It’s unlikely that anyone who pays attention to contemporary short films will be unfamiliar with our selection this week on the Criterion Channel, which took the film-festival circuit by storm last year, garnering dozens of awards and an Oscar nomination. While the tastes of programmers, audiences, and the Academy don’t always perfectly align, Jérémy Comte’s Fauve received practically unanimous acclaim—and rightfully so. Shot in Quebec, the film packs the emotional journey of a feature film into its sixteen-minute running time, following two young boys as they roam the countryside unsupervised and engage in increasingly dangerous games of bravado and macho one-upmanship. But to tell you much more about what happens in it would detract from the white-knuckle experience of watching it for the first time. On the occasion of the film coming to the Criterion Channel, where it’s paired with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s similarly heart-stopping The Wages of Fear, I spoke with Jérémy about the production and reception of the film and what he set out to explore in it.
I honestly think I had one of the most extreme responses I’ve ever had to a short film while watching Fauve. I was literally covering my eyes and gasping in horror. Can you talk a little about what you wanted to achieve and how the idea came to you?
The inspiration came from nightmares I had as a little boy. I was imagining myself sinking in quicksand and experiencing a strong visceral, claustrophobic reaction. Also, growing up in the countryside, I was surrounded by nature, and I used to take long walks in the woods with my best friend, and we loved to pull pranks on each other. I guess it’s a combination of those two elements that created Fauve, my childhood faded into a visceral dream putting toxic masculinity forward.
Tell us about casting the two leads, both of whom are nonprofessional actors. How did you approach working with them, and how did that affect the development of the story and the script?
I started auditioning young actors in Montreal, but I quickly realized it wouldn’t work. I wanted kids who were used to playing outdoors, with a rough-around-the-edges kind of energy. So we reached out to many schools around the area where we were shooting and auditioned more than seventy boys in total. Félix [Grenier] and Alexandre [Perreault] had both a natural charisma and a transparency that struck me. When we put them together, a chemistry quickly formed. I did a lot of rehearsals before shooting, where we would explore the locations freely. I improvised with them, shooting some scenes with my iPhone and trying stuff out. I rewrote the story like that, staying close to what the boys would do naturally in the locations. I didn’t give them a script; I told them the lines and we kept repeating them so they could memorize them. They love to tell jokes to each other constantly, so on the shoot, I would do a take with them joking and then we’d do the actual script. In this way, they carried that same energy over into the written dialogue. In the end, we had so much fun and I became a child with them.
Tell us about the stunning cinematography, which is a mix of handheld and fixed camera.
Olivier Gossot, my DP, worked very closely with me to find the right aesthetic. We’ve been collaborating for eight years, I think, mostly on commercials. We shot on an Alexa Mini with vintage Super Speed Zeiss lenses. In the beginning I used a light handheld camera on a gimbal, which was kept low to bring in spectators as if they were children themselves. Then when the film hits a point of no return, it switches to crane movements and a locked-off tripod to accentuate a feeling of claustrophobia. It was important for me that the image felt dusty and gritty, almost like the lens itself was dirty, because I wanted to reflect a naïve and cruel childhood.
How did you actually shoot the terrifying sequences with quicksand and cement? I heard a rumor you used porridge?!
It is porridge! The special effects supervisor dug a hole that was chest-deep for Alexandre, reinforcing the bottom and side walls with a wood structure, and then filling it with a porridge mixed with some local dirt. Alexandre had to fake going deeper by bending his knees, so really the quicksand was all an illusion—he couldn’t go too deep. Originally, we also wanted to put a hydraulic platform that would allow the actor to sink at a controlled speed, but later we realized that the oatmeal was thick enough for our desired effect. We had a stunt coordinator and a medic helping us to constantly ensure his safety and well-being. The real problem was that it was cold inside the hole, so we took Alexandre’s temperature after every take, and we had to stop at one point because he was getting too cold.
You also edited the film. Does your knowledge that you’ll be doing the editing bring anything to the production process? And what was your approach to using editing to ratchet up the tension?
When I was shooting, I didn’t plan any more shots for safety or alternate versions. I really edited the film in my head prior to the shoot so it was a very quick process to edit it. I feel this requires a lot more work and reflection in preproduction, but when everything becomes clear, it makes the process a lot easier. To find the right rhythm to build the tension in the quicksand scene was the most difficult. I had to get some distance from it and ask a lot of outside opinions. When I do that I’m looking mainly for emotional responses, not always solutions. I’m trying to find out how the audience felt at a particular moment and not necessarily what they would do to make it better. I’m always looking for recurrent notes from different people. That helped me to tighten the quicksand scene a lot and build the tension better, so no frames were wasted.
How did you use music to accentuate that tension?
Brian D’Oliveira did an amazing composition on Fauve. I had the pleasure to assist on the recording, in his wonderful studio full of instruments. The music is a portal into the protagonist’s state of mind, representing his distress and anxiety. Tyler’s thoughts are racing in all directions as they fluctuate in intensity. It’s as if he’s trapped in this infinite pattern of being completely overwhelmed, then being able to calm himself for a second before his thoughts spin out of control again. We started by creating a repetitive loop on the computer, gradually moving the tempo up and down to accentuate that shifting intensity. Because the film is very minimalist, I wanted to use as few instruments as possible. I was very inspired by Colin Stetson’s work. We only used three different types of clarinets to bring depth and texture, and Brian played them all live with us. It was a very organic approach to creating the soundtrack.
Can you explain the significance of the film’s title?
It was hard to translate into English, honestly, because the word fauve has multiple meanings in French. First off, it means a wildcat or beast, which I found to be appropriate considering the two boys and the tone of the film. In French, we can even call kids “fauve” when they are pranksters. I wanted an almost aggressive and primitive-sounding word. Second, it also means a specific color, close to a burnt orange. That color ties together two strong symbols in the film. And finally, the last scene of the film was pretty much inspired by the art movement Fauvism and its vivid depictions of the countryside.
What is your next project?
At the moment, I’m cowriting my first feature, with a Ghanaian writer, Will Niava. We just finished the first draft. I can’t give you a clear synopsis, but I can say that it’s a coming-of-age story that follows the parallel stories of two boys, one from Ghana and the other one from Quebec. It will have the same tone and energy as Fauve.