Normandy Exodus: Christian Carion’s ‘Come What May’ is a personal story of WWII upheaval

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Christian Carion’s Come What May, from Cohen Media Group, is one among several new quality World War II-related films (Anthropoid, The People Vs. Fritz Bauer, Denial). While all, including Carion’s film, are inspired by real people and events, only Come What May functions as a personal piece, in this case drawn from his parents’ memories—especially those of his mother, to whom the film is dedicated—and memories of their contemporaries.

The film, with a wonderful cast including August Diehl, Matthew Rhys, Olivier Gourmet and Mathilde Seigner and an engaging narrative, largely focuses on a group of Normandy villagers (from the actual village of Lubucquière, where Carion and his family lived and where some of the film was actually shot). Their inhabitants were among the estimated eight million, mostly from north and central France, who made the May 1940 exodus by abandoning their homesteads and taking to the roads with what belongings they could manage to flee the advancing German army.

The primary characters are the town’s farmer/mayor Paul (Gourmet); anti-Nazi German Hans (Diehl), who flees Germany to the French countryside with his young son Max; Percy (Rhys), a Scottish soldier stranded in France who befriends Hans; and Paul’s wife Mado (Seigner), the town’s bistro owner.

Carion’s mother was 14 and living in the farming town of Lubucquière when she and her family became part of the flight. Besides the personal memory component, what also sets Come What May apart from its current war-themed brethren is that it’s primarily a sunny look—meteorologically speaking—at a dark chapter of history at the war’s outset, as if Carion might have overthought how he wanted to capture this bleak period. As he explains, “My mother remembered the wonderful weather that month. May 1940 was one of the hottest and very sunny and dry. It’s too easy to die under the rain, but hard to die under the sun.”

Although from farm country, Carion made his own exodus out of adolescence on a well-traveled road to science and engineering, which he studied before entering film. But his love of cinema began in childhood.

Asked about main film influences, he names “Alfred Hitchcock for the grammar and John Ford for the way he tells a story, the sense of drama, the humor.” Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is one of his favorites.

This love of film had him, still in amateur cinephile mode, renting a video camera and “messing around with boring films.” A producer named Christophe Rossignon, who himself was just getting started and served as a kind of mentor, stepped in to produce Carion’s last short in 1999.

Soon after came Carion’s first feature, the 2001 sleeper hit The Girl From Paris, blessed with stars Michel Serrault and Mathilde Seigner. His Oscar-nominated Joyeux Noel, about a famous World War I episode that brought German and French soldiers together, and Cold War thriller Farewell, with Guillaume Canet and Emir Kusturica, followed.

War, as suggested by his filmography, is very much on Carion’s mind, and in Come What May there are also a number of references to the Great War that preceded it. Asked why, he quickly responds “Of course, because the second war was a consequence of the first. The roots of everything, even for the whole century, were there.”

Come What May, with the exodus as a structural spine, is epic drama with deadly skirmishes and remarkably recreated air attacks from a historical event familiar to many. And the marches of those fleeing are also familiar, thanks to ample archival material of the elongated human and animal trains along French country roads (seamlessly woven into the film along with re-enactments). But Carion—more interested in people than events—delivers a film that is also intimate as it underscores the importance of family, friendships and loyalties. “The human side of things helps us get into the subject,” he observes.

There’s another duality in the two main story threads—the plight of the villagers escaping on the roads and a father’s search for his lost son (Diehl’s for little Max, left behind on the Lubucquière farm after he was arrested and escapes with the Scottish soldier into the fog of war). This latter thread recalls Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 classic The Search, about a mother’s search just after the war for her little boy lost. Carion did see the film long ago, but didn’t remember it when writing his script.

Come What May owes much to its strong cast. Asked how he achieved the coup of nabbing Rhys (finally Emmy-nominated for his leading role in the popular “The Americans” series) for the co-starring role of the fleeing Percy, Carion replies that “I’m a big fan of ‘The Americans’! And of him. We did a Skype [Rhys was in New York where he lives] and we talked a lot, about life and other things. He’s a dog person and his dog was there nosing the screen, fascinated by it and blocking Matthew, but he didn’t care. I loved that. I think Matthew’s a very great actor and a good human being.”

Also memorable is German actor Diehl, as the young anti-Nazi refugee father Hans, having arrived in 1939 France at the Mayor’s farm claiming to be Belgian but exposed as a German native and sent to a nearby Norman prison as war was declared. Explaining how Diehl was able to handle both the German and French languages so convincingly. Carion enlightens that the actor spent all of his summers in France.

Carion also annoints as a “star” the film’s score by acclaimed Oscar-winning Italian composer Ennio Morricone. Landing the great maestro was another coup. The process was slow, but as both a film-lover and filmmaker, Carion got the courage to approach Morricone after a production assistant introduced the idea. Early on, the filmmaker was using his music (both “Once Upon A Time in the West” and “The Mission” were favorites) while writing the script and as temp music during editing. “I didn’t think it would happen,” Carion recalls, “until one day I learned that we could have a deal but he wants to meet me… Suddenly the fantasy during the writing was becoming a reality. But a complex one that was hard to comprehend: He’s a legend, who doesn’t speak our language and who is used to recording in Rome and who hasn’t composed anything for a French film since 1985.”

Asked what his first reaction was when Morricone accepted, he says, “It was a dream come true. He was very moved by my film—I showed him an early draft and told him I used a lot of his music while writing and editing but also mentioned I used Hans Zimmer’s too. But Morricone was touched by my film’s story and said it’s not a movie about war but one about people during the war.”

But Come What May isn’t entirely Morricone. To bump up the period feel, Carion also uses original cuts of French classics from the period like “Menilmontant” and “Vous qui passez sans me voir.” He adds, on an ironic note, “My parents didn’t listen to much music, but I’m fond of these songs

But Carion did listen to his parents’ recollections; they both inspired the film’s characters and events. The Scot character Percy was, says Carion, “in memory of my father. I was raised in a very pro‐British culture. My father told me how as a child during the war, he would watch formations of British bombers flying towards Germany and in the evening he’d watch them head back towards England. He would count the missing planes, watching with emotion along with my grandfather, saying how they died for us. My father loved the British, and always used to say that without Churchill, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Carion worked on the script with two collaborators, Laure Irrmann and Andrew Bampfield, the latter assuring the British touch for Rhys’ Scotsman. Carion explains the writing process: “In fact, Laure and I wrote a whole draft in French, then we worked with Bampfield. We spent one year to get a good draft. Everything is based on true stories, not just my mother’s or my father’s reminiscences. So there was a lot of work involved in reading and listening to thousands of stories from others. But the film is not a documentary. So working with Laure, we had to build a good story. We were somewhat depressed at first because we didn’t know where to start, how to kick off the story. It was tough until we realized we should begin with the German guy [the story begins in Germany with Hans’ problems with the Nazis and his escape to France].”

Carion is aware that his way into this exodus could have been turned into a kind of dismal road picture but maintains that “my films deal with characters, not with roads. I work on the human side of things because I’m telling the story of my parents. And although the subject here is May 1940 in France, in the end it is a universal and timeless subject. People who take to the roads, who have to leave the places they live, whether for climate‐related, religious or political reasons, are, sadly, commonplace nowadays.”

Yet the filmmaker was not inspired by today’s ubiquitous migrations of so many seeking asylum in the West. “I’m not trying to reflect on that reality here. Come What May tells the story of a displaced population, as it is so modestly called. For me, that’s an eternal, universal theme.”

In addition to solid writing, the film also benefits from Carion’s extensive research, much the result of some clever crowd-sourcing. “I went on the local France 3 Nord‐Pas‐de‐Calais and Picardy TV stations to ask viewers to share their memories of May 1940 with me, telling them that I wanted to make a film that would bring their experiences of that time to life. We were overwhelmed with responses. We received lots of letters, but also journals, recordings of grannies and grandpas in retirement homes, all kinds of unimaginable things like one story in which some children came across a dying German soldier who asked them to help him die more quickly. That’s what I wanted to bring back to life in this film.”

He derived more authenticity by shooting not just in his native village but in the greater Pas‐de‐Calais department where people had actually experienced the exodus. Many of his extras were descended from the actual families who participated in the exodus.

But it was the logistics of his shoot—which included many extras traveling the country roads filled with refugees and a harrowing Nazi bombing episode that took the lives of many innocent civilians in convoys—that were the filmmaker’s biggest challenge and “complicated things.”

His convoy for the re-enactment, he says, was about 300 meters (close to 1,000 feet long) and “it was tricky to manage—you couldn’t just make everyone turn around by clicking your fingers… I think the best idea we had was to get a second camera hidden [within this convoy] with a real cameraman behind it.”

