“Eva is not a femme fatale in the traditional sense of the term. She’s fatal against her will. It’s the male character who makes her fatal, without even realizing it himself.”
Nothing had prepared promising young writer Bertrand for his meeting with mysterious, enticing Eva. Their encounter soon leads to a life changing obsession, in Eva, an intriguing and sensual thriller that was adapted by Gilles Taurand and Benoit Jacquot.
It’s based on a juicy 1945 eponymous British pulp novel by James Hadley Chase) that was first brought to the screen by blacklisted Hollywood filmmaker Joseph Losey (in a 1962 version starring Jeanne Moreau).
From Book To Film
Published in 1946 in France, as part of Gallimard’s celebrated Série Noire collection, the original story takes place in the United States. But Chase had never visited the country, so he gathered material for the work by studying American road maps.
“I first read the book when I was thirteen or fourteen,” reveals director Benoit Jacquot. “At a time when I definitively began to think about becoming a filmmaker. My father used to read Série Noire thrillers by the boatload! This one was a somewhat hidden, tucked behind the others, so I was immediately attracted to it. I’ve always thought of it as a potential film. I’d mentioned it a few times but it never went any further than that, and no producer ever latched onto the idea.”
Shortly after the teenage Jacquot read Chase’s novel, Joseph Losey brought a very loose adaptation of the story to the screen, in 1962, with Jeanne Moreau in the title role.
“The film was a problematic episode in Losey’s career,” Jacquot continues. “It sparked violent conflict with his producers. The final film bore no resemblance whatsoever to the filmmaker’s vision. At the time, I was still a very young film buff, but it made an impression on me. Once I say that, it’s always the same. This isn’t the first time my point of departure is a book that’s already been adapted to the screen. That was also the case with DIARY OF A CHAMBER MAID, for example. And while it’s never a consciously calculated decision, my approach is always to forget the existing films.”
Aside from the machinations of a thriller leading its hero to ruin, the novel “is the story of a guy who claims to be a writer — which is a stolen identity — who’s going to be trapped and led to his own downfall.”
Jacquot was taken with “the way the characters are established and the mobility of their connections. I probably wouldn’t have formulated it in those terms at fourteen, but what I find interesting is that the characters aren’t fixed, once and for all. The two main characters meet in such an unlikely way, and they’re both doubles. They each have a secret, indeed another life, a secret life.”
Who Is Eva?
“Eva is an enigma,” Huppert replies. “Is she a real person or a fantasy? Is she Bertrand’s (Ulliel’s) projection? She has at least two faces — the one she wears in her domestic life, as her husband’s wife, and the more impenetrable one she puts on when she works as a prostitute.”
Eva goes from combat gear to more natural clothing. The major element of her camouflage is the straight black wig she dons when she works.
“For an actress,” Huppert notes, “hair is an ever-inexhaustible source of disguise, offering potentially different masks. Going from redhead to brunette, you just let yourself be carried away. It’s the same with makeup — wearing makeup, not wearing makeup… It’s part of creating a character.”
She adds, “Eva’s nature is manifold — soft, hard, gay, sad. She has every emotional color, as if she’s permeated, almost without her knowledge, by these various states.”
Ulliel continues, “No one can answer the question, ‘Who is Eva?’ And that’s what makes the character so intriguing. She’s opaque, poisonous, completely twofold. Just like my character. What immediately interested me about Bertrand was trying to bring him closer to Eva. We realize that they’re similar in so many ways. They’re cut from the same cloth, on equal footing, constant carriers of a duality. Two impostors who recount fantasized life stories to one another.”
Jacquot goes on, “If there’s always been an absolute alliance between Isabelle and me, it’s because neither of us believes in psychology, in the conventional sense of the word. We both believe — she, as an actress, and I, as a filmmaker — that the fixed, monolithic character, forever set in stone, does not exist, or is of no interest. We think a character must be ‘divided’ from the outset, from the first time he or she appears. I use that word in the way that psychoanalysts say a subject is ‘divided’. To put it more concretely, I don’t believe a character exists without an unconscious. However, the agreed, traditional, psychological approach is that characters are not endowed with an unconscious.”
To Jacquot, Eva is not a femme fatale in the traditional sense of the term. “She’s fatal against her will. It’s the male character who makes her fatal, without even realizing it himself. That’s the unconscious and the divided character. I call that the unknown. It’s what we don’t know, whereas we think we know. And that’s what interests me.”
