Benjamin Lavernhe in the footsteps of Abbé Pierre, from Frédéric Tellier

There are a thousand lives in the life of Henri Grouès, in turn a priest with fragile health, a Maquis resistance member, a deputy upon liberation. There is above all the legend, that of Abbé Pierre, a name that he chose, that of a man of peace committed body and soul against poor housing. Frédéric Tellier pays tribute to this singular destiny in L’Abbé Pierre – Une vie de combats, starring Benjamin Lavernhe and screened Out of Competition. An encounter with the director and his actor.

On the origin of the film
Frédéric Tellier: There were a lot of things. First of all, my mother had gone to a lecture and talked to me about it. Then, it’s a subject I brought up with the producers when we were looking for a new subject. There’s also probably my own anger about the world right now. Ultimately, I didn’t really know his life that well, apart from a few key points, like a lot of people my age or younger. It took some time to be convinced that there was enough material for a film.

The documentation
Frédéric Tellier: It’s something of my speciality, big investigations, even though this one wasn’t that long. There was a lot of material that already existed and that I had access to, because I was very close to the Abbé Pierre Foundation and the Emmaüs movement, so very close to the archives. And as this is a historical reconstruction, for this documentation, I worked with specialist journalists. We had almost 5,000 photos, a lot never seen before, video documents and letters written in his correspondence with his great friend François Garbit.

Portraying a legend
Benjamin Lavernhe: It’s a unique role in one’s life. Portraying Abbé Pierre is all an actor could hope for, since he was a great orator, a great speaker, someone who could touch your heart with his words. He had a great theatrical dimension. That was put to use for a multi-faceted film, with adventure, history and very engaged. He was a man who was stunningly complex. We show his strength as well as his fragility and his doubts.

The actor and the character
Benjamin Lavernhe: This is the first time I’ve played someone so well known and so beloved. There is something very serious in existence. It required a lot of documentary work, meetings with those close to him. It was also by being as close to myself that I was able to serve the character. It wasn’t a question of imitating him or aping him. What counts are the signs. It was at once connecting with his energy, his phrasing and incarnating the way in which he lived.