Cannes: French Scribe Channels John Ford in Quirky 'Cowboys'

Antoine Doyen
'Les Cowboys'

Thomas Bidegain has co-written no less than three films that’ll premiere on the Croisette this year.

French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain is a Cannes regular, having worked on the screenplays of past Cannes competition titles such as Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet and Rust and Bone and Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent. This year, he’s co-written no less than three films that’ll premiere on the Croisette, including his directorial debut, Les Cowboys, which is part of the Directors’ Fortnight.

Well known for his ongoing collaboration with art house maestro Audiard, for whom he co-wrote this year’s competition entry Dheepan, Bidegain also was a writer on Clement Cogitore’s Critics’ Week title The Whakan Front as well as his own Cowboys. Further credits include two Un Certain Regard hits from the last couple of years: Our Children by Joachim Lafosse and Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? But the screenwriter doesn’t only write high-end art house titles, having flexed his mainstream muscles last year with the comedy The Belier Family, which became France’s most popular local film with over 7.3 million admissions.

His own Cowboys, which Bidegain co-wrote with Noe Debre, combines art house and more popular elements as it follows the journey of a father (Belgian actor Francois Damiens) and son (Finnegan Oldfield) who go in search of their daughter/sister, who has eloped with her secret jihadist boyfriend to the Middle East. “I wanted to work with actors,” says the director about his desire to direct. “I wanted to work on everything that’s not on the page. A big part of any film is written with the actors on set.”

As for the reason why he chose this particular story for his debut, the screenwriter turned director has a simple answer: “It didn’t feel like a story for Jacques or Bertrand. It has a lot of screenwriting elements, such as ellipses, a story spanning several generations and a small, intimate story inside a much bigger story, so it felt like something for me.”

As the title suggests, Cowboys frequently tips its cowboy hat to the Western genre, with Damiens playing an amateur country singer and the plot recalling John Ford’s The Searchers. “I am Basque, and when I was a kid, my big brother always told me: ‘Look at the Indians and imagine them as Basques,’” says the newbie director about his earliest connection to the genre. “In this story, it is the Muslims who are the Indians. It also made things easier to have the framework of a genre to fall back on as a first-time director. And I felt like doing a sort of ‘state of the nation’ and talk about the France of today.”

One of the film’s unexpected surprises is (spoiler!) the appearance of John C. Reilly in a key supporting role. “He’s like the American equivalent of Damiens,” explains Bidegain. “He can do comedy and drama and brings something unreservedly American to the film, something gung ho, which I needed.”

Concludes the writer-director: “I am happy the film’s in the Directors’ Fortnight, which also showcases more popular cinema. There are ways to be daring and bold even when making popular films, and Les Cowboys is daring in how it is structured and how it talks about the world we live in today. Or perhaps not daring but definitely a bit different, something we haven’t necessarily seen before.”