of criticism because of its story and its view of French history of the 1940s. It tells the story of a man who ‘re-invents’ himself, generating a new identity as a resistance hero during the Liberation of France in 1944-5 and it can be seen as a gentle, but effective, satire on the national self-delusion about the experience of occupation and resistance. As a result, critics from the right have seen the film as insulting to the memory and critics from the left have argued that it does not go far enough. Part of the interest in the film is also based on the appearance of Mathieu Kassovitz in the lead role. Kassovitz in 1996 was a rising star of French cinema, who as a director made the youth picture La Haine in 1995 and who could be relied upon to give the French media some good soundbites about contemporary culture. Re-titled A Self Made Hero, the film was eventually released in the UK in April 1997. Here, it was treated very much as an ‘art’ film and assumed to be of minority interest. Nevertheless, it played to good audiences and during the first couple of weeks of its release entered the list of Top 15 films in the UK, competing with the likes of Star Wars and The English Patient. This may surprise some of Audiard’s current fans in the UK who have been attracted by his last two crime films. Un héros très discret may not be a polar as such, but its thematic of the ‘outsider’ helped by older and wiser father figures places it neatly next to Un prophète.
These notes were written for an Education Pack at the time of the film’s UK release in 1997. I have updated some of them, but in other cases it should be obvious that they refer to the 1990s. If you haven’t seen the film, please note that there are extensive SPOILERS throughout the notes.
The narrative follows the life of the hero, Albert Dehousse, from his early teens in the 1930s through the Second World War and into the immediate post-war period. Woven into this story is what appears to be a documentary made recently in which various witnesses comment on the Albert Dehousse they knew. We are also shown interviews with the ‘real’ Albert (played by a famous French film star of the 1960s and 1970s, Jean-Louis Trintignant), who tells us something about his successes during the last fifty years.
Defeat in 1940
At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, the French armed forces occupied a complex series of fortifications along the eastern border with Germany. Known as the Maginot Line, this was expected to act as a major deterrent to any German advance. But the German army had learned many lessons from the stalemate of the trenches in the 1914-18 war and in June 1940 swiftly moved squadrons of tanks through Holland and Belgium around the northern edge of the Maginot Line and into North East France. With the Germans heading for Paris, and large French, British and Belgian armies trapped on the coast near Dunkirk, the French government sued for peace. This massive military defeat was a terrible blow to French pride and to the honour of the French armed forces.
After the armistice, the Germans occupied Northern France and the Atlantic coastal area. The remainder of the country was governed from the small town of Vichy in Central France, with an administration led by the World War I hero, Marshal Petain. This ‘Vichy’ government was an anomaly during the war. It administered the whole of France, although in the occupied zone, only with German agreement. In the south, most people led a relatively ‘normal’ life. However, the true extent of ‘collaboration’ between the Vichy government and the German authorities is still difficult to determine. After 1942, with the evident threat of an Anglo-American invasion, the Axis powers moved in to control the whole country. The Germans then controlled all but the extreme South-East of France which came under Italian control.
At the time of the surrender in 1940, France had considerable military resources based overseas in colonies, especially in North and West Africa. In London, a French officer, General de Gaulle, set up the ‘Free French’ forces with the intention of releasing these resources and recruiting French soldiers who had been able to escape from German-occupied territories. The large French naval forces in African ports had posed a threat to Allied shipping and many were seized or destroyed by the British – precipitating the establishment of the Vichy regime and its claim to these overseas territories. Thus for the remainder of the war there would be two French governments – in Vichy and in London – on opposing sides. Vichy France gave the impression of being ‘neutral’ and provided the perfect location for romantic stories such as that presented in the famous film Casablanca, set in French Morocco.
The Free French
Free French forces, later termed ‘La France Combattante’, played a significant role in the Allied liberation of Europe and in 1944-5 helped to liberate France itself. The de Gaulle administration was recognised by the Allies as the true French government and was installed in Paris as such by October 1944. Throughout the period of occupation, a resistance movement was active in France and during the liberation, resistance fighters fought openly against German forces and ‘collaborators’. The period immediately following liberation saw l’épuration – the purge of collaborationists – in which thousands of those accused were summarily executed or humiliated.
France as a ‘great power’ again
In 1945, at the end of the European War, France again found itself a major power and when the demarcation lines were drawn in occupied Germany, the French military were given control of the central part of Western Germany (with the British to the north and the Americans to the south). French power was organised from the spa town of Baden Baden.
