Mathieu Roussel (Gilles Lelouche) enjoys drama, but not as much as the one he finds himself in in “Kompromat,” as the mild-mannered artistic director dispatched to spread French culture in Irkutsk, Russia ends up on the wrong end of guns drawn by the local authorities. His wife Julia (Larisa Kalpokaite) is nowhere to be seen and their daughter Rose has to watch in horror as her father is hauled off, with the only thing kicking around in his mind as a possible reason for his arrest was a recent ballet he staged where the scene of two men kissing caused a mild stir among the crowd and a few walkouts. As a champion of the arts, he likes to live on the edge, but in his life away from the stage, the firearms are a little much.
While writer/director Jerome Salle delights in the unexpected, what has become expected of the filmmaker behind such films as “Anthony Zimmer” and “Largo Winch” with heroes uncertain of where they are or what they’ve done is to start out in such a difficult spot and watch as his leads puzzle their way out of it. He and co-writer Caryl Ferey have created a particularly flummoxing web of intrigue for Mathieu to pull himself out of once he’s incarcerated in a Siberian prison where it feels even colder inside than out after being accused of child abuse. When he is assigned a lawyer that doesn’t speak French and urges him to take a plea deal, Mathieu is reminded there might be one sympathetic translator (Joanna Kulig) still around who could help, knowing each other from the theater, and together, the two have more to decode than just language when Mathieu tries to get to the bottom of why he’s being pursued for crimes he didn’t commit in the first place.
These days, stories of such injustices emerging from the Eastern bloc are a part of the daily news, but “Kompromat” manages to feel prescient and timeless all at once as a globetrotting mystery in which the romantic notions that its characters hold about the world slowly slip away until they realize there’s still people in the world they can trust. Salle shows the same passion for staging stolen moments of intimacy between people on the run as the massive chase scenes he pulls off in the film with aplomb and “Kompromat” delivers a thinking person’s crowdpleaser. With the film now arriving in the U.S. and abroad, Salle spoke about how the seed was planted long ago for making a Russian-set thriller after doing publicity there for his previous films, reuniting with leading man Lelouche and putting him through the paces on a treacherous shoot in the dead of winter.
From what I understand, you’ve wanted to set a film in this region of the world for some time now. How did this grow out of that?
Yeah, I was thinking about telling a story about Russia and then I heard about this true story, which happened to a French guy in Siberia, and I knew about the the way people were trapped to compromise their reputation. Of course, I was not trying to make a full Russian movie and when I heard that this happened to a French person, I suddenly knew that there was a story to tell from a more Western point of view.
It’s so interesting to me that you keep returning to this question of identity in the “Largo Winch” films or in “Anthony Zimmer” where the person has to ask themselves who they are because of the situation that they’re in. At the risk of sounding like a dime-store psychologist, is there a reason you keep coming back to that idea?
You mean what is this huge trauma which happened in my childhood? [laughs] Honestly, I don’t know. I’m fascinated by that and fascinated by borders and by trying to understand different cultures. I’m always trying to tell stories to quite a wide audience, so I’m trying to shoot movies which aren’t boring, but try to talk about the world, so [there are] these two different levels in the story I’m telling. But apart from that, I don’t know and I’m not sure I want to know, in fact, what are my deep, deep motivations because maybe if I would really understand in the light, it’ll cut all my inspiration. And that would be terrible for me.
This film does seem to take on a deeper meaning in these times, which I know you couldn’t have entirely predicted as you were making it, whether it’s the invasion of Ukraine or the Brittney Griner situation. What was it like once you got back to the editing room and seeing how prescient this was?
I couldn’t feel any pressure. I felt sad. I felt sad because on this movie, we’ve been working with absolutely amazing Russian actors, and also amazing Ukrainian actors and we’ve been working all together on previous projects. I’d been shooting in Kiev — I had friends there. And I know the crew there, so I felt desperate for these people and you can see life is fragile and yes, they’re all going through a huge, massive nightmare.
Was the structure difficult to crack, figuring out the chronology of it?
It was pretty difficult because it’s a movie where you don’t have any action. You have tension. A huge part of the movie, you are with Gilles and he’s alone, he’s by himself lost in this country, so the challenge was really to be able to connect with him and to really have huge empathy for him to feel the nightmare he’s going through, and as a storyteller, as a director, that was my obsession. I knew that was the key to make the movie successful.
What sold you on him to carry this?
I’ve known Gilles a while. He had a small role when he was in my very first movie, so we’ve known each other a while and I was looking for an actor who was super, super French. Even for me as a French guy, I can say this is a real French guy. [laughs] It’s a movie about fish out of the water, so I wanted it to make so obvious and it’s funny because [for] Gilles I think it was his very first shoot out of France, so even as an actor, he was a kind of fish out of the water and I think it helped him. Apart from that, he is an amazing actor, which is the first quality you ask from an actor you’re going to cast.
You seem to have a lot of fun with language disparity at times in this. Was that an enjoyable part of this?
I love this kind of challenge. I’ve done it a few times, [such as] when I shot “Zulu” with Forest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom in South Africa. I mean, I’m pretty interested [in] different cultures, trying to understand them or connect them or to observe how difficult it can be sometimes to have people with different cultures or values so we can live together. That’s also why I think I fell in love with this story. Most of the movie’s in French, but it’s true that I had to direct actors in Russian, which is always a little bit tricky because I don’t speak a word of Russian, and it’s pretty fascinating.
What was it like to find locations for this? I understand since you couldn’t shoot in Russia for obvious reasons, Lithuania became a solid stand-in.
It was my first time in Lithuania when I went back to school. I would’ve loved to shoot in Russia, but of course it would not have been so [safe], because of the story we were telling, and we shot before the war in Ukraine. So we decided to shoot in Lithuania because you have have amazing film crews and also the landscape and even the architecture is pretty close to what’s actually in Siberia. When I started to write the script, I went to Russia a few times to promote my [previous] movie, so I knew Moscow pretty well, and I went to Siberia and to Yakutsk, which is the place where the real story happened, so I spent a while there to try to meet many people and that’s why I knew that it was possible to shoot in Lithuania.
It looked like you braved some pretty harsh weather. Were there challenging days on this?
It was not Florida, for sure. [laughs] I think it’s a huge mistake as a writer to have the idea to write a story which happens in Siberia during winter. That’s a rookie mistake. When you are writer/director, you’re supposed to try to write stories happening in wonderful, sunny places, so I make this mistake. When you write it, it’s okay. You are at your desk in your office, and it’s pretty warm and it’s pretty cool. And then at last you have to shoot it, so yes, it was a pretty tough one. Plus, it was Covid, which [made] all the shoots all over the world tough.
What’s it like to get to the finish line with it?
I always feel happy — and stressed. When you make a movie like this, I started writing it three or four years ago, and you want the audience to enjoy it, so it’s a mix of very different feelings. I must say I’m very proud that the movie is released in the U.S. and it’s a great adventure also for the movie now.
“Kompromat” opens on January 27th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Glendale and Columbus, Ohio at the Gateway Film Center. It is also available on VOD and digital.
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