French Star Gilles Lellouche on Directing Epic ‘Beating Hearts,’ Studiocanal’s Biggest Ever French-Language Movie (EXCLUSIVE)

Already one of France’s most beloved and bankable actors (“The Stronghold”), Gilles Lellouche is about to graduate as a big-shot filmmaker five years after delivering his sophomore outing, “Sink or Swim,” a B.O. hit which lured more than four million moviegoers (over $35 million) in theaters.

His next movie, “Beating Hearts” (“L’amour Ouf”), budgeted in the €30 million range, is epic in many ways. And not just because of its breadth and running time exceeding three hours. A crime romance loosely based on Neville Thompson’s 1997 novel “Jackie Loves Johnser OK,” the movie is an emotional rollercoaster spanning over 15 years in the lives of star-crossed lovers. It took Lellouche over a decade to write (alongside Audrey Diwan and Ahmed Hamidi) and four months to shoot with a cast mixing rising and famous actors (Mallory Wanecque, Malik Frikah, Adele Exarchopoulos, Francois Civil), a pulsating soundtrack of cult 1980s and 1990s songs (from The Cure, Billy Idol, Depeche Mode), topnotch key crew and dream-like musical interludes created by (La) Horde.

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“Beating Hearts” marks Studiocanal’s biggest investment in a French-language movie to date and reteams Lellouche with the banner following “Sink or Swim,” which scored its largest ever box office gross for a local film in France in 2018.

The anticipation for “Beating Hearts” has been running high among international distributors who flocked to Studiocanal’s private promo presentation at the Royal Monceau Hotel during the Unifrance Rendez-Vous, which was attended by Lellouche, producers Hugo Selignac at Chi-Fou-Mi, a Mediawan company, and Alain Attal at Trésor Films, and key cast members Exarchopoulos (“The Stronghold”), Civil (“The Three Musketeers”), Wanecque (“The Worst Ones”) and Frikah (“Apaches”).

Speaking to Variety ahead of the Unifrance Rendez-Vous showcase, Lellouche said he “fell in love with this story” about 15 years ago and started writing a script, but decided to put it aside, feeling that he didn’t have the shoulders to handle such an ambitious project as his second film, having only co-directed “Narco” in 2003.

“After ‘Sink or Swim,’ which miraculously turned out to be so successful, it would have been stupid of me to not take this leap and make this film that I had imagined for so many years,” says Lellouche. More than half of the adaptation is invented. “When you think about something for 15 years, you have the time to fantasize, transform and even reinvent things – I realized when I read the novel again that the film had its own life in my head and that scenes were born there, and not in the book,” says Lellouche.

Lellouche, who has starred in some of France’s most popular films in recent history including Cedric Jimenez’s “November” and “Stronghold,” as well as Guillaume Canet’s “Little White Lies” and “Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom,” wanted to make a film about love.

“Filial love, friendship love, irrational love, imaginary love, and love in the craziest ways, such as erotomania and jealousy – these are themes that appeal to me, woven together with adolescence, with everything that it stirs, because everything is so intense, it can be exhilarating and extremely violent,” says Lellouche.

In “Beating Hearts,” Clotaire, a local rebellious teenager raised in a tough neighborhood, and his schoolmate, Jackie, see their powerful bond tested when Clotaire gets embroiled in gang violence and ends up in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Years later, he comes out of prison committed to reclaiming her heart, even though she has moved on.

Lellouche also proceeded to a wide open casting call and “auditioned many, many teenagers” for the parts of Clotaire and Jackie. “I discovered (Wanecque) before seeing ‘The Worst Ones’ and that film came out I thought I had made the right decision. And (Frikah) is a natural-born actor who was world champion of hip hop when he was 10, he’s got such talent and the work ethic of professional athletes.” “When I put them together to do four or five scenes, it was explosive, like an obvious pairing,” he reminisced.

Lellouche says he doesn’t “subscribe to the idea that our first love has to be the only one but I do think that on our deathbed, there’s probably the face of one person that comes to mind. And this film is like a metaphor of this unconditional love.”

Having tackled comedies in his first two films, the actor-turned-director also wished to make a movie that melded different genres. “There’s lots of romance, violence – because every great love story hurts – but also some thriller, music and humor.”

But “Beating Hearts” isn’t a French take on “The Notebook,” says Lellouche. “Aside from love, the film is talking about class struggle, about crime gangs, about social determinism.” Clotaire is “a kid who wants to make it, rise above his class, who wants to take his revenge; he’s lured by the prospect of easy money and will be faced with many choices – a lot of themes will resonate today,” says Lellouche.

Yet, “Beating Hearts” begins in the 1980s, an era that Lellouche was drawn to revisit. “It’s one of the aspects that made me interested in the book. It’s like a ‘Madeleine de Proust’ because it transported me back in time and brought out memories of my teenage years, my youth.”

Lellouche worked closely with the costume and production designers who also grew up in the 1980s and “brought their own memories, cultural references that were all pretty different.”

“It was extremely joyful. We tried to find the real clothes and objects of that time, and even if period movies are pricey and we didn’t have the same budget than American productions, we tried to re-create those years as authentically and meticulously as possible,” says Lellouche, adding that the 80s saw an “explosion of so many different styles.”

“Beating Hearts” also includes three vibrant musical interludes created by (La) Horde, a pioneering French dance collective created by Marine Brutti, Jonathan Debrouwer and Arthur Harel, who notably choreographed Madonna: The Celebration Tour and previously worked with Sam Smith.

“I was very lucky to be in the company of (La) Horde,’ I’m crazy about their work and they created choreographies that express through dances the beating of a heart, this feeling you have when you fall in love for the first time, when you close your eyes and there’s a music that comes to your head and brings you out of reality,” he says.

Besides Studiocanal, “Beating Hearts” reunites Lellouche with Selignac and Attal, who had produced his previous movies. “They blinded trusted me when I made ‘Sink or Swim’ even though I hadn’t directed a movie in 13 years, and with this film, they were crazy enough to believe in me and this wild project from day one, when I pitched them the three-hour movie shot by shot, leaving them with tears in their eyes; I think a lot of producers would have told me I was being unreasonable right there.”

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