Adapted from David Foenkinos’ eponymous novel, Le Mystère Henri Pick (The Mystery of Henri Pick) is an end-of-year treat worth seeking out. We follow literary critic Jean-Michel Rouche (Fabrice Luchini) who suspects a new bestselling sensation could be hiding a secret… It’s a literary whodunit that playfully merges the suspense of a murder(less) mystery with plenty of dry wit. We talked to French director Rémi Bezançon about literary impostures, the influence of Agatha Christie on his new film, and the evolution of art criticism.
What was it about David Foenkinos’ novel that made you want to adapt it in the first place?
Two main reasons spring to mind. First of all, the idea of this enigmatic library of refused and forgotten manuscripts. I found the idea very poetic, that anyone could just leave behind a manuscript turned away by editors in a place that feels like a shelter. It struck me as being very cinematic. The second aspect was the literary investigation, which was actually a small part of the novel. I found that element very interesting.
You started your career as a screenwriter, so I can imagine that the idea of a literary imposture must have been appealing!
Yes. Obviously one of the biggest ones is Romain Gary/Emil Ajar, but there have been a lot of them over the years, and there’s always something very playful about these stories, these little mysteries that slowly unravel…
The film does come across as a literary whodunit, in which you play with the established coda of what you’d usually find in an Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle novel…
Yes – except we’re not looking for who committed the murder, but who wrote the book! And I’m glad you mentioned Agatha Christie – she was a huge inspiration for the ending of the film. These are the books that I loved when I was younger, and Fabrice Luchini really enjoyed playing scenes that could be described as a cross between Hercule Poirot and (infamous French literary critic) Bernard Pivot!
Was it hard to tonally balance the suspense of the piece with the buddy movie comedy?
I’ve always enjoyed mixing genres and atmospheres in my movies, but this is the first time I’m playing with the thriller genre. The key was never falling into caricature, never poking fun at the genre. I hate caricature – that really doesn’t interest me. I think it’s a bit too easy. I wanted to have fun with the coda, which I respect, without mocking it. And as for the “buddy movie”, you’re right, this film is a buddy movie in many ways, and here featuring a man and a woman, which is rare for the genre. And especially when we don’t approach the codes of the romantic comedy. This is more of a friendship between two lost souls, based on intellect. I love the end of the film because I was asking myself the question – should I make them end up together as a couple? But it quickly dawned on me that that wasn’t possible, that it shouldn’t happen. I do think that it’s a film about male-female friendship as much as it is a mystery film.
Since you mention the ending, I was wondering whether you’d consider a sequel to this story, or a new adventure featuring the same characters… After all, it’s was left relatively open…
That’s true. I’ll admit that I thought about it! I really loved these characters, and you could imagine them going off on another case… But my films tend to have quite open endings, so to speak. I’ve always loved imagining the lives of the characters after the end credits. That’s always been very important to me – that the characters have a life outside of the film and that the spectators think about the lives of the protagonists once the lights go up.
Casting-wise, you’ve previously worked with Camille Cottin in your film Nos Futurs, but this was your first time with French national treasure Fabrice Luchini. How was that?
Well, the character of literary critic Jean-Michel Rouve doesn’t appear until quite late in the novel, nearly halfway through. He’s not that important in the book. But when I read it, I immediately saw that it was this character I wanted to follow. So I rejigged some things, and I immediately thought of Luchini to play him. Because he is the French actor that is the most “literary” – he’s in love with words and you can tell by the way he speaks. More than that, he loves books! He’s even done stage shows where he reads famous French texts by Hugo, Verlaine… I know it sounds clichéd, but couldn’t think of anyone else for the role. I wrote it for him, not knowing whether he would accept it… And when I sent him the script, he thankfully said yes!
He’s known for improvising quite a bit. Did you give him free rein on set?
Yes and no. There’s a scene in which he reads a letter in the style of Marguerite Duras, and that’s completely improvised, on the spot! But on the whole, there wasn’t that much improv. He’s a very rigorous actor, very respectful of the text right down to the last comma. The best way I can describe it is that he likes to find the right note within the lines that are given to him.
Do you see the film, through this character of the fallen literary critic who doesn’t have the time to read anymore, as a commentary on the literary world, which is often portrayed as cliquey and pretentious, or even as a veiled swipe at critics themselves?
You could see it like that. It’s also a swipe at the marketing world. But I have nothing against critics. It’s a game, it’s all a game. The only thing that bothers me with critics is when there’s no real substance, when critics come out of a screening and instantly Tweet in a few words what he or she thinks of what they’ve just seen. Nobody cares about that. What I like is a more substantial and respectful approach.
It’s genuinely infuriating when they do that, because it’s all this reactive, first-one-out-of-the-gate nonsense…
Exactly, and that’s not how criticism should be. It’s a shame that it has become about this urgency to get your opinion across as quickly as possible. And that’s not what is asked of a critic anyway – no one is asking a critic whether he or she likes or dislikes what they’ve seen. It’s about digging a little deeper and saying why they liked or didn’t like it. Anyway, it’s a vast topic. And again, I have nothing against critics – it’s an art form in and of itself. I just like doing a good job and I like it when they do a good job too.
One thing that struck me about the film was how you get the impression nowadays that a work of art – here a book – almost cannot exist for the sake of itself. There needs to be some marketing hoopla, a gimmick or an extra narrative hook surrounding the artwork for it to sell.
(Laughs) That’s true. It’s all about storytelling. It’s sadly true, and not just with books, for that matter. There’s this constant need for storytelling around the work of art. It’s funny – every few years, I go to the Biennale in Venice, and my next film takes place in the world of contemporary art. And in Venice, I saw this work by Damien Hirst, these statues which were apparently rescued from a shipwreck. And everything about that was invented! It was all about telling a story around the art, and while that can be really fascinating, it’s important in my opinion not to lose sight of the artwork itself.
Lastly, looping the loop and coming back to where we started – has David Foenkinos seen the film? What did he make of it?
He has, and he really enjoyed that changes were made because he saw something that wasn’t just his novel. He told me he liked that this movie is more of a variation on his book rather than a straightforward adaptation. And it’s true, I took a very small chunk of the book and expanded it. The impression he gave me is that if you’re not doing a simple copy/paste with an author’s work, then that inspires a certain respect.
Le Mystere Henri Pick (The Mystery of Henri Pick) | Directed by Rémi Bezançon (France 2019) with Fabrice Luchini, Camille Cottin. Starts Dec 26.