A new republic (the Fourth Republic) was constituted in 1946 and for the next twelve years French society attempted to come to terms with the aftermath of war. The post-war period was difficult for the Socialist governments elected after 1947. Charles de Gaulle (the war hero, who rather like Churchill in Britain had not been involved in the immediate post-war government) re-appeared in 1958 at a time of crisis over rebellion in France’s North African territories. His return established the Fifth Republic, which many commentators saw as a conscious attempt to restore French pride and national identity. Although de Gaulle died in 1970, his influence remains and the current opposition party in France is ‘gaullist’ to a certain extent.
Uncertain French memories of 1940-45
Every European country had problems in re-adjusting to peacetime existence and rebuilding society after 1945. Most countries were clear about the problem. In Britain there were heroes to be accommodated and debts to be repaid to the Americans. In Germany and Italy, there was defeat to be faced. In the smaller countries which had been occupied it was more problematic. There were questions about who had resisted, or who had collaborated and in some cases what had been the attitude to Nazi policies concerning local Jewish communities. But in countries like Holland, where these questions were asked and the issue has to some extent still not been properly resolved, the situation has never been quite as difficult as in France. France was ‘occupied’ and ‘defeated’ – but she was also one of the victors, invited back to the table of `Big Powers’ in 1945. For many French people in the South, the war period must have passed relatively calmly. For others things changed quite dramatically. As the director of Un héros très discret, Jacques Audiard said:
“… overnight [in 1944] we were no longer the defeated, we were the conquerors, we were no longer collaborators, we were Resistance fighters …”
The consequence was that for the next thirty years the uncertainty about what actually happened was maintained as a kind of national amnesia. Many people claimed to have been in the resistance while at the same time fingering their enemies as collaborators (but not usually in public). Commentators pointed out that if all the stories were believed, everyone in 1944 was either a resistance hero or a collaborator. This clearly wasn’t the case and contemporary historians tend towards the view that the actual numbers of active resistance fighters and collaborators was quite small – most French people were relatively passive in the way that they dealt with the war.
French cultural life since 1945
This uncertainty had profound effects for French literature, and cinema and television in particular. A useful source for analysis of these effects is French Culture since 1945 (ed Cook 1993). Rachel Edwards in this book describes the dominant forms of literature after the war as falling into distinct periods or trends. In the first, littérature engagée, she sees writers compelled to show commitment to left-wing politics and implicitly to the resistance struggle. In the 1950s a group of right-wing writers was then seen to refuse political engagement and to create novels around heroes who had been collaborators or at best indifferent to the politics of occupation. These were named ‘Hussards’ after the title of one specific novel, Le Hussard bleu in 1950. Although the Hussards attempted a critique of the official view of the ‘Occupation’, they were unable to dent the myth while de Gaulle was still a powerful figure. After de Gaulle’s death in 1970 a new generation, who had been children during the war, began to demolish the myth more effectively and Edwards refers to this as the mode rétro. These writers were effectively trying to understand their own past and their relationship to parents who themselves may have collaborated – this theme of understanding parents is clearly taken up in Un héros très discret.
In the 1970s the impact of the mode rétro was increased by the release of two films in particular. The first was made in 1969 by Marcel Ophuls, himself the son of the great German director Max Ophuls who worked in France in the 1930s and 1950s. Le Chagrin et la Pitié, a title referring to the ‘sadness and shame’ of the wartime period, is a long documentary made for television, in which many people talk about their experiences of occupation and liberation. The French state at this time controlled television relatively tightly and the film was banned from broadcast. It was however shown in cinemas and created a massive debate both in France and abroad, effectively exploding the myth of ‘resistance’ that had been built up and almost institutionalised as part of the culture. It is no coincidence that the debate around Ophuls’ film came after the death of de Gaulle – the film was not aired on French television until 1981. In 1974 a fiction feature film, Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien, added fuel to the debate with the depiction of a young country boy’s apparent drift into the employ of the Gestapo, the German security force, during the latter stages of the war and his subsequent corruption. Malle was a leading filmmaker of the period and the screenplay for the film was co-written by Malle and Patrick Mondiano, a novelist from the mode rétro school. The film is similar to Mondiano’s 1970 novel, La Ronde de nuit and expresses similar concerns to those in his first novel La Place de l’Etoile (1968). A common theme in these stories is the role of anti-semitism in French society and the extent to which this is part of the experience of collaboration/resistance. Louis Malle returned to the subject in 1987 with a film based on his own memories of Jewish children being deported from France, Au Revoir les enfants. By this time some of the force had gone from the revelations that such a film could afford.
