French writer Emmanuèle Bernheim died from cancer in 2017, a few years after the publication of memoir Tout s’est bien passé (Everything Went Fine). That book chronicled how she and her sister, Pascale, handled the instruction from their 85-year-old father, André, for an assisted suicide in light of paralysis following a stroke. As such actions remain illegal in France, they looked into getting him to a specialist clinic in Switzerland.
Bernheim’s work has previously been adapted for cinema by Claire Denis, who turned her novel Vendredi soir into a feature in 2002. But her most frequent screen collaborator was the prolific François Ozon, with whom she co-wrote screenplays for his Under the Sand (2000), Swimming Pool (2003), 5x2 (2004) and Ricky (2009). Now, Ozon has honoured her memory in adapting Everything Went Fine, with Sophie Marceau playing Emmanuèle, André Dussollier as André, Géraldine Pailhas as Pascale, Charlotte Rampling as her mother, Claude de Soria, and Hanna Schygulla as the Swiss clinic representative.
As Everything Went Fine is released in the UK, we spoke with Ozon about tackling this complex subject and his past flirtations with other controversial content.
It’s surprising that you hadn’t worked with Sophie Marceau before now.
When I was a teenager, I saw La Boum (The Party, 1980) I don’t know if it’s famous in England, but it’s the big cult teen movie for the French. We all grew up with Sophie Marceau. I’d proposed some films to her – 5x2 was the first – and each time she was very nice but said no. This time I had the feeling she would say yes, because I thought this story could resonate with her own life. I sent her the book, she read it in one day, called me and said, “Okay, this is the right time, we can work together.” I didn’t want to make it with someone else.
Had the cast known Emmanuèle Bernheim personally?
Géraldine Pailhas, who plays the sister, knew Emmanuèle. They’d met very often because Emmanuèle’s husband was Serge Toubiana, who was the director [general] of La Cinémathèque and the editor of Cahiers du cinéma in the 80s. He’s quite famous in French cinema. And Emmanuèle was very loved by many directors.
The film isn’t especially focused on the debate surrounding assisted suicide. It’s more concerned with the tricky negotiations and banal practicalities. It’s a tender film but fairly even-handed about the subject.
It’s not a film as a societal debate. The film is like a thriller; you don’t know what will happen with the police. That’s what I like in the book. That’s very short, very fast. You have no time to think, and suddenly it’s the end. The book is very shocking but strong. I wanted to have this feeling in the film, to have no time to think and to be always in the negotiation; in the action of working out what to do, how to organise. I wanted the audience to ask themselves, “What would I do in this situation?” I don’t know if I would be able to act like the two sisters if my parents asked me this request. It’s a strong moral question.
How did you go about adapting the book?
It was quite simple to adapt, but there were some holes in the story I didn’t understand. So, I spoke a lot with her husband and sister. For example, in the book the mother doesn’t exist, and I didn’t understand why. I learned that Emmanuèle’s mother was an artist. She was a sculptor, an important one, but at this time of her life she was sick and very depressed. Emmanuèle had kind of rejected her because she had the feeling her mother was living like a victim all her life because she never decided to divorce her husband. She was always suffering, while [Emmanuèle’s] father was very mean, selfish, full of life. The mother was nicer, I think, while totally a victim and suffering all her life. That was interesting. I decided to develop the mother in the film and show there are two artists in the family, the mother and the daughter.
You have a very diverse filmography. Do you ever look back to your older work for inspiration?
I’m not interested in the past. I know I’m a versatile director, which some people don’t like, because sometimes they prefer, especially in France, that you always work on the same subjects. I like to play, like a child, with different genres. I love the richness of cinema. Each time, I try to have a new challenge and experiment with something new.
BFI Southbank recently ran a season on the so-called ‘New French Extremity’: French-language works in the 1990s and 2000s concerning extreme violence and its larger impact. Among screened films by Gaspar Noé, Claire Denis and Marina de Van was your 1999 feature Criminal Lovers. If that label was something you were ever aware of during that time, how did you feel about it?
It was another part of my personality. It’s such a long time ago, just after film school. I don’t reject that period of my career, but I had other inspirations then. I know I maybe had more violence inside me, with the films See the Sea (1997) and Criminal Lovers. I think I had violence I needed to express. But now I’m an old man, I’m full of wisdom… I hope.
Do you think there were clear societal factors for that ‘movement’ of films in France?
Natural Born Killers (1994) by Oliver Stone was in the same period in America. I remember seeing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), all these kinds of movies. It was in the mood in all world cinema, but I’m not able to tell you why. As young directors, I think we wanted to explore some things which were not explored before and maybe to be violent [towards] the audience. We were not afraid of that, or to shock. And maybe it was a way to turn the page on the [perceived] idea of French cinema from the nouvelle vague – very literate people living in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Maybe we had the need to express something else, and the kind of violence which didn’t exist in much of French cinema before.
Everything Went Fine is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 17 June 2022.