Conman builds road to nowhere in truth-based film

CANNES, France (Reuters) - The true story of a small-time crook who managed to convince an entire community to help him build a section of a highway leading nowhere is the subject of a new film by French director Xavier Giannoli.

Director Xavier Giannoli (C) poses with cast members (R to L) Francois Cluzet, Emmanuelle Devos, Soko and Vincent Rottiers during a photo call for the film "A l'origine" in competition at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, May 21, 2009. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

“In the Beginning” (A l’Origine), in the main competition at the Cannes film festival, was inspired by a short news item about the conman, whom Giannoli met and interviewed in prison while researching his script.

The movie, which was warmly applauded after a press screening on Thursday, stars Francois Cluzet in the central role, Emmanuelle Devos as a mayor who falls in love with him and Gerard Depardieu as a hardened hustler.

Released from jail and down on his luck, the man who adopts the name Philippe Miller quickly returns to his old ways by stealing televisions from hotel rooms and tools from hardware stores.

But when he poses as a representative of a company planning to revive a stalled construction project, people welcome him with open arms, offering bribes in return for business and turning him into a local accidental hero.

The reaction is partly the result of high unemployment in the region where the story is set, but Giannoli said he did not set out to make a film about the economic crisis and its impact on French communities.

“I don’t believe in films that deal with current affairs or have a current relevance,” he told reporters in Cannes.

“When I’m dealing with a story concerning a person like this that’s not the question I ask. What I’m looking for is human truth -- is there something original, is there something interesting in the life of this person?”


During the course of the narrative, Miller cares less and less about the money piling up in his personal safe and more and more about the project itself, which has finally given him a sense of purpose and brings him love and responsibility.

When he is eventually found out, despite the anger of many people he duped, there are those who defend him for looking after their interests rather than his own.

Giannoli described the logistical challenge of shooting on a large construction site as “extraordinary”.

“Originally we were supposed to shoot this film on a genuine highway worksite,” he said.

“We found a site underway which was prepared to welcome us ... and then at the last moment this public works group, whose name I shall not mention, abandoned us and left us in a quite disgraceful fashion. We were dropped in it.”

Giannoli searched northern France for an alternative location, and after being turned down by several farmers he came across a man called Raymond who rented out machinery.

“He read the screenplay and he said, ‘Well look, I’ll build a motorway for you. We were gobsmacked. And I said, ‘Look, do you have machines?’ and he said ‘Yes, I’ve got about 250 machines.’ In fact he saved the film, quite literally.”

Editing by Steve Addison