Chien Blanc is a ruthless examination of white guilt

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Chien Blanc is a ruthless examination of white guilt
In 1970, French writer Romain Gary published the semi-autobiographical novel White Dog. Based in part on his marriage with actress Jean Seberg, the book opens as the couple finds a dog at their doorstep. “He was a gray dog with a mole like a beauty mark on the right side of his muzzle and tobacco-coloured hair around his huge, shining truffle of a nose,” reads the opening line. Gary was immediately smitten with the strong but tender animal that quickly made itself at home — before it began attacking Black people. 

The family soon learns their new pet is a “White Dog,” an attack dog first trained in the South by slave owners and then by police officers to attack Black people on sight. Against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movements and the countercultural movement, Gary tries to cure the animal and write a book about it as his marriage falls apart.

Previously (loosely) adapted by Samuel Fuller in 1982, Quebec filmmaker Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette first thought of adapting the book while making her film Inch’Allah (2012). “(Inch’Allah) is about a Canadian doctor who goes to work in the Israeli-Palestine territories and who wants to, in good faith, help, but it’s an awkward undertaking. I couldn’t help but see the links with (Romain Gary’s) Chien Blanc. At its centre, Chien Blanc is about two privileged white people who ask themselves, though this conflict (Black liberation and the Civil Rights movement) moves and disturbs me, what’s my place in this story if I have one? How can I engage?”

Present for the Cinemania film festival in Montreal, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, as well as two of the film’s stars — Denis Ménochet, who plays Gary, and Jhaleil Swaby, who plays Ballard, a young black man torn between participating in the struggle and his white wife and child — reflect on the book’s legacy and the challenges in adapting Gary’s text. 

Born in 1914, Romain Gary was a war hero, a diplomat and an award-winning author. He has the unique distinction of being the only writer to win the top French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, twice (the second time under an assumed name). From 1962 to 1972, he was married to actress Jean Seberg, who’s perhaps best known as the young American woman in Godard’s Breathless. She was a tireless activist, providing money and time to the Civil Rights movement. Seberg was also the victim of a targeted attack from the FBI to discredit her and her political work. In the film, she’s played by Kacey Rohl, who leans into Seberg’s ability to transform and weaponize her almost adolescent fragility into a ruthless, often obstinate strength.

Denis Ménochet is known for his roles in films like Inglorious Basterds, and was met with an enormous challenge in playing the role. He read, watched and listened to as much as possible before stepping into Gary’s shoes. Gary, however, remained an enigma. “He’s really like the Egyptian Sphynx,” says Ménochet. “He was constructing a mythology of himself, so to focus too much on the truth of who he was is a challenge. There’s only a brief moment when I’m doing the TV interview scene where I really feel I captured him, the way he spoke. Otherwise, I wasn’t able to. I had to focus on being sincere.”

On the page, Gary remains equally elusive and self-effacing. Told in a tangential style, the novel White Dog reflects on the nature of art, politics, America and celebrity with a wry sense of humour and antagonistic cynicism. Gary narrates the book’s process: “You don’t write books to help people. You write books to get rid of them. To help yourself,” he says in an early chapter to the reader. Open-ended and rife with contradictions and digressions, the book challenges the reader as it invites them to reflect on their political (in)action during a pivotal historical moment. The prose is electric and seductive, almost playful in that it tries to push the reader to the limit before pulling them back in. It assumes contempt for racists, so its main target is white liberals who are well-intentioned but narcissistic in pursuing social justice. 

Though a fan of Gary’s writing, Barbeau-Lavalette knew that bringing Chien Blanc to the screen meant she needed to dispel her admiration for him. “I had to see him as an ordinary man, with all his flaws, and I had to get him off his pedestal,” she says. For Ménochet, it was understanding this man as someone who lived a difficult life. If he seemed inactive compared to Seberg, it was born from experience. “He lived through war and other terrible things. He understood the power of media, at least vaguely, so he tried to share that knowledge with his wife — not to be condescending, because he really loved her. And because he loved her, he also wanted her to live her own life.”

Denis Ménochet in Chien Blanc

In the film, Seberg struggles to find her place in the struggle for social justice. While she leveraged her stardom to help bring attention to Civil Rights battles, many people resented her involvement, seeing it as a way of feeding her ego and alleviating white guilt. In one particularly emotional scene, she’s asked to leave a funeral. The question of the privilege and whiteness within Civil Rights struggles remains at the forefront. As Barbeau-Lavalette explains, “the goal isn’t to condemn racism,” the film is about what it means to be white, to reflect on how much space whiteness does or should take up. It’s a rare film that doesn’t assume whiteness as the absence of race but one that has a distinct and overwhelming presence. “Maybe I’m naive,” says Barbeau-Lavalette, “but I want to turn a mirror towards white audiences to elicit an awareness of their white privilege.” 

In adapting the novel, Barbeau-Lavalette recognized that the filmmaking process needed to reflect on the questions the material asked. She worked with two afro-descendent filmmakers, Will Prosper and Maryse Legagneur, who participated in every production stage, from the screenplay to the edit. “The discussions weren’t always easy,” says Barbeau-Lavalette, “but they were always deep and very frank. They were enriching. They helped point out my blind spots.” Barbeau-Lavalette also worked to increase the diversity of the crew, something that proved to be more challenging. “Not that there aren’t many afro-descendent workers, but they all rarely interact on the same project,” she says. 

Aesthetically, the film makes use of mirrors and windows. It creates a destabilizing effect, challenging the audience’s sense of reality. Are we in the real world or how Gary imagines it? 

The use of archival images from the 1960s and more recent BLM protests after the death of George Floyd acts as a kind of TV screen, opening the film up to a more embodied reality. Rather than being closed off to the wider world, these images open up the film’s perspective beyond Gary’s subjectivity. It helps draw us into the idea that, ultimately, we are seeing the world through Gary’s perspective, flaws and all. 

In the film, actor Jhaleil Swaby plays Ballard, a young black man torn between worlds. He wants to fight with his father and friends, but he’s recently fallen in love with a young white woman who will have his baby. “I hadn’t seen his point of view on screen before, the confusion and duality of not knowing what to do,” says Swaby. 

For Swaby, his character captures the contemporary unease of not knowing the right way to stand up for what’s right. “Many people are unsure what (activism) looks like for them individually. If you’re not doing something in a certain way, people will tell you you’re not doing enough, and it gets confusing. How do I do my part? What does that look like?” Reading White Dog was a dense experience for Swaby, who was struck by the prose but also felt that the book comes “from a very different time.” He explains that “certain things, I would take, and other things didn’t resonate at all.”

Yet, Swaby is pleased with the adaptation, particularly how it invites the audience to reflect on difficult questions. “The film is the first step to softening someone up to challenge how you engage with the world.” He sees the filmgoing experience as an essential part of that experience; the cinema is “such an intimate space where we are all human, and we’re all allowed to get emotional.” 

“What I hope for,” says Ménochet, “is that the film elicits conversation. We shot it after the assassination of George Floyd. It’s terrible that we have to say (Gary’s book) still resonates. If those conversations lead to greater understanding, and not in a way where people want to seem ‘woke’ but actually take a position and ask important questions. What does it mean to be rejected? How does it shape you to have your ancestors arrive on a boat? When we try to help, are we really helping our fellow man or helping ourselves?” ■

Chien Blanc (directed by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette)

Chien Blanc opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 11.

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