Anatomy Of A Thriller
Eva went into production, in early 2017, in Paris and the provinces. More precisely, part of the action takes place in the snow-blanketed Haute-Savoie.
“What I found interesting in Joseph Losey’s Eva,” Ulliel recalls, “is that it takes place in Venice, a city full of mystery, which is a character in its own right. That dimension seemed to be missing from our project. But when I landed in Annecy, I realized that our location was just as strong. That dramatic landscape — a lake hemmed in by towering mountains — is a kind of prison for our characters. And then the winter, the snow…”
In that seemingly idyllic setting, Eva finds all the ingredients of a film noir — a deep lake, its too-calm waters concealing unfathomable mysteries; a casino where the fate of each character might be played out like a kind of roulette ; winding roads that become a serpentine mental space ; the snow at night, blurring the characters’ vision, obscuring both their paths and their futures.
Throw in a wig, a riding crop, the unsettling mirrors in the room where Eva works, and you have all the components of an erotic thriller and a potential modern tragedy.
“It was imperative that this story take place somewhere other than in Paris,” Jacquot declares. “When I was beginning to think about the film, I happened to have something to do in Annecy, a city I’d never been to before. Driving around the lake, going up into the hinterlands, I had the idea of setting the film there. And I didn’t avoid elements in the book that propel the story forward as a thriller. The actors led me there. They both have a certain simplicity, a certain evidence in their gestures, which nevertheless gives rise to a fundamental opacity, which I find very enigmatic.”
He adds, “Eva is an agonizing film, a mystery, with puzzles to unravel, chasms for the characters to confront, all the elements that make up a thriller. I never asked Gaspard or Isabelle to play it in that sense, but the film leans in that direction.”
The story, as well as the atmospheric elements, seem to set a trap for the main character, which he repeatedly throws himself into. It’s much like those train trips “that make up his virtually hypnotic comings-and-goings,” the director elucidates. As if Bertrand were irresistibly drawn back to Eva, in increasingly intense encounters, like in a nightmare.
“During the shoot,” Ulliel opines, “I had this sort of woozy impression — which I think the editing heightens — of losing any point of reference, of a temporal and geographic ambiguity that reflects Bertrand’s mental state. As the character loses his footing, so does the viewer.”
The film’s direction and coverage contributes to our identification with the character of Bertrand — tracking forward, a snowy road seen from inside a vehicle, rooms laid out along a hotel corridor like so many threats… The camera is almost subjective. Jacquot notes, “I often, but not systematically, filmed Gaspard from behind. And once the camera glides over his shoulder, and we see what he sees, it’s as if we’ve penetrated his mental universe.”
A Mysterious Attraction
What drives Bertrand to imperil his relationship, his very life with the poisonous Eva? That question — left unanswered or with multiple responses — is at the heart of the film.
It’s that “situational improbability”that interested Jacquot in the first place. “At first glance,” he explains, “this character, played by Gaspard Ulliel, has a good life, even though it’s based on a lie, indeed a sort of crime. He has a ravishing partner, who’s his age. Everything seems to point to a radiant future for them. And yet, it’s as if he traps himself. His only recourse is this attachment to a woman he absolutely should not be involved with. Bertrand attaches himself to Eva because he — incorrectly — sees her as his last hope to wrest himself from the trap he’s buried himself in. On top of that, it amuses me to turn common wisdom upside down. The convention is that a younger woman and an older man are almost inevitably attracted. This is the inverse and I like it.”
Ulliel ponders, “What attracts Bertrand to Eva? I’ve long tried to articulate an answer. That may have illuminated certain shadowy areas and deepened my work. But that would have necessitated explaining desire. It’s a compulsion in him. And compulsion is something that suddenly looms up and we have no control over. In hindsight, one might say this woman represents his female double, that there’s an obvious mirror image of the past, which we glimpse at the beginning of the film. There’s a resonance between the two. It’s also about measuring himself against someone he thinks is of a different rank. Bertrand is facing his own deceit. He’s lost all self-confidence and finds himself facing someone he imagines to be morally inferior to him, probably because she’s a prostitute. There’s undoubtedly also an oedipal element in there.”
To Huppert, “the mirror effect creates an attraction between our two characters. They’re like twins.” And according to Jacquot, it’s “that echo that provokes an attraction, a kind of recognition, a sense of recognizing one another… Everything comes out of that rhyme. For Bertrand, Eva is a kind of inevitability. She’s the one he’s going to move toward to try to save himself. But it’s not for the best!”
