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Michel Vinaver
© Lot
Bettencourt Boulevard ou une histoire de France. | Michel Vinaver
Conversation with Sabine Bossan

Sabine Bossan After September 11th you said you'd stop writing plays, then wham! - in 2014 your Bettencourt Boulevard ou une histoire de France is published. What triggered your desire to get involved in the theater again, or playwriting anyway?

Michel Vinaver The trigger was long in coming. It was a combination of circumstances. I was entirely of a mind not to get involved in playwriting again, yet I was very interested in and fascinated by what was known as the "Bettencourt Case" - for all sorts of reasons. It had to do with my involvement in playwriting up to then - i.e. the relationship between everyday life and politics, everything that's been discovered about the way some people live their lives in a bank vault in total secrecy from the rest of us; and also something that may be particular to my way of writing, which is not judging. In the Bettencourt Case I had the feeling that people were judging a lot, while I was more into observing and connecting things, but not judging.
An extraordinarily rich human landscape began to unfold at that point, of contrasting social classes, between the great and powerful of the world, their servants great and small, as well as the world, the economy and politics. A network of stories intertwining the same way I weave together the stories that I create and hear.
I read a great deal of newspapers during that time, cutting out and highlighting articles, filing them in boxes and archives, all the while thinking I'd never manage to tackle the material because it was so profuse and I wouldn't know where to start. That's how I began - moving toward the story yet feeling held back at the same time. The boxes full of archives remained untouched.

SB The strange thing is that people only knew of the story through journalists, then you took it up and created something totally different.

MV Mediapart, and in particular Edwy Plenel, are among the primary journalists to whom we owe the breaking of this story. I know Plenel, who would prod me from time to time, saying: "it's a story for you, what's holding you back?" In this case journalism played a fantastic role of scout and investigator. As it happens, Plenel told me: "We journalists feel rather alone on this job. We'd like to work together with artists, who have another way of looking at reality. It's important and interesting for that reality to be seen through different angles than ours." I must admit I was touched to hear something that sounded like a request. I'm really interested in the relationship between the journalistic narrative, which is unembellished and searching for the unvarnished truth, versus the path of a writer, who can let his imagination do the work, and above all allow a form to take shape. And form was the major issue for me with Bettencourt Boulevard. How to create a form that was accessible, one that was challenging and beautiful and funny and everything I love about the theater. One that had the virtues of entertainment, that was ebullient and left room for the comic element. Those were the kinds of questions I was asking myself. And how did it all get resolved? I guess it was through the image of a pebble. Looking closely at a small area of a pebble beach, one is struck by the very diverse, amazing landscape that can be seen from that precise standpoint of form. And I thought: "There are so many interwoven stories in this case, like a string of pebbles in the play." And the pebbles were also a kind of permission not to enter into a narrative where things unfold one after another, but rather through the contiguity of diverse elements. Not in chronological order.

SB That's what gives your play a very particular and lively rhythm. You clearly had a lot of fun writing the play. I hope so anyway. It seemed to flow well when I read it. The lines are witty and it's very fast. Have you ever thought of turning it into a novel?

MV No, never.

SB What is the story about for you? Apart from the pebbles, it's politics and private life, right?

MV The conjunction of those three different areas is exceptional, and at the core are three characters - a fascinating trio. Liliane and François-Marie, a phenomenal, larger-than-life love story outside the box, one in which the resources and the relationship between the man and woman involved were exceptional and inordinately large; and a third character, the daughter, who was in a relationship that allowed no possibility for an understanding between the two women. That's an absolutely captivating trio, and I'll come back to what I said at the beginning: I didn't judge, I just observed how the trio functioned and continued to do so through many never-ending twists and turns.

SB You talk about love - or a lack thereof - among the three main characters. Do you feel this was more a case of true love or a love of money?

MV Money was an essential component in the landscape, but it wasn't the motivating force in the love story between François-Marie and Liliane. I think that François-Marie had a formidable appetite for possessions and saw that it could be expressed without limit, and that on Liliane's side there were no constraints either because she found what she wanted in her ability to give and in allowing this man to go to his own furthest limits. Money was not the main issue.

SB I think that's also why your play is so pleasant to read, because otherwise you'd be constantly bumping up against money, power, etc., whereas here it comes through in a very different sort of dialogue.