Carion put an “undercover” cameraman dressed in the style of the period in the convoy. “He was with them, living with them, and depending on what was happening, he filmed what was going on. We used a great deal of this footage because the images really illustrated life in the convoy and added to our main narrative. It was fabulous. We found a color, a truth in the faces and in the attitudes that we could never have otherwise hoped for.”

And, says Carion, “the extras forgot about him because they were very involved, having come from the actual families I was depicting. And I told him that it’s important to shoot people when they don’t know we’re shooting.” Each day after footage was reviewed, “I’d tell him what I needed, maybe more framing on children or sleeping people. But he was largely free to shoot what he wanted.”

Carion calls the film’s Stuka dive-bomber attack, which mowed down the roads and countryside and required about a week to shoot, “a nightmare to organize.” It was the first time, he says, that he ever had to create a scene over such a long period of time. “Everything was broken down and everything took ages, even managing the stress of the horses.” The scene doesn’t take up much screen time, but, he explains, the Stukas required eight months of visual effects, mainly CGI work, as there were no real planes used. “The scenes had to be directed very carefully because in so natural a place with no planes, I needed to stimulate the imaginations of the extras—the danger that was there—and get that working.”

Otherwise, his all-crucial extras were left pretty much on their own. Says Carion, “We gave them costumes, and let them manage on their own. We didn’t have any dressers for them because we wanted them to appropriate their costumes—they had to dress themselves and live with their characters. We gave them 1940s haircuts, but then left them to do their own hair every morning. As a result, they no longer respected their clothes—in the best possible way. We were on the road, it was hot, so everyone was loosening their clothes and nobody could have done it for them. It came naturally, and not from a hair, makeup and styling team. Granted, it saved us some money, but it was also about gaining realism.”

Another of the film’s chilling scenes features many German Panzer tanks following alongside the migrants. Carion used a few real tanks but, again, visual-effects wizardry came to the rescue to reproduce a multitude of these vehicles.

As happens with most films but certainly an action-inflected war drama like Come What May, financing didn’t come easy, but Carion had a good argument up his sleeve when it came to bringing aboard Pathé CEO and renowned producer Jérôme Seydoux. The Pathé chief initially had his doubts, believing that the exodus was “a debacle” and that Carion was delving into “an ugly episode of French history. “But,” says Carion, “I talked about the film Titanic, where you know that the ship is going to sink at the end. Well, the exodus of May 1940 was when France sank. It’s perhaps not very beautiful to witness, but just like on the Titanic, the roads of France were full of people who wanted to live, to survive. I’m interested in the energy of those people, I told him, who didn’t just want to drown. I want to make a film worthy of those French people on the roads who didn’t want to founder.”

Also, Carion’s notion of “wanting to make a western” worked, as he explained to Seydoux his would be “a film with horses, wagons and wide‐open spaces. I eventually reached an agreement with Pathé and was able to make the film I wanted to make.”

As happens with many European productions, pressure was on to shoot in Eastern Europe where it would be cheaper, but Carion objected that “it would be rubbish.” His argument was that “people there don’t care about our story the way the French do. So we decided to shoot in the Pas‐de‐Calais department using extras who, through their families, were close to the story.”

Also helping ease the shoot was Carion’s attitude toward cast and crew and putting them at ease: “I believe in the joy of doing, in things as simple as that. If people are happy on set and there is a joy of doing, then all comes out in the film… The team was perfect, both for the shoot and in post-production. A dream team.”

With so much to deal with, Carion was most fearful of something beyond his control—the weather. “If it had rained, it would have been impossible to shoot, because we had no covered sets. We were very lucky in that not a drop of rain fell during June 2014. And that’s pretty unusual for the Pas‐de‐Calais region.” 

Caron is fond of his film’s American title, a big jump from the wordy French title En mai, fais ce qu’il te plait, meaning “Do as you like in May.” He likes the English title’s play on the word “may,” as it’s both the month when the main story takes place and an expression of hope that his ending provides. “As we showed in the film, the exodus actually gave many people the opportunity to change their lives for the better.”

Having been so immersed in the past, what might Carion have in mind for his future film? He says he wants to make “different movies now” but resists elaborating. “I can’t talk about details except to say it will be a story about what happens nowadays, today. It’s still a secret, it’s ready.” Prodded a bit, he shares that “it’s about the search of a man; it’s very dramatic and with much suspense.”

Come what may, Come What May will perk a lot of interest in this mystery project.