Eva is Benoit Jacquot’s twenty-fifth film. He’s already confessed that, in his career, actors have become the driving force behind his creativity.
“Benoît often says that, to him, filming actors is a way of making a documentary about them,” Huppert confides. “When you’re on a shoot with him, you feel that double-edged gaze — the one pointed at you, and the other aimed at the character. That’s incredibly freeing. There are no longer any limits on what you can allow yourself to do. All boundaries are abolished between you and the ‘character’. Within a specific context, of course.”
That may be why actors feel so comfortable on his set. “You feel welcome,” Ulliel remarks. “Not only in terms of material comforts, but also psychologically. Benoit listens to you, he’s very open to any suggestions an actor makes. He works extremely quickly, which can be surprising at first. He does very few takes. But once you’ve accepted the method, it’s very pleasant. Some actors have said, ‘You’ll see, you don’t feel like you’re working with Benoit.’ That’s sort of true. Which doesn’t mean he’s not rigorous on set. He already has the whole film in his head.”
Jacquot reveals a few keys to his creative method. “At first, there’s a sort of silhouette of the film that crystallizes. It takes shape in a fairly precise, yet distant, way. It’s less than a score. Musicians have a term for it, a “grand-scale form.” Then come the lead actors. And from there, we delve into the details. For starters, the sets for scenes that are still theoretically planned. The primary set. If I suddenly decide to look for a scene in a setting that has nothing to do with the script, I choose a set that goes against the screenplay. In the case of Eva, director of photography Julien Hirsch and I charted out the shooting schedule. A day-by-day shooting schedule is standard for the directing crew. Meaning, we’ll shoot this before that for specific reasons. We choose a certain progression in constructing the film. And then we plan out each day to coincide with the shooting schedule — the camera will be here or there, we’ll shoot this 7- or 8-page scene in a single shot, etc.”
“The film has an alternating structure. It begins with the character of Bertrand, then, once he meets Eva, we move on to her. The narrative is constructed as a sort of braid weaving the two characters together. In general, when Bertrand and Eva are together, they keep a certain distance, but less so as the film progresses. Like two animals, each waiting for the other to pounce. For the first scene in which they’re really together, they’re facing each other. It took place in a fairly large room and I gave them each half of it. Neither of them were allowed to cross the middle line, and had to play the scene within those parameters.”
Isabelle Huppert concludes this discourse on method. “Benoît Jacquot’s specificity is a form of economy, a taste for the minimal. With him, the details become the event. And the cinema allows for that. Moving from the infinitely small to the infinitely large… Benoît is the master of that. He’s able to give unfathomable weight and depth to the tiniest of intangibles. ”
Working With The Actors
The first draft of the script, co-written with Gilles Taurand, evolved and was deepened through preparatory work, especially in working with the actors.
“The hardest thing is forgetting there’s a character, to make you forget the fiction,” Huppert explains. “When I read the novel, I thought James Hadley Chase could have written it for me. Far from the somewhat dated image of a dangerous femme fatale, Eva has a kind of animal nature, an opacity, an almost childish way about her that escapes the clichés of the genre. She doesn’t even bother to be what we imagine her to be. She’s even more dangerous. Eva’s basically lazy. Wigs and boots, okay. But the hackneyed old glitz of seduction and manipulation, no way.”
After discovering the book, the actress drew upon details that had seduced her and suggested that Jacquot incorporate them into the film. The filmmaker attests to that, “For example, at one point in the book, Eva talks in her sleep. The male character is awakened by her whispering and listens. We added that to the film. Why? Because Isabelle wanted to play it, which is good enough for me. She likes to perform things that seem to come from somewhere else — in this case, a dream that has no apparent relation to the surface situation. Someone who talks in their sleep… To her, that’s ideal!”
It was at Gaspard Ulliel’s suggestion that the scene revealing his character’s imagined troubled past, which had been used as a flashback in the script, become the very opening scene of the film, affording the viewer complete knowledge of this strange anti-hero who falls victim to Eva’s seduction.
“At the very beginning,” Ulliel remarks, “it wasn’t a scene I found very interesting. Wasn’t it a bit expected, a little cliché, that Bertrand himself had been a gigolo? Then I gradually came to see that, on the contrary, it was a kind of key to the character. I told Benoit, ‘I was absolutely wrong. I think that flashback is decisive.’”
Jacquot elucidates, “From that point on, all that follows becomes an answer to the question, ‘What does he do as a result of that seminal deed?’”