Sentinelle sud with Niels Schneider: his first film, his interviews with psychologists… The…

Currently in cinemas, Sentinelle sud is Mathieu Gérault’s very first production. Between thriller and psychological drama, the film accurately and robustly 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 more of a feeling. I took this subject as a state, the fact that one can have war in oneself, that life can be a fight. To illustrate this, the figure of the soldier came to me quite quickly for all the thickness there is from returning from war.

It is when we encounter a test or a difficulty that we deconstruct everything we have gone through and that we often return to childhood. And that allowed me to approach wounds in all their forms: physical for Mounir, much more underground for Christian, and then the gesture of refuge for Henri. It was important for me to approach the sensitivity of men in this way.

I wanted to address this theme to return to the emotional quest of a child, to decipher these broken personalities, faced with death, who return both weakened and grown by this very isolating experience. They are obviously very interesting characters to deal with.

Sentinelle sud is a first film [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 subject by taking the viewer where he does not expect to go. I wanted to create several tones while 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 choices? Where does this need to love and be loved come from?

I spoke with many professionals, psychoanalysts and therapists, because those who speak best about soldiers are them: those who received them on their return from the war.

David Coujard (film producer): My first memory with this film is reading a dialogue script with all the promise of cinema that goes with the subject. I felt a film anchored in a reality highlighted by the artifices of fiction.

Sentinelle sud with niels schneider: his first film, his interviews with psychologists... The...

How did you prepare it?

Mathieu Gerault: Sentinel south is a fiction, but I was inspired by real facts to feed my point and create a plot that made sense. There was a lot of documentation on all the wars, but especially the French wars.

I spoke with many professionals, psychoanalysts and therapists, because those who speak best about soldiers are them: those who received them on their return from the war. They are fascinating because they are passionate about their profession: their words and their anecdotes obviously fueled the film. But I didn’t want to meet a soldier because they often find it difficult to verbalize, then I needed to make a fiction.

Simultaneously thriller, psychological drama, thriller, social film…: 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 highlighting what I wanted to express about men. So there are echoes in my personal life, on the attraction I have for talking about fragility. But I’m also a huge movie fan, so I didn’t want to lock myself into one genre.

There was the bet to mix an intimate trajectory while integrating a little show and thriller.

So I wanted to have this figure of hero/anti-hero, then this character of the soldier allowed me to approach weapons, to do action scenes, to take the viewer on a journey with spectacular scenes. But the heart of the film is the underground description of the horrors of men. What I wanted was to have a tense plot, in order to better bring out the characters.

David Coujard (film producer): Arriving on the project, then discussing with Mathieu, I immediately felt this ambition not to register the film in a genre in its own right. There was the bet to mix an intimate trajectory while integrating a little show and thriller, it is one of the real singularities of the film compared to what we are used to seeing in the cinema.

Sentinelle sud with niels schneider: his first film, his interviews with psychologists... The...

You speak of the figure of a hero, we think of Niels Schneider in the title role of Christian, but there is also Mounir played by Sofian Khammestwo actors who seem quite close to their character…

MG: I don’t know if they are actually close in character to their character. What is certain is that they are great actors. They were therefore able to find resonance in their character, through subjects such as those of fraternity, suffering within a political organization… They found in themselves something to defend, and I think it is for that they invested so much and were able to create this duo a little tarmac cowboy.

There is also the character of Henri (Thomas Daloz) which is very important: he is almost dead at the beginning of the narration, but it is also with Henri that I have placed an essential spring of the plot. The first sentence we hear about him is “Henri, he’s not there anymore”: that sums up well the state of all these men who, even when they return to their families, will never again be the ones they were before.

Sentinelle sud with niels schneider: his first film, his interviews with psychologists... The...

Lucie (India Hair) seems to be a landmark, the only image of a certain normality, this breath and this hope for 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 shooting. In the month of August, Indian Hair told us she was pregnant. I had a real desire to work with her, so I didn’t hesitate for a second to rewrite her character. It became a real gift for the film. Even if Lucie is not that present on screen, I wanted her to have a real place: the fact that she is pregnant underlines even more the desire for normality, the projects and the hopes that Christian through it.

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 it with the cinematographic side. I made Christian a quiet person and thought of Mounir in writing as someone voluble, inventive in his way of verbalizing things. And on Henri’s side we are on to something else, a poetry of his own.

After spending so much time with men in Sentinel South, I feel the need to focus on a female character.

What were your references in the making of the film?

MG: I drew my inspiration from New Hollywood, the 60s and 70s of American cinema with the beginnings ofAl Pacino with The Scarecrow, A dog’s afternoon…There is another film that was very important: The choice of weaponsofAlain Corneauwith Gérard Depardieu. We find this harsh side, with these very camped characters, this hero who goes to the rout despite all the efforts he wishes to make. I drew a lot of inspiration from this film vision with a present plot to serve the psychology of the characters.

Sentinelle sud with niels schneider: his first film, his interviews with psychologists... The...

Do you have another project in progress?

MG: What’s interesting 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 as we did for Christian, but this time with a woman.

Interview by Mathilde Fontaine on April 9, 2022, during the Reims Polar festival.

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