Romain Gavras Talks Cannes Debut 'The World Is Yours' and Why European Men Are "Mommy's Boys"

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“When I was a teenager with my friends,” says Gavras, “instead of smoking a joint or sniffing glue — we would still do those things — we would also make films.”

The 36-year-old son of legendary director Costa-Gavras discusses what drew him to this story, what it's like working with Isabelle Adjani, and why he loves "poppy popcorn films."

With the follow-up to his 2010 release Our Day Will Come, an offbeat drama about bullying starring Vincent Cassell, Romain Gavras makes his Cannes debut in the Directors’ Fortnight with The World Is Yours. Though it has taken eight years for his second feature to make it to the big screen, Gavras has been busy making music videos for Jay-Z, Kanye West, Frank Ocean and MIA as well as fashion films for Dior. For World, he mixes and matches real-life crime stories — from petty pickpocketing, Saudi shoplifting gangs and underground Parisian poker circles — to examine the seedy and sometimes silly underworld of small-time gangsters. He cast Isabelle Adjani as a manipulating mother and paired again with Cassell, casting him against type as a dimwitted (and balding) criminal. The 36-year-old son of legendary director Costa-Gavras talked with THR about what drew him to this story, working with Adjani and the plight of European mommy’s boys.

Why did it take to so long to make your second film?

Every director wants to make a gangster film, but I’m not fascinated by this world. I didn’t want to show the glamorization of gangsters, because I really don’t think it’s glamorous. It’s not glamorous — it’s just a bit shitty. The money is never huge, and the cars are not that cool. It’s almost the opposite of Scarface. Our hero doesn’t want to be the king, he just wants a little piece. He wants a house and nice life. He’s the opposite of Tony Montana, basically, but I struggled to find the angle. At some point, I found this mother-son relationship and thought, “That’s it.” Modern-day men in Europe, we are all mommy’s boys, especially in that world. So the idea was to do a gangster film with only mommy’s boys, basically.

European men are all mommy’s boys?

That’s a huge generality, but me and most of the boys around me are. Of course, they’re not saying it, but what I found out was interesting. Cinema builds castles of mystery and creates The Godfather, so you think, “Oh, it’s so classy to be a gangster,” but the reality is, especially in Europe, it’s not. It’s always petty. Those guys who want to look super tough are often really fragile. This film is about fragile men and super-strong women. Usually in gangster films, the men are strong and the girls are almost nonexistent or just there for the men. That’s a boring archetype. Nowadays in the underworld in Paris, it’s literally the opposite, because it’s a lot of single moms who raise those kids, and so it creates that dynamic. It creates mommy’s boys.

And what made you cast Isabelle Adjani as the “mommy?”

When I was writing it, I was trying to think of who could play her role and, other than my mom, Adjani was the only person that was right, who had this kind of madness but also this poetry. It took a little while to convince her, but when she said yes, she had fun all the way through and really went for it. We talked about Versace clothes or trying to find the best-looking sunglasses. She’s the bad guy of the movie, but at the same time she’s the pop icon of the movie. She’s walking a fine line between glamorous and super tacky. We tried to capture some poetry from all that madness and tackiness.

How much of your film style comes from your background in music videos?

Ultimately, you don’t want the film to look like a music video. For me, the challenge was working with the actors, and the aesthetic of it almost comes naturally because it’s a world of visual grammar that I’ve been developing for many years through the music videos and commercials. The colors from [Adjani] wearing purple at the beginning to [co-star Karim Leklou’s] bright yellow bathrobe, the idea was to make it like a little acid candy. We really wanted to make a pop film for our times.

Have you been influenced by the French cinema of the 1960s?

The French New Wave is the old new wave. There are a lot of films from [that era] that I love, but they are not my biggest influence. Because I was born into cinema — my dad is a director — I watched intellectual films way too early, so my rebellion was to watch Die Hard and The Blues Brothers. I like poppy popcorn films. I was a teenager in the ’90s, and pop music videos were a bigger influence for me than the New Wave, to be honest. I’m not that cool.

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 13 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.