Currently in theaters, Sentinelle sud is Mathieu Gérault’s first production. Between thriller and psychological drama, the film accurately and solidly dissects the horrors of men returning from war. Meeting with the filmmaker.
AlloCiné: How did you come up with the idea of making a film on this subject?
Mathieu Gerault: It wasn’t really an idea, but rather a feeling. I took this theme as a statement, the fact that one can have war in oneself, that life can be a struggle. To illustrate this, the figure of the soldier came to me quite quickly because of all the thickness of the return from the war.
It is when we encounter a test or a difficulty that we deconstruct everything that we have been through and that many times we return to childhood. And that allowed me to get closer to the wounds in all their forms: physical for Mounir, much more subterranean for Christian, and then the gesture of refuge for Henri. It was important for me to approach the sensibilities of men in this way.
I wanted to address this topic to return to the emotional search of a child, to decipher these broken personalities, facing death, who return weakened and grown from this very isolating experience. They are obviously very interesting characters to deal with.
Sentinelle sud is a first movie [pour Mathieu Gerault en tant que réalisateur, pour David Coujard en tant que producteur]. What was your first perception of the film?
Mathieu Gerault : With this first film I wanted to address a theme by taking the viewer where they don’t expect to go. I wanted to create various tones by focusing on the characters, telling stories of men and talking about questions that we all have: why am I here in my life? Why did I make these decisions? Where does this need to love and be loved come from?
I spoke with many professionals, psychoanalysts and therapists, because the ones who speak best about the soldiers are them: those who received them when they returned from the war.
David Coujard (film producer): My first memory of this movie is reading a dialogue script with all the promise of cinema that goes along with it. I felt a film anchored in a reality enhanced by the artifices of fiction.
How did you prepare it?
Mathieu Gerault: Sentinelle sud is a fiction, but I was inspired by real events to feed my theme and create a plot that made sense. There was a lot of documentation about all the wars, but especially about the French wars.
I spoke with many professionals, psychoanalysts and therapists, because the ones who speak best about the soldiers are them: those who received them when they returned from the war. They are fascinating because they are passionate about their profession – their words and anecdotes obviously fed into the film. But I didn’t want to meet a soldier because it’s often difficult for them to verbalize, so I needed to make a fiction.
At the same time thriller, psychological drama, thriller, social cinema…: Sentinel Sud is unclassifiable. Was it voluntary?
Mathieu Gerault: I never said to myself: I want my film to be like this or like that. My first ambition was to create a film that highlighted what I wanted to express about men. So there are echoes in my personal life, in the attraction I have to talk about fragility. But I’m also a huge movie fan, so I didn’t want to lock myself into one genre.
It was decided to mix an intimate trajectory integrating a small show and a thriller.
So I wanted to have this hero/antihero figure, so this character of the soldier allowed me to get close to weapons, do action scenes, take the viewer on a journey with spectacular scenes. But the heart of the film is the clandestine description of the horrors of men. What I wanted was to have a tense plot, to better highlight the characters.
David Coujard (film producer): Arriving at the project, then discussing with Mathieu, I immediately felt this ambition not to register the film in a genre in its own right. It was decided to mix an intimate trajectory integrating a bit of show and thriller, it is one of the true singularities of the film compared to what we are used to seeing in the cinema.
You talk about the figure of a hero, we think of Niels Schneider in the main role of Christian, but there is also Mounir played by Sofian Khammes, two actors who seem quite close to their character…
mg: I don’t know if they actually have a character close to his character. The truth is that they are great actors. Therefore, they knew how to find resonance in their character, through themes such as fraternity, suffering within a political organization… They found in themselves something to defend, and I think that is why they invested so much and were able to make this duo a bit like Macadam Cowboy.
There is also the character of Henri (Thomas Daloz) who is very important: he is almost dead at the beginning of the narrative, but it is also with Henri that I have put an essential spring in the plot. The first sentence we hear about him is “Henri, he’s gone” – that pretty much sums up the state of all these men who, even when they return to their families, will never be who they were before.
Lucie (India Hair) seems to be a milestone, the only image of a certain normality, this breath and this hope of Christian, can you tell us a little more about this character?
mg: The little story behind Lucie is that we were confined two days before the shoot. In August, India Hair informed us that she was pregnant. I really wanted to work with her, so I didn’t hesitate for a second to rewrite her character. It became a real gift for the film. Although Lucie is not so present on the screen, she wanted her to have a real place: the fact that she is pregnant further underlines the desire for normality, the projects and the hopes that Christian has through her.
The film begins with a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and ends with the reading of a letter: was there this desire to put writing at the center of the story?
mg: The writing is what makes the film very French in its approach, this love of language in all its forms. I wanted to bring something very literary to combine with the cinematic side. I shut Christian up and thought of Mounir’s writing as fickle, inventive in his way of verbalizing things. And on Henri’s side we are in something else, a poetry of our own.
After spending so much time with men on Sentinel South, I feel the need to focus on a female character.
What were your references in the making of the film?
mg: I was inspired by New Hollywood, the 60s and 70s of American cinema with Al Pacino’s debut with The Scarecrow, Dog Day Afternoon… There is another film that was very important: The Choice of Arms, by Alain Corneau, with Gérard Depardieu. . We find this tough side, with these very camped characters, this hero who comes out in defeat despite all the efforts he wants to make. I was very inspired by this vision of the film with a current plot in the service of the psychology of the characters.
Do you have another project underway?
mg: The interesting thing is that after spending so much time with men in Sentinel South, I feel the need to focus on a female character and not leave it, to try to do the same thing that we did with Christian, but this time with a woman.
Interview with Mathilde Fontaine on April 9, 2022, during the Reims Polar festival.