MV There's another aspect that combines with what we said. It's the historical side, and it's no accident that the play's subtitle is « ou une histoire de France » ("or a history/story of France."). History itself was embodied in Françoise Bettencourt's children's great-grandparents, who were fascinating, colossal characters - two giants. Eugène Schueler, the son of an Alsatian baker who, as a young chemist, invented a hair dye for l'Oréal, and from that point became the man who created the world's largest personal hygiene and beauty product firm, while continuing his militant activism in the political arena. That activism was tied to the extreme right, running all the way to fascism before the war in 1940 and then what could be called radical collaboration, then anti-Semitism and racism, in short everything that in principle makes you want to turn away. But the man couldn't be reduced solely to that side, and he remained absolutely fascinating, even with his contradictions. And on the other side is a rabbi, who as it turns out was the grandfather of Françoise Bettencourt's husband. He was an exceptional figure in terms of morality and behavior, which led him to be the first French rabbi to be deported and gassed at Auschwitz. Two exceptional grandfathers or great-grandfathers, whom I introduced into the play, their words interwoven like those of Bush and Bin Laden in 11 septembre 2001. And when their words clash there's a big explosion.

SB Exactly. 17 characters! It's been ages since I've read a play by a contemporary playwright with so many characters. Could the delusions of grandeur be contagious?

MV There could have been a lot more characters. I left out major groups in the Bettencourt case including jurists, various professions such as lawyers, judges, notaries and policemen or anyone from the medical field. But you're right, nowadays it's certainly an obstacle, and akin to attempting the impossible in terms of getting a production when you've got 18 characters. I was lucky. Christian Schiaretti was in Paris after I'd written a quarter of the play and I asked him to come for a reading. After hearing it he said: "I'll take it," without knowing what came next.

SB I was just going to ask you if you had given the play to Christian Schiaretti for him to stage or if he was the one who had approached you.
People are clearly delighted to know that
Bettencourt Boulevard exists and that Christian Schiaretti is going to stage it. Reading your play, it's obvious that you enjoyed yourself, and so do we, but were there any issues with any of the 17 characters?

MV Yes. It was after the narrator emerged that everything fell into place.

SB You chose to give the characters their real names. Hasn't that been an issue?

MV From the very beginning I was convinced that I had no choice, given the high-profile nature of the case. Trying to disguise them with fictional names wouldn't have been possible because it would have led to games like 'Who's that one there?' It had to be their real names, knowing that it's a work of the imagination, but that I couldn't do without the names.

SB Did it change your way of writing, or didn't it have much influence? When you put words in Liliane Bettencourt's mouth for instance.

MV No, I'm not aware of any changes due to that.

SB Bettencourt Boulevard is a very well-paced and constructed play that navigates between public and private life and politics. Critics evoked Greek tragedy and Shakespeare. While reading it, the commedia dell'arte came to mind, without the masks of course.

MV What's good, what pleases me is that this piece of writing, this play, can inspire people to think of different forms of theater, including the ones you've mentioned - Greek tragedy , Shakespeare, the commedia dell'arte. I'm open to all possibilities because in fact the play doesn't fit into any particular box. There are numerous scenes between two characters and substantial choral bits.

SB And it's fast too! 2 pages, sometimes 2 and a half or 3, but not more. It goes very fast and it has to. There are 30 parts, like a musical composition. What did you listen to while you were writing?

MV It's also a nod to another of my plays that has 30 parts: La Demande d'emploi. As well as being an allusion to two musical works with thirty parts: Bach's Goldberg Variations, and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations.

SB How are you planning to work with Christian Schiaretti?

MV We're used to working together beforehand, talking about the piece and its components in a rather random, unstructured way, allowing the ideas to come together.

SB For Bettencourt Boulevard, there's a prestigious cast including Francine Berger, Christine Gagnieux and Jérôme Deschamps. Do you have any other writing projects in the works?

MV No, I have no other writing projects in the works.

SB Do you think you'll want to act in your play?

MV No, absolutely not.

SB I was wondering how you thought of the structure for the 19th section. It's magnificent! What made you put the narrator and Bonnefoy in the same section?

MV If you want the text to inspire people, it has to inspire you when you're writing it, and then it works. If the butler wants to walk onstage at a given moment, well let him.

SB In theory the minute people hear the name Bettencourt they think: oh boy! A scandal! A big affair! Politics! And you've made it into a story for your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And you wrote the play very quickly.

MV In 5 months.

SB I really think it's one of your greatest plays.

MV Yes, I think it's one of my best.

Michel Vinaver interviewed by Sabine Bossan
About Bettencourt Boulevard ou une histoire de France, published by L'Arche éditeur.
July 14, 2015
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