Fred Cavaye on point about Farewell Mr Haffmann

Daniel Auteuil and Gilles Lellouche in Farewell Mr Haffmann. Image courtesy UniFrance








By © Jane Freebury

What happens when a good person switches
sides? What drives someone to take that one fateful step from which they can
never return?

It was questions like these that exercised the
French director and screenwriter Fred Cavayé while developing the screenplay for Farewell Mr Haffmann, set
in Paris in 1941, during World War II. The Nazi occupation is a setting ripe
for high crimes, duplicity, and more.

Farewell Mr Haffmann, the story of a Jewish jeweller who drew up a fictitious sales
contract to place his home and business in the hands of his genial assistant, has
been a popular outing at the recent French film festival and is now in release.
My chat with the director, Fred Cavayé, the other
week on zoom was relaxed and genial despite the early hour in France. Although
he was apologising for not being quite awake, he was absolutely on point.

Farewell Mr Haffman has connected with contemporary audiences here who are neither
French nor were occupied during wartime. Is this because the film confronts us
with subtle questions about morality, engaging our sense of personal ethics, while
the story unfolds in another very different time and place?

“I did wonder if my autopsy of a person who
falls into a bad situation, my autopsy of a bastard, was going to resonate
outside the frontiers of France, but of course it would. It is a contemporary
and universal dilemma.”

After sending his wife and family to
relative safety elsewhere in France, Joseph Haffmann (Daniel Auteuil in the
role) initiates a deal with his trusted workshop assistant, Francois Mercier (Gilles
Lellouche). He proposes to leave his home and business to Mercier, supported by
a fictitious bill of sale, to retrieve all of the property when the war was

There’s no contingency plan for what then
ensues. Haffmann is unable to escape the city and has to return home almost
immediately, requesting refuge. He then begins a new life hidden in the
basement, also the workshop, as Mercier’s invisible assistant. It is an ironic
reversal of roles.

His genial former assistant, a gentle, good
man of ordinary ambitions, has gone over to the dark side

Of course, the film is asking us what we would
do in the same situation as Mercier? “Yes, effectively.”

The screws really begin to turn when, as
Mercier’s employee, Haffman begins to recognise the precious items he is
working on, refashioning them to the taste of the Nazi clientele, as the
confiscated property of former Jewish clients. His former assistant, a gentle, good
man of ordinary ambitions, has gone over to the dark side.

So, Mercier essentially becomes a
collaborator. “Not through questions of ideology. I was interested in someone
who became a collaborator, not because of ideology, but through
self-interest, through taking advantage in an everyday way, making the most of
small opportunities offered for self-advancement. A very small monster, but
nonetheless a monster.”

Collaboration is still a taboo subject here

And it’s a deal with the devil. “A Faustian
bargain, yes. From the moment Mercier recognises the jewels of former clients
and has a debate with himself about it, but opts to go ahead, that’s the moment
when it becomes Faustian.”

Gilles Lellouche in Farewell Mr Haffmann. Image courtesy UniFrance

“Collaboration is still a taboo subject

Accepting Haffmann’s deal in the first
instance is what one might expect of a character like Mercier, who dotes on his
sweet wife Blanche (Sara Giraudeau), longs for children of his own, and has had
to wear a leg brace since polio.

If it was at first hard for Mercier to turn
down Haffman’s proposal, the new circumstances made a seemingly charitable act even
more difficult. There were of course severe penalties under the Nazi occupation
for concealing Jewish people in the home. However, Mercier’s initial actions
are followed by a downward slide.

The screenplay, co-written with Sarah
Kaminsky, is adapted from the successful stage play of the same name by
Jean-Philippe Daguerre. How did Cavayé adapt it to
the screen? “The key change in the film was Francois becoming an evil
character, wanting to inflict social revenge, wanting people to believe he had
talent, and stealing from his master.”

It is the theft of a life I wanted to tell

“It’s the theft of a life. I wanted to tell
the story of a man who so much wanted the life of another man, that he was
prepared to cause his death.”

Lead performances by Daniel Auteuil and
Gilles Lellouche in this tightly wound World War II drama, would be reason
enough for many people to go and see this film. Especially as their characters
suddenly find their relationship completely upended by the German occupation and
the persecution and deportation of French Jews.

The third fine performance in this weird kind
of menage-a-trois, is that of Sara Giraudeau as Blanche, Mercier’s sweet
wife. It may be a revelation for those who don’t already know her work as a
scientist infiltrating an Iranian nuclear facility in the television series The
and as a country vet with an aberrant farmer brother in Petit
, aka Bloody Milk.

I knew he would adore the role of someone who became a monster

How did you pull together your cast? “I began
with the character of Francois, starting with Lellouche who I knew well from
having made four films with him. I knew he would just adore the role of someone
who became a monster.”

“I also knew I wanted one of the three top
French actors, a Depardieu, an Auteuil, or a Lellouche, and to make it a real
meeting of two stars. Then, there was the character of Blanche, who is a
central character but this is only revealed bit by bit during the film.”

“It interested me that Sara Giraudeau, who
is young and doesn’t yet have the career of the two male leads, has a kind of
innocence, a child-like presence that transforms into a strong woman, as she
becomes the true force of the film. I knew her work in Le Bureau and Petit
, and it was the transformation from the child to strong woman that
really appealed to me.”

Even at the end, I suggest, you don’t think
she will follow through, but she does.

“Francois and Blanche have different
trajectories.” Cavayé crosses his arms in
the air, forming the shape of an X. “Francois is very empathetic to begin with
and she starts off as a less engaging character, but their paths cross during
the story and head in very different directions.

Is it a psycho-thriller? Kind of, says the
fan of American cinema whose filmography includes thrillers. Is Farewell Mr
a war film or a thriller? “Ah, it’s a war thriller. More a war
thriller than a war film, where the Germans don’t present any danger.”

Great answer. 

First published by the Canberra Times on 16 April 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes