When a must-see foreign film like A Bag of Marbles is released, all of us on the East End surely wish that the Sag Harbor Cinema had reopened already, because it would be the ideal venue. I hope it will be booked either in Southampton or East Hampton, but at least beginning Friday it can be seen in New York City at The Landmark at 57 West (as well as the Royal Theater in Los Angeles and Westpark Theater in Irvine, California) before it expands to theaters nationwide in April.
Deftly directed by French-Canadian veteran Christian Duguay and starring the internationally known actor and recording artist Patrick Bruel and remarkable kid actors Dorian Le Clech and Batyste Fleurial Palmieri, it won the Audience Award at Jewish film festivals in Miami, Boston, San Diego and Philadelphia, and certainly would be very popular here.
The synopsis on the film’s website: “This adaptation of Joseph Joffo’s enduring memoir tells the story of the Nazi occupation through the eyes of the two young Jewish boys. Paris, 1941: Joseph [Le Clech] and Maurice [Palmieri] are the sons of Roman [Bruel], the local barber [and his equally gutsy wife, Anna, nicely played by Elsa Zylberstein]. At ages 10 and 12, the boys have so little understanding of the persecution of Jews that Joseph thinks nothing of swapping his yellow star for a bag of marbles. Despite their naiveté, Roman knows that their best chance to escape the Nazi roundup is to flee on their own to Vichy, France, where their older brothers Albert [Ilian Bergala] and Henri [César Domboy] have found safe haven. Always one false move from tragedy, these tenacious children survive on courage, ingenuity, and more than a bit of cunning as they make their precarious way through France, hoping to reunite with their family. More than anything, it’s their brotherly bond that gets them through their ordeals.”
Watch the trailer:
The movie, which will transport you back into a troubled time, is tense, brutal and heartbreaking but full of warmth, hope and humanity, and you will be captivated by Jojo and the other five members of the Joffo family—and the actors who play them. Last week I had this conversation with Duguay and Bruel, who are—with good reason—passionate about their movie.
Danny Peary: Christian, in the press notes it says that the producers from Quad were interested in your directing A Bag of Marbles because of Jappeloup . There’s history in that film about the show horse and rider that won an Olympic Gold Medal in 1988, but why weren’t they more interested in you for your acclaimed TV projects that were set during World War II—Hitler: The Rise of Evil  and Pope Paul XII ?
Christian Duguay: A good question. I think it was because Jappeloup is a movie, a French movie. Quite a few years back I directed theatrical films, up to Screamers  and The Assignment . But I got bored with making action movies so I did television and that was more inspiring—Joan of Arc , Hitler, Human Trafficking , Coco Chanel , Pope Paul XII—and that’s where I found my lane.
I liked making films set in the past and that have authenticity. My return to movie theaters was through Jappeloup. It showed I could make a film in which the French audience can recognize its roots, and that I had a North American way of presenting images. Joseph Joffo and the producers liked that movie and the studio was very pleased with me because I’d actually made two successful movies, Jappeloup and Belle et Sébastien, L’aventure Continue , and was what you’d call “a bankable director.” So they asked me if I wanted to do an adaptation of Joseph’s book.
DP: I knew of Joseph Joffo’s 1973 memoir because of the first French movie adaptation a couple of years later, but I’ve never read it and you, who lives in Quebec, hadn’t read it at the time you were asked to direct. But it’s very popular in France. Even the boys who play Jojo and Maurice have read it.
CD: It’s very popular in France and throughout Europe. It was sold to twenty other countries.
DP: Patrick, did you also read the book when you were young?
Patrick Bruel: When I was 13 years old my mother came to me with the book, put it in front of me and said, “You’ve got to read this.” So I read it and saw the movie that was released at approximately the same time.
DP: Were you surprised by the story of the Occupation or had you learned about it in school?
PB: No, I knew that story. In my family, we knew what had happened during the Occupation. But I was surprised, of course, by what happened to those kids, Joseph and Maurice, and how lucky they were to survive, and how strong their family was and how strong their father was to help them escape. I was very touched by the book and movie but I had the point of view of a kid. In 1975, 30 years after it happened, it was a subject that was still very warm and we were still talking about it very strongly.
Today, memory of what happened to the Jews during the Occupation isn’t as strong. It is more than 70 years since it happened and a lot of people don’t know about it. It’s interesting for me today to talk to the young generation and explain what happened through the prism of the kids to keep the memory high. Last year I was at COLCOA, the French Film Festival in Los Angeles, and presented the movie. Every morning at ten o’clock I did a Q&A with 500 students from local schools. It was amazing that at least 60–70% of them didn’t know about what happened and asked me if it was a true story!
We made this movie because there are kids in America and everywhere else who don’t know what happened during the war. A Bag Full of Marbles is a movie but it is also memory and that is important.
CD: In his book, Joseph Joffo narrates his own story. It’s written from the perspective of a 40-year-old, his memory of what happened 30 years before. I wanted to take a different path and have the film’s narration be the point of view of Jojo when he was a kid. That’s why we bookend the movie with the young Jojo’s voiceover. The film starts with Jojo coming back to Paris after the end of the war and looking back on the time since he was last there, and that seems like a lifetime. I presented this idea to Joseph, and he liked that I wanted to present the film through the kid’s point of view while was staying true to the book. He liked the patriarchal angle that I wanted to build on. He did write about his father in the book, but I wanted him to talk to me more about him.
DP: Even in the long stretches when Roman isn’t on screen we feel his presence in the boys, particularly Jojo. Were you drawn to this story of Jojo and his father because it was history and that was something you were obsessed with since school?
CD: I was in a generation that read a lot of books but actually I discovered history by making films about history. I got sucked into it. When I did Jean of Arc and Hitler, I read everything about them. It was essential for me to immerse myself in my subjects and when I found certain things about them, it was my call to duty to tell them. That’s the angle we all took making this movie. It was our call of duty.
DP: In addition to reading historical books on your subjects, did you watch movies about them? For instance the Carl Dreyer’s silent French film and Victor Fleming’s film with Ingrid Bergman and Otto Preminger’s film with Jean Seberg movies on Joan of Arc? And for A Bag of Marbles, did you watch Jacques Doillon’s 1975 adaptation? And such films as Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants and Claude Miller’s Un Secret, starring Patrick?
CD: I saw them all. Of course. And Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. But Joseph Joffo’s book was my main source. The last thing I did before going to bed every night was to read the chapter that corresponded to what we’d shoot the next day. There was a lot to learn from the book.
DP: Patrick used the word “lucky” in reference to how the two boys survived during the Occupation and I relate because both my mother and grandfather were able to get passports to leave Europe in time because of pure luck. The boys escape capture and death several times due to the help of others, including priests. In fact, they could be arrested on the train leaving Paris, just a few minutes into the movie.
CD: Yes, on all the paths they take to survive, there is luck. On the train, they happen to sit across from a kindly priest and he tells them to sit beside him when the soldiers came through looking for Jews and he gives them apples to chew on so they don’t look nervous. Starting from Joseph being slapped by his father and his teaching both boys that they must never admit to anyone they are Jewish even if slapped—which we all said was the virtual key for them to survive—to all the meetings with people they have on their journeys, there is luck. They witness terrible things happen to others but they somehow make it through. Six million people passed away and a few of them survived, and people asked, “Is there a God? Is there not a God? Why was I one of the few who survived?” Those who survived said “I have a duty to tell my story.” Joseph wrote a book.
PB: Steven Spielberg did a very, very good job with Schindler’s List. But he did an even better job later interviewing all the survivors.
DP: In Un Secret, you played another Jewish father.
PB: My approach was different.
DP: And the man himself is different. The secret he keeps even from his family is that he is Jewish.
PB: Yes, he is different because he has a problem with Jewish identity. He is deeply Jewish but he doesn’t want to accept the pressure of being Jewish. That would put his family in danger, as his family is in this movie because they are known to be Jewish.
DP: It’s beyond difficult to deny one’s religion, which is why Roman must force himself to slap Jojo, to make him see how serious it is for all Jews in Occupied France, that it’s life and death. That scene comes early in the movie, before Joseph and Maurice embark on their journey.
CD: Yet it is the climax of the film. Roman gives Jojo the key to survival through the years of the Occupation, which is to deny he is a Jew. It’s a reality check that Jojo gets within 10 seconds. Within 10 seconds, there is an aggressive gesture by the father that totally disorients both kids and then the father holds him and says, “That’s the only way you will survive, you have to understand that.” In just those few seconds there is the most intense emotional arc that you can ever achieve in a scene.
PB: That is probably the biggest love scene I have seen in my life. Really.
CD: And it’s true. It’s what Joseph lived. It’s in his book.
PB: That’s right. It’s such an interesting story because it is true. If it weren’t true, we’d say, “Come on, that couldn’t happen.” Roman was a total visionary. He slapped his kid, knowing his kid would be slapped by others to force him to confess he is Jewish. Roman understands this because he had to leave Russia because of the pogroms, and he knows his family must leave Paris before it was too late.
CD: His own father told him so well why they had to flee. Roman didn’t live through the pogroms, but his father transmitted the keys to surviving something similar to Roman, as well as the strength and wisdom to be able to communicate it to his own kids.
DP: Patrick, I think that your biggest record, “Qui a la Droit,” from 1991, resonates with this movie and with what we’re talking about. It is sung by a man who has found life to be difficult and looks back to when he was a boy and his parents did not tell him the truth about the difficult world. There is a line about how his mother didn’t think he was old enough to understand serious things. Because of the harsh times, Jojo and Maurice’s parents, Roman and Anna, wisely do tell the kids the truth because they must grow up quickly in order to survive.
PB: Of course that song is not the favorite song of my own father, but he finally accepted it. Roman is the father everyone wants to have, especially those who had problems with their fathers in the past or had fathers who weren’t always present. When life asked me to be a father I did my best with my children, who had no real mother present. It was not so complicated for me to get into this character, Roman, because he is so close to me.
DP: Christian, I wonder if there was any levity on the set. Did you make sure there was some laughing?
CD: First, I made sure Dorian and Batyste understood the story well. Once they understood the back story and what their characters were going to do, I told them to put that behind them and that we’d work on every scene as it came up. So they were living it and playing it. But we’d say, “Cut!” and they’d ask for juice and go off and play happily. There was something tricky about how we played that slap scene. Afterward, Joseph lifts his eyes and looks at Maurice, who says without being asked, “I’m not a Jew.” And everybody started laughing. It’s a fine line but we realized that’s what we needed to take off the pressure.
PB: The most important scenes of the movie for me, including the slap scene, were done in November 2015, between 16 and 22nd, the 16th being three days after the attacks in Paris at the Bataclan, the restaurants, and outside the Stade de France [in the northern suburb, St. Dennis]. I gave my tickets to the soccer game at the stadium to my ex-wife and kids, so they were in the stadium. That night I was in Italy watching the football match. And then everything started in Paris.
We had friends in the Bataclan who died, there were explosions outside the stadium. I was petrified and took a morning flight back to Paris. Then I talked to my two sons very clearly. I said that I’d try to explain to them what was impossible to explain. I said, “It could happen again. If anybody comes into your classroom, if anybody comes with a gun, if anyone asks you questions, you must never say your name—one has the same name as me and everyone in my country knows I’m Jewish—and never say you’re Jewish, and you hide yourself.” That was on November 14. On November 15, I’m back in Prague filming a scene set in 1942 with the two boys and Roman says to them, “You never say you’re name, you never say you’re Jewish, and you hide yourself.”
As an actor, it was a very emotional moment and as a human being one of the strongest moments of my life. So, again, it wasn’t complicated to get into my character and the situation. Those two kids were like my kids and even have the same ages and though the situation isn’t the same it isn’t totally different. The story comes around again. What is happening in Europe now is what happened in Europe after the financial crisis of 1929.
We had a financial crisis in 2008, and the consequences are exactly the same, especially in Austria, Holland, Belgium, and almost in France, where we weren’t far from electing Marine le Pen—thank God, we aren’t there, but you never know. The right is strong all over Europe and all over the world—and of course what happened in America is another signal.
DP: Early in the film, the parents send the boys off by themselves. But later in the film, the parents must drive off and leave them behind, and later in another tremendously emotional scene, Roman again leaves his kids.
PB: When Roman takes his boys to the Catholic camp, I believe he thinks it could be the last time he sees them. But he’s trying his best to save them.
DP: What would Roman say to Anna when they’re alone?
CD: When they drive off in the car and leave their kids, I think there will be absolute silence. Maybe they’d hold hands but not say anything.
PB: It’s interesting that you’d ask about that because something happened that day that wasn’t expected. I took a 6 a.m. flight from Paris that morning so I’d be in Prague for a 9 a.m. shoot. It was really cold and we were scheduled to do that scene in two parts, shooting one part in the morning and the other in the afternoon. In the morning we shot where I leave the kids. In the afternoon we planned to shoot Roman crying in the car afterward, as it was written. In the morning: Roman says goodbye to his sons and I start to feel a lot of emotion swelling up inside me. And I start to cry. Roman wasn’t supposed to do that until he’s in the car. Any other director would have yelled, “Cut!,’ but Christian kept shooting, shooting, shooting on me as I cried. Finally I heard him whisper, “Get out of the frame. Get out of the frame.” Now it’s 9:20 in the morning and he said…
CD: … “Your day’s over.” His reaction was so authentic that I said, “We don’t need the scene of Roman crying in the car anymore.”
DP: One reason that moment when Patrick cries is so powerful is that it is one of your many striking close-ups of faces in the film. You had the Steadicam in the right place when Patrick couldn’t control his emotions.
CD: I do all my own camerawork. It allows me to be a director; is not just that the Steadicam can move smoothly. If you’re sitting at the monitor, you’re hiding. The camera is extension of myself and lets me communicate with the actors. They know that when the camera comes in closer, it’s not me directing the camera to get closer but it is a moment when we suddenly are connected, when there is unison. I can dictate where the camera goes and it can dictate where I go, it goes two ways.
DP: Early in the movie, we see how important marbles are to kids, especially Jojo. He loses his bag of marbles but holds on to his favorite marble throughout his journeys. In regard to the title, I read one critic who stated that the bag of marbles Jojo once owned is meant to represent the innocent period of time that was over. But as I watched the movie and saw Jojo being forced by circumstances into maturing well beyond his years, I came to the conclusion that the bag of marbles—or the one marble he holds on to—represents the little boy inside Jojo that he doesn’t want to lose. That marble, to me, is a symbol of childhood.
CD: That makes sense, but I think it represents many things. To me that marble is like a planet and the bag of marbles is the universe. It’s all lined up with the patriarchal figure. Roman. That one marble is sort of the solar figure of Jojo’s father. That’s why he holds on to it when they are apart.
DP: It is a great, emotional moment when you show a photo on screen of Joseph and Maurice today. It is amazing and gratifying that they are still alive. How was it for you that you could collaborate with Joseph, the person whose 75-year-old story you were filming?
CD: The real blessing was having Joseph watch the movie and having him cry at the end.
PB: When I started making A Bag of Marbles, my one goal was to be the father that Joseph Joffo wanted to have on the screen, to do justice to his legacy. At the first screening in Paris, he sat in front of me. At the end he was in tears and he took me in his arms and said, “You’ve brought back my father.” We did our best. That is what we had in mind.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.