Like writers penning their memoirs, making movies about making movies is a rite of passage for many a director. Fellini famously did it with 8 ½, Truffaut with Day for Night, Godard with Contempt and Fassbinder with Beware of a Holy Whore. More recently, Tarantino gave us Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Spielberg The Fabelmans, Michel Hazavanicius made Final Cut and Damien Chazelle, Babylon.
Almost all behind-the-scenes movies share the same theme: Filmmaking is taxing, high-stress work that weighs heavily on everyone involved, especially the directors themselves. That’s certainly one of the main takeaways from Cédric Kahn’s very French variation on the subject, Making Of, which premiered out of competition in Venice.
The Bottom Line
Lights, camera, dissatisfaction.
Kahn is both an actor (he played the douchey Gallic lover in Pawel Pawikowski’s Cold War) and talented director, with a series of strong features under his belt that include hard-hitting thrillers like L’Ennui, Red Lights and The Prayer. Earlier this year, he premiered the historical courtroom saga The Goldman Case to critical acclaim in Cannes. Suffice it to say that he knows a thing or two about movie sets, and that experience shows in this playful and realistic dramedy about a shoot that gets out of control from Day 1.
Switching between the film being made — a gritty, blue-collar story about workers taking over a factory after the company threatens to relocate overseas — and scenes of it being shot by the harried 50-something auteur, Simon (a doleful Denis Podalydès), Making Of gradually and rather cleverly fuses the two tales into one: The striking workers in the movie begin to mimic Simon’s overworked and underpaid crew, who eventually need to decide whether they’ll stick around out of love for the art, or quit.
This happens late in the story, when Simon’s flighty producer informs him that they’ve run out of money. The producer is played by actor-director Xavier Beauvois, and the cast also includes actor-directors Emmanuelle Bercot (playing Simon’s no-nonsense line producer) and Valérie Donzelli (playing Simon’s wife, who wants do divorce him). It’s something of a who’s-who of French arthouse talents, but they’ve been well-chosen by Kahn.
Another plot involves the burgeoning love affair between wannabe budding director Joseph (the promising Stefan Crepon from The Bureau), an extra whom Simon enlists to shoot the film’s “making of” documentary, and lead actress Nadia (Souheila Yacoub), whose scenes keep getting stolen by insufferable star Alain (a funny Jonathan Cohen).
Kahn juggles the various plotlines with ease and uses the factory setting as the main location, which only adds to the claustrophobic nature of a production that will wind up ensnaring Simon and the rest of his team. But unlike, say, the Hollywood hotheads in Robert Altman’s The Player or any number of behind-the-scenes films not yet mentioned, the characters in Making Of (except for Alain) are far from cynical. They believe in cinema, and want to make an important movie about working-class strife.
The question therefore becomes: Can you make such a film without exploiting people in the process, and thus doing the very thing your film is supposed to denounce? Early on, that dilemma hits Simon smack in the face when his movie’s main financiers show up on the first day of the shoot, informing him that they want to change the ending to a happier one, which apparently existed in an earlier draft of the screenplay. Simon, a true-blue auteur, of course refuses, but as the production drags on and more problems arise, he’s tempted to give in just to save his film from ruin, even if that could ruin his film.
Making Of asks many tough questions without ever answering them fully — it’s not worth spoiling the ending, but let’s just say that some could deem it a cop-out — and Kahn seems to have made the film to ask such questions aloud. The patient if exhausted Simon is clearly a surrogate for the director, and as he watches his shoot unravel, he swears it will be his last one. It’s as if Kahn shot Making Of as a self-help exercise so that he could finally get those thoughts out of his system, and keep on shooting movies.