Writer-director David Perrault offers a western with a French accent.
And now for something completely different: Savage State, a Civil War-era western with a distinctly European perspective.
The French-Canadian co-production — now available on Amazon Prime, Vudu and other streaming platforms — follows the dangerous journey of a well-to-do French family that flees their adopted Missouri home in 1863 to avoid getting caught in the crossfire after a Union Army invasion. Edmond (Bruno Todeschini), his wife Madeline (Constance Dollé), their three beautiful daughters (Alice Isaaz, Déborah François and Maryne Bertieaux), and their Black servant Layla (Armelle Abidou) set out on a trek through the frontier, headed toward a port where they can board a ship bound for France. Along the way, they are guided by Victor Ludd (Kevin Janssens), an enigmatic hired gun, and pursued by Bettie (Kate Moran), a sultry bandit queen who rides with her own private army of masked marauders.
Savage State is the second movie written and directed by David Perrault, a French filmmaker who first attracted attention with Our Heroes Died Tonight, an award-winning 2013 drama about a Foreign Legion veteran who signs on to become a villainous masked wrestler. He recently conversed with us via email to promote his unconventional western.
Cowboys & Indians: What inspired you to attempt a European take on a distinctly American genre like the western?
David Perrault: The “western” genre came second. My first idea was to stage a group of women in an enclosed space and tear down these walls to propel them into the great outdoors. That's when I thought about the western and approaching it from a European angle. Both in what it would tell (the story of these French settlers) and in terms of style. I love reappropriating classic Hollywood genres into something that is both personal and modern. My first feature film was a film noir, my second a western, the next one will be fantasy.
C&I: Are you a student of American history? Did you know much about the Civil War before you started your research for this project?
Perrault: I mainly knew the subject through films. I studied the time more precisely while writing the screenplay.
C&I: What scenes were the most difficult to stage and shoot?
Perrault: The final shootout scene. It was snowing and extremely cold. The team was going crazy in these extreme conditions. The guns, the kerosene lamps, the filming equipment — everything started to freeze. The camera was covered with a survival blanket, but the optics froze too!
C&I: Of course, you also have elements from genres other than the western at play in Savage State. Did you find inspiration in other genre mashups?
Perrault: Yes, I love mixing genres. My inspirations come a lot from Italian cinema in its most baroque aspect, from Mario Bava to Luchino Visconti. Things very expressive visually, not totally realistic. Besides, I built the film like a daydream. So in the end it has a fantasy atmosphere — sometimes even of a horror movie!
C&I: Do you have favorite traditional westerns?
Perrault: Very much! The films of Budd Boetticher, Howard Hawks. And John Ford, of course. His best remain for me Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and Fort Apache. But my favorite western of all time is a baroque and feminine western: Johnny Guitar by Nicholas Ray. Even though when I shot Savage State, I tried to forget all those classics and move on to something else.
C&I: Given the limitations on theatrical exhibition necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, how do you feel about the fact that most people will get to see your film only on home screens?
Perrault: I’m a little sad because I designed Savage State as an extremely visual atmospheric film made to be seen in the cinema, on a big screen. But in the end, the important thing is that the film is seen by as many people as possible.