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Peter Dourountzis • Director of Rascal

"That difference between the safety of men and the safety of women in our society"


- French filmmaker Peter Dourountzis discusses his first feature film Rascal which was awarded a label from Cannes and is now competing in the 12th Les Arcs Film Festival

Peter Dourountzis  • Director of Rascal

Decorated with the 2020 Cannes Film Festival’s Official Selection label and in competition this week at the 12th Les Arcs Film Festival (online), Rascal [+see also:
film review
interview: Peter Dourountzis
film profile
marks Peter Dourountzis’ feature film debut.

Cineuropa: Rascal was a long time in the making. What drew you to this story revolving around a serial killer?
Peter Dourountzis
: I lived in Paris in the 1990s, where at least three serial killers were on the rampage. I went on to study film, and later decided to investigate the matter further by putting myself forward for Paris’s emergency SAMU Social service so as to get access to their database, given that two of the three killers dialled 115 every day in search of accommodation. I liked the SAMU Social, it was something of a vocation for me, and in the end I worked with them for 15 years. I left for the first time after 6 years, to make short films, and then I combined the two, working for them whilst directing my first feature film. I’d also been shocked by the fact that whilst, as a 16-year-old boy in Paris, you feel relatively safe at night-time, women are a lot more vulnerable. Lots of my female friends would tell me about how they’d been attacked or raped. Almost all of them had had a bad experience. That injustice upset me, that difference between the safety of men and the safety of women in our society.

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How did you decide upon the film’s particular angle?
I decided that if I went with the typical nice guy who isn’t what he seems, I’d be able to tackle lots of societal issues: racism, misogyny, police blunders, etc. If we put our knowledge of him being a bad person to one side and place ourselves in the same position as the secondary characters he meets, then he must be nice, and it’s up to the viewers to wrestle with it all: nothing has been decided and they must take up a moral position vis-à-vis these issues, and notably the question of empathy. The lack of a police investigation also allowed us to include shots of everyday life in the style of Klapisch, or Kechiche, or like those we see in La Haine, following the wanderings of secondary characters who are part and parcel of our society but whom French cinema isn’t usually all that interested in.

Was the decision to keep the violence off-camera important to you?
Yes. We follow the main character, it’s his story, but we have our own view on things, because there’s one major difference between him and us: he doesn’t feel empathy. We didn’t want to fall into the trap of ambushing the viewer with horrific scenes, either. I omitted them, but I didn’t want his true nature to come as a surprise, so every 15 minutes we remind the audience that this character is strange, bizarre, unpleasant and unhealthy, to say the least, until the time when, towards the end of the first half of the film, it becomes clear that he’s already killed someone.

I worked off the basis that if I’m going to film an attack, all the time that I’m filming and while I’m by the victim’s side, nothing serious can be allowed to happen to them. We’re always on the side of the victim, we feel what they feel, we stand firmly alongside them. That said, when I’m not filming, there’s a chance that something very serious might happen. Like in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer by John McNaughton: we feel a sense of unease beforehand and we arrive on the scene afterwards - we don’t see any violence, but we do see the result. I didn’t want to draw inspiration from slasher films or make a Hitchcock, De Palma or Scorsese-style murder movie, because there is a temptation, with a first film, to poach from the masters. We felt it better to stick to a simpler concept: my camera was like a shield, offering protection from the blows and bad intentions of the main character.

Were you aware that you were operating on a knife edge, with this manipulative pervert whose reasons for crossing the line and committing a crime aren’t all that easy to decipher?
Djé is a bit like Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger, or one of Dostoevsky’s characters. He advances without any real ambition, he doesn’t really understand social codes, but he knows how to hide. He’s an empty shell who acquires colour through the film’s secondary characters: if he frightens you, he’ll be frightening, if you find him seductive, he’ll seduce you. It’s a very strange, undefinable thing and I was careful not to offer any answers or hypotheses because I don’t know anything about it. But it disturbed me long enough for the project to remain on the backburner for several years, because we’re always suspected of harbouring a fascination for the character we’re following. But with film, it’s all a question of viewpoint; it’s not so much about the subject-matter we choose, but how we show it.

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(Translated from French)

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