The legacy of the war in the 1990s
By 1996 it was over fifty years since the war in Europe had ended – yet it was still possible to generate debate about what happened during the war and how social and cultural life changed after the war ended. Debates about the investigation of war criminals were still current in the UK and in France, the revelations about President François Mitterand’s wartime past, which emerged in the years before his death were front page news. These revelations are referenced in Un héros très discret, through the use of the ‘documentary’ inserts which suggest that the Albert Dehousse character, despite being ‘found out’ could still go on to achieve high political office.
In what ways might these debates have an impact on the relations between young people and their parents? – this is one possible approach to Un héros très discret.
National identity and youth
The depiction of France in wartime in this film and others is one of a number of factors which will in some way help to shape the ideas which French youth have about what it means to be a French citizen in the 1990s. Part of this will be worked out in their attitudes towards their parents’ and their grandparents’ generations. The history outlined above suggests that the current generation of French parents might have themselves grown up in the 1950s and 1960s, believing a myth about resistance. In turn, this will perhaps have been part of that generation’s sense of national pride – certainly in evidence in French government policy in the 1960s and early 1970s.
It is dangerous to ‘read off’ attitudes and beliefs from characterisations in films and novels – films are not simply ‘slices of reality’, they are carefully constructed to produce particular meanings. But they do prompt us to think about issues in particular ways.
One approach to studying Un héros très discret may be to ask ourselves what could be the effects of particular memories or official histories of war in different countries. In Britain, for instance, there clearly have been problems for a country which ‘won’ the war, but in some ways ‘lost’ the peace. Britain’s role as a world power has gradually diminished since 1945.
Young people in the UK may be relatively unconcerned by this lack of international status, but it is a problem for older people and may be linked to current debates about our relationship to Europe. (In a contradiction, it was also noticeable that many young people were easily caught up in the war against Argentina in 1982, whereas those with memories of war were sometimes more inclined to caution.) We might also consider the impact of the first American failure in war, in Vietnam in 1975 – how do you cope with defeat, when you are still the most powerful nation on earth? Most recently, how would we feel to be young Bosnians or Serbs in the aftermath of civil war? What is at issue here is: “what does it mean to be French and to live with a past which includes the myth of resistance?”
The following extracts from the press conference for A Self-Made Hero during the Cannes Film Festival gives some idea of how this and other arguments about the film might be developed: …
Q: Does it not bother you that the character Albert weaves an entire tapestry of lies to create himself anew? And were you generalising about the French character?
Director Jacques Audiard: No and no. But let me say that Albert is an odd character – and what is important is that he does not lie. He insinuates, but mostly he lets other people draw conclusions from his own silence. And you must remember that after the war, with records and government in such chaos, it was necessary for many people – whether they were in hiding or had somehow lost their identity – to declare an identity, providing they had two witnesses who would confirm the story. So it would be possible to convince two people, then convince the officials… right? And remember, he did nothing bad. He simply tried to create a life he never lived.
Q: Is the character based on any historical figure?
Writer Jean-Franco Deniau (writer of the novel that Audiard adapted with Alain Le Henry): Yes, it was a man I met at the end of the war – he was large, imposing figure. The less he spoke, the less risk he took. I added details to make the story work. But he was very interesting, and nobody figured out how he had accomplished this enormous leap into heroism until much, much later. His success had something to do with the general principle – commonly accepted – that there are two kinds of fighters: those who talk about it and those who fight.
Q: Speaking as an American and looking at French history as an outsider, may I ask if one of the purposes of this film is to de-mystify the French resistance? It seems to be such a big deal, and yet, we all know that every society has an urge to undermine icons.
Jacques Audiard: Louis Malle was reproached for trying to address collaboration long ago when he made Lucien Lacombe. And others have had to listen to cries about betrayal from similar conservative quarters. It took 40 or 50 years to realize that France did not deserve its place at the victors’ table. The main challenge here is to create a situation where the criteria of truth are lost – one by one. I used the book as a starting point, but yes, I guess I was trying to make us examine the basis of our beliefs in any kind of heroism.
Q: The movie reminded me of similar attempts – say, Forest Gump or Being There in which the hero is perceived as one thing, but he is in fact a simple person.
Jacques Audiard: Forest Gump is a success in terms of American illusionism. I guess in both cases we are dealing with pathological processes. But a Gump digest of the US is a very different thing from what Albert is in Un héros très discret. It’s true that I tried to avoid anything that would incite nostalgia for the past – those golden years after the war when we bathed in our ideas of our own heroism. For example, Truffaut recreated a look and used period ambience in The Last Metro. But I absolutely avoided any attempt to romanticise the era we are watching in this film.
Deniau, the writer: The problem with life is it’s just a draft.
Q: Isn’t it possible that this film is really about the emotional and political tyranny of the older war generation over the young? And how difficult it can be to get a job in France? To enter into a society without having the will or courage to be a hero?
Audiard: Yes, French society is very codified.
Source: Karen Jaehne, Film Scouts, http://www.filmscouts.com/interviewshertre.html
Mathieu Kassovitz – a modern French star
Mathieu Kassovitz made his name internationally as the director of one of the most important youth pictures of recent times, La Haine, in 1995. This film set out to follow the adventures of three youths from the suburban housing projects in the 24 hours following a riot in which one of their friends is shot by the police. The three comprise an African-French boxer and his two friends, one a ‘beur’ (second-generation Arab-French) and the other Jewish. The subject matter and the casting clearly set out to challenge ideas about youth and identity in France.
Kassovitz himself won the best director award at Cannes for La Haine and he has been compared, in terms of the impact of his work as an actor/writer/director, with the African-American director Spike Lee. His next directorial effort was Assassins, produced by Jodie Foster and dealing with violence in society – this film failed badly and Kassovitz has yet to make a follow-up, but he has continued to act, e.g. in The Fifth Element for Luc Besson. His earlier film, Metisse (1993), which is also known as Cafe au Lait, was about a young girl who is pregnant and does not know whether the father is Jewish or a black Muslim. This was not released in the UK. Kassovitz also acted in the previous film by Jacques Audiard, Regarde les hommes tomber (1994). Every cinema needs its stars and controversial characters. Kassovitz is the undoubted star of French independent/art cinema. He is seen both as an intelligent filmmaker and as a ‘bad boy’ who can be rude to the establishment. At the press conference for Un héros très discret the reporter compared the appearance of Kassovitz as being like “a sighting of Elvis”.
Facts and figures on the film’s release
Un héros très discret had a budget of 29 million francs (approx. £3 million or $4.5 million) according to figures quoted on the Internet Movie Database. This is high by British standards (a film like Trainspotting had a budget of around £2 million). The French audience for the film was around 400,000 admissions – a French box-office of around $2 million, the American box office was $120,000 and in the UK, £266,000. The backers of Un héros très discret include television interests.
What would be a comparable film in the UK? It is difficult to think of a film which could have a similar profile – an historical theme, a relatively unconventional (i.e. non-realist) approach and a relatively large budget. No commercial UK producer would attempt such a project and the films produced with backing from Channel 4, BBC or ITV network companies would be unlikely to agree such a budget. As a possible comparison, the successful ‘historical’ film by the well-known British director Ken Loach, Land and Freedom, had a much smaller budget and despite a very good reception, a smaller UK box office. In fact, when Land and Freedom was released in France it opened in more cinemas than had been possible in the UK. (Some British films, especially those of Loach, will run in a Paris cinema for months, even when they appear in London’s West End for only a week or two.) Unfortunately, despite its accessibility, Un héros très discret was unable to reciprocate and play to bigger British audiences than those in France. Un héros très discret opened on eleven London and selected provincial screens on April 4 1997. After its first week it entered the UK Top 15 at No 12 with a screen average of $4,789. Two weeks later it had widened its release only marginally to 14 screens and held on to No 14 spot. Un héros très discret did well as the only foreign language film in the chart at the time (following on from the success of Ridicule). But it did not do the business it deserved. The UK ‘art’ market has been seduced by American independents and it is noticeable that the new Woody Allen film, Everyone Says I Love You, opened on April 17 1997 with a screen average of $7,772 on 30 screens – this is the kind of business that a film as good as Un héros très discret should expect to achieve.
Reading A Self Made Hero
The film works on several levels. At the centre is a strong narrative about a familiar character in the literature and film of many countries – the charming liar. Much of the pleasure of the film comes from the engaging performance of Mathieu Kassovitz and the various strategies that the character devises to ingratiate himself into the community of resistance veterans. These are real narrative pleasures. We are fascinated by his preparations and intrigued by the questions the narrative raises: will he succeed, will he be found out? Albert is a seemingly naive character and we know that his motives are, if not pure, at least inoffensive and non-exploitative. In fact he is swept along by the success of his deceit and is in the later scenes a seemingly reluctant deceiver. This makes the story seductive and we as audience complicit in the deceit. Everyone in the film seems eager to help Albert become an effective liar or deceiver. Yvette’s father teaches him to be a salesman and to win through with his smile and personality. Odette gives him advice on how to be an effective lover (although doubts remain about his sexuality). The Captain takes him in hand and sets him up as an effective beggar and con artist. Monsieur Jo provides him with the network of contacts he needs.
