Interview With Writer/Director Nils Tavernier

Credits include The Finishers

Just how well fathers and sons relate to each other tends to get quite a run at the movies. It’s there in the backstory of a comic superhero movie, or it’s in the foreground of a family drama as father and adult son work it out – as they finally do in Silver Linings Playbook. Other dramas with a lower profile than this audience favourite have of course featured this important relationship. Life as a House, for example, in which Kevin Kline plays a recalcitrant, ailing father opposite teen rebel Hayden Christensen, and Beginners in which Ewan McGregor has to sort out his filial feelings before he is ready to move on.

French director Nils Tavernier (son of veteran director Bertrand Tavernier) has made a new contribution to the conversation with The Finishers. It is the sweet and sentimental story of a boy with disability who wants to reverse the growing alienation between himself and the father who began to inch away when he realised his son was never going to walk.

Fabien Héraud, who was cast in the role of high-schooler Julien, suffers a form of cerebral palsy himself. On the big screen over the years, we’ve seen actors playing characters with this condition, such as Daniel Day-Lewis in his celebrated turn as a writer-artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot. Occasionally, directors such as Tavernier jnr and Australian director Rolf de Heer, have directed actors suffering the condition themselves.

Tavernier coached Héraud for four months to prepare for the role, his first appearance in a film. ‘He tired very fast. It is part of his pathology. So he needed to rest twice a day.’ But it wasn’t that difficult to manage if you compared it to actors who may need costume changes and their make-up fixed.

The Finishers opened the French Film Festival in Canberra last month. Unabashedly feel-good fare, it tells of a 17-year-old who convinces his father to do the Ironman triathlon with him. And not simply enter, but cross the finishing line before being timed out. The French title, De Toutes Nos Forces, which roughly translates to ‘with all our might’, conveys the effort that would be necessary for a 3.86 km swim, a180.25 km bicycle ride and a marathon 42.2 km run, without a break.

Julien’s family home is located near the French Alps, about eight hours’ drive from the Ironman championship locations. ‘I didn’t want to shoot loneliness in the kitchen,’ says Tavernier. ‘I wanted to have it in a huge, big area which also gives a sense of the distance between the characters.’

Tavernier’s filmography is largely documentary and this is his first fiction feature. In preparation for this shoot, Tavernier spent two years as an observer of children being treated for neurological problems in the Necker Hospital, Paris. He was moved by the young patients but also moved by their parents. In his film, the father Paul carries a lot of baggage, Tavernier observed in our face-to-face interview late last year. ‘He just can’t deal with it.’

The filmmaker says he was acutely aware of the impact on parents, including high levels of guilt, of a child with disability. ‘I was listening and observing families with problems like these over a long period of time. I saw a lot of fathers who just wanted to run away.’ On the other hand, there were fathers who wanted to shoulder so much of the responsibility for their children, like the mother in his film, that their over-protectiveness made their child feel acutely trapped, without any freedoms or agency. However, he says, ‘I also saw fathers who became a real hero for their child, for whom the difficult parental experience bought out the best in them.’

The protagonist Julien feels his father’s rejection keenly and watches his parents growing apart until he decides to make his move. ‘It’s not a big deal if we don’t finish,’ offers Julien. ‘Yes it is,’ counters his dad, Paul (played by the versatile Jacques Gamblin), warming to the idea. ‘I want to go to the end with you.’ Tavernier thinks that Julien understands that he needs to get back to basics in his relationship with his father, from where it may be possible to set things right. It is no surprise what happens in the end of The Finishers and there’s not a lot of depth, but for all the predictability, there is the naturalism of the lead performances, Héraud’s engaging presence and the film’s open heart.

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