Damien Bonnard: from the shores of New Brunswick to that of Cannes

Damien Bonnard became an actor late – at the edge of his thirties, in 2010. And his beginnings proved to be modest, until “Stay vertical”, in competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2016. His career took off: roles in “Dunkirk” by Nolan and “According to a true story” by Polanski, among others. The consecration came, however, with the shock film “Les Misérables”, jury prize at Cannes last year. Not bad for a former New Brunswick fisherman…
Q hen you mention her unusual path in a telephone interview, Bonnard laughs. Passed by the Fine Arts, he then became assistant to the Belgian painter Marthe Wéry. Back in France where he works in a CNRS laboratory that manufactures artificial diamonds for NASA, an Acadian friend convinces him to join him in picking the violin heads.

During this “initiation trip” to Canada, he practices fishing, wants to finish building a boat to settle in Mexico, gives up for lack of money and then returns to the country where he becomes a motorcycle delivery man.

“I delivered for a lot of cinema production boxes. I felt like I could be happy in there and live a lot more lives. I like to immerse myself in someone’s life, it opens up universes. This is what I love to do.

“It’s a pleasure that I didn’t have at school [he dropped out at 16], but a pleasure for schoolchildren to discover things by trying to know as much as possible and trying to restore them . ”

His meticulous preparation work and his embodied play enabled him to win a nomination for best hope at the Césars, for Alain Guiraudie’s Rester vertical , at … 37 years old! Not at all offended, he was flattered by it, seeing in it the proof that there is no age to accomplish.

In front of the camera, he was therefore a shepherd (twice rather than once), a sound engineer, a fireman … and a police officer, first in the crazy comedy In freedom! . He then put on the uniform for Les Misérables (and also did it for The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson (coming in 2020), “but I play a cop who tortures people, it’s different (laughs)”) .

Let’s clear up any misunderstanding: the title is a nod to Victor Hugo’s novel, that is, but Les Misérables by Ladj Ly, a political film, social drama and suspense, is part of a very contemporary reality.

In this powerful drama, Bonnard plays a cop transferred to a multi-ethnic neighborhood in the Parisian suburbs. On his first day, witnessing a blunder, he finds himself caught between solidarity with his colleagues and his problems of conscience. The director was inspired by police violence in his district of Montfermeil.

An authenticity which nevertheless has a universal scope, considers Bonnard. All over the world, he says, people are living in difficult, even tragic situations, which we often prefer to look away from.

If Ladj Ly knew this reality firsthand, it was different for his actor, who had frequented the cities dilettante. What will make say to the scenario writer that Bonnard “seemed to arrive from another planet”. He takes it as a compliment since he interprets a policeman disembarking from Cherbourg, a rather quiet little town, in a more rock’n’roll environment.

Everything goes through the eyes, says the actor. Whoever deals with something often leads to judgment. “If we change our outlook, our judgment changes and therefore possibly our actions too. People don’t stop at what you see very succinctly. ”

Composing Stéphane proved nevertheless difficult. Because of their duty of reserve, the testimony of police officers is rare, especially in these magazines. There are videos of interventions filmed by young people, but their vision is necessarily truncated. While continuing his research, Bonnard read his guide to police ethics every evening.

“Because my policeman is trying to be fair. […] I have thought a lot about the limits of justice, the boundaries between the rights of the police and those of the population. ”

Until the Oscars?

Forced to run with half the estimated budget, the team remains very united, testifies Damien Bonnard. With the hope “that there might be a few people who would come to see him”. Selected in competition at Cannes, Les Misérables continues to attract attention. Nominated for the Golden Globes, Ladj Ly’s first feature is also on the short list at the Oscar for best international film (the finalists will be announced on January 13).

“We will be able to share it with more people, which is the goal of works of art. […] This film is proof that these can make a difference. Revolt is important, but it doesn’t have to be violent. It can go through art. Ladj shows [in Les miserables ] that if you do nothing, the consequences can be significant. ”

Damien Bonnard is intimately convinced of the relevance of this impactful feature film. He also noted a quote from Victor Hugo, taken from Les Misérables , which sums up its significance well: “Life, unhappiness, isolation, abandonment, poverty are battlefields that have their heroes; dark heroes sometimes bigger than illustrious heroes. ”

The idle young people of the city who consider themselves victims of repression will attack the police after a blunder from them.

The wretched are inspired by police violence filmed by Ladj Ly at the end of his adolescence in the Paris suburbs. The director of Malian origin often has trouble getting away with the police, whom he frames in full “action”.

These experiences provide him with the material for the short film Les Misérables , many times awarded, which becomes a feature-length film with almost two million admissions to France (as of December 31). Its acclaimed veracity does not prevent the filmmaker’s tumultuous past from resurfacing, quite the contrary.

Les Misérables relies, of course, on Ladj Ly’s intimate knowledge of the place and the dull violence that reigns there because of the poor living conditions. Twenty-five years after La haine , by Kassovitz, the findings remain the same.

A fiction, certainly, but solidly steeped in reality. Moreover, several extras are residents of Montfermeil. Same thing for the team, says actor Damien Bonnard in an interview.

When he started out as a filmmaker, Ladj Ly joined the Kourtrajmé collective, supported, among others, by Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz. Inspired by this work that encourages diversity, he founded in 2018, in Montfermeil, a free school of cinema professions. Several of his students have contributed to Les Misérables .

“There was the whole past of the city, these people who had suffered violence,” explains Damien Bonnard. We were making a fiction, but respecting true things. All the stories in the film happened to Ladj or his entourage. It was important to do it well, but while having fun making movies. ”

The director is not an angel, however. He was sentenced to one year in prison in 2011 for complicity in a kidnapping by friends. He always denied the facts during the trial.

Les Misérables hits theaters on January 10

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