We are seduced by Albert’s transformation as easily as the veterans he meets, but this seduction is undercut by the director with a range of devices which make us feel uncomfortable. The mock documentary interviews suggest that Albert eventually created a whole career in public life, despite being found out – the establishment will allow uncomfortable events to be forgotten. The inserts of actual documentary footage remind us that none of the events in the fictional narrative are in any way unlikely – indeed they were commonplace. The surreal inserts – the musicians playing the background music, Albert growing up and flying like a bird recorded in stop-motion – are the most interesting aspects of the formal structure of the film. Given the generally seductive nature of the narrative, they cut across our easy identification with characters. In conjunction with the documentary material – real and fake – they serve to confront us with the central question. Are we all complicit in the cover-up, the self-delusion which became a national condition in France? This doesn’t work on an emotional level for a UK audience, but it is apparent nonetheless.
There is a discourse of fakery in the film. The director has said that he wasn’t interested in the use of ‘authentic’ period props. He wanted to make the history ‘fantastic’ rather than ‘realist’. He also wanted to make a comedy and he increased this element from the original novel. Yet despite the director’s intention, audiences are still likely to read the ‘lack’ of authenticity in some scenes as a comment on the history. The staging of the scenes is perfunctory and we concentrate on the performances and the relationships. It also reminds us that the past is still with us in terms of the lies being told. The casting of Mathieu Kassovitz raises a further question of anti-semitism. Kassovitz is a well-known figure in terms of his Jewishness and this period of French history has aroused fierce debates about the treatment of Jews under the Vichy regime. At various points in the plot, Albert uses a suggested Jewish identity to help his deceit – a neat reversal of the occasions when ‘real’ Jews must have done the opposite to escape attention from the Gestapo. As the Sight & Sound reviewer Michael Temple points out, this film gives us a French director directing a Jewish director, playing a French ‘faker’ pretending to be Jewish.
Further ‘deceptions’ occur in Albert’s relationships with first the Captain and later the German butler/servant, Ernst. The Captain is openly gay and we can legitimately ask if his easy relationship with Albert is one of adoptive father to a young man who had never known his own father, or of an experienced lover with a novice. At the end of the film Albert spends a drunken night with Ernst – again centring on the role of father. Is it also significant that the most obvious threat to the security of Albert’s secret comes from the all-male camaraderie of the Army group in Germany, first on the tennis court and then in the showers where the lack of a wound is obvious. The tennis scene takes us back to the two earlier moments in the film where the young Albert watches the players, perhaps seeing their game as some kind of symbol of manly endeavour. This second discourse of uncertain sexuality is related to the idea of fakery via the casting of Jean-Louis Trintignant as the older Albert. Trintignant was the great sex symbol of French cinema in the 1960s and we might read this as more evidence of Albert’s deception – was he really as sexually diffident as the story makes out? In a final twist on the subject of Albert’s sexuality, there is the clear indication that Servane and Yvette are just as interested in each other as they are in Albert. What does this add to the film’s overall interest in deception and the unreliability of appearances?
A Self Made Hero is in some ways a postmodernist film. It deals with appearances and deceptions rather than attempting to make its points through realist presentations of evidence. It is a mix of comedy and satire and uses the ‘star personae’ of Kassovitz and Trintignant. Both actors were also in Audiard’s previous film Regarde les hommes tomber, in which Trintignant plays an ageing criminal and Kassovitz the slow-witted young man he ‘adopts’. From some of the director’s comments, his intention appeared to be to make a film which would afford the pleasures of the postmodern – an ironic, amused detachment. But the issue of the myth surrounding the period of resistance and collaboration is still live and sensitive (note here the references to the ‘exposure’ of Mitterand’s past in the Cannes reports) and many audiences in France will have resisted ‘detachment’ and taken the film as parable.
Jacques Audiard talks to Chris Darke, ‘Monsieur Memory’ in Sight & Sound, April 1997
A Self Made Hero was reviewed in all the UK ‘quality’ daily and Sunday newspapers between April 4 and April 6 1997
Suggested essay titles/discussion topics
1. What do you think the film says about ‘national memory’ – in this case the French memory of resistance?
2. How do you ‘read’ the insertions of mock documentary and the fantasy sequences in the film?
3. Research the idea of the postmodern and explain how A Self Made Hero measures up as a postmodern text.
4. How would you describe the narrative of A Self Made Hero in terms of its resolution? Is it ‘open’ or ‘closed?
5. Check out the previous Jacques Audiard film, Regarde les hommes tomber, which also features Kassovitz and Trintignant. Does the comparison justify the idea that Audiard has some kind of ‘authorial’ presence? Do the films share any other features apart from the two actors?