(Beaufort, France) “Go to the sheep, Hola!” File with the sheep. »
Félix-Antoine Duval’s order to the dog Hola slammed into the pure air of the Alpine mountains. All around the actor was then only silence, except for the sound of the wind and that of the bells hanging from the necks of the sheep which grazed without raising their heads.
The Quebecer (who we saw in the Fragments series in particular) knew nothing of the reality of cattle breeders, and even less of that of French shepherds, when he agreed to play Mathyas, the main role in the film Berger, written and directed by Sophie Deraspe.
However, after spending thirty days in the worn clothes of his character, Félix-Antoine Duval has learned a few notions of the trade, to the point of being able to direct (almost!) the dogs that guard the herd.
Loosely based on the autobiographical novel Where Are You From, Shepherd? by Mathyas Lefebure, Berger recounts the unusual fate of a Montrealer, a true star in the world of advertising, who decides to leave everything behind to become a shepherd in Provence. His apprenticeship in a trade he knew nothing about would be done the hard way. The road to the realization of his pastoral dream will be filled with pitfalls, but also with significant encounters.
It is in the Beaufortain region, near Albertville, that the team has set up its quarters for the final 11 days of filming. Here, real shepherds Julien Valet and his wife Élodie keep a herd of 2,000 head. They agreed to play the film game for this Canadian-French production. Not without some initial fears.
Thus, the artistic designer André-Line Beauparlant worked for many months upstream to find people who agreed to receive a film crew on their land. Even more: people who were willing to lend their precious animals! “For them, the priority remains the herd. So we have to bend to their schedule without imposing ourselves, in addition to adapting to the weather and the storms that hit hard in the mountains,” says Sophie Deraspe.
André-Line Beauparlant adds: “To give the impression of a single herd on screen, we had to find five different ones! We also accompanied a shepherd, Jean-Pierre Ravel, during the transhumance of his herd. We walked with him for three days. It was extraordinary. But it took me a month of discussions to convince him. Jean-Pierre is a bit like the Mick Jagger of shepherds and he is one of the last to lead his herd from one mountain pasture to another on foot. »
It was during these three days of animal migration that Félix-Antoine Duval had one of the most moving experiences of filming. He witnessed the birth of a lamb that the mother left behind as soon as the birth was over to immediately join the herd. “I took this extremely fragile little life into my hands. I talked to him. And when I gave it back to the shepherdess, I broke down in tears… It wasn’t my character who was crying, but me. Everything was captured by the delicate camera of Sophie Deraspe…
This birth is one of the most beautiful unexpected events of this shoot, which has had several. Sophie Deraspe admits it bluntly: never in her career as a director has she had to deal with so many constraints. Sheep (sometimes very recalcitrant actors), dogs and the sometimes hostile nature of the Alps were all factors that could upset the plan of the day. “There are so many things out of our control! »
The day of our arrival, the director wanted to capture images of the daily life of Mathyas the shepherd and his sidekick Élise. In this larger than life landscape, the team climbed the mountainside, equipment on their shoulders, to find the best angle of view, to vary the perspectives in this landscape where every square centimeter is of unreal beauty.
Julien (the real shepherd) led his herd from afar, multiplying the orders to his dogs. He was hoping to pass it by the rock where the team was standing, but sheep can be stubborn… They decided to go where no one expected them! The team’s efforts were not in vain: the mountain was generous with its splendours. But the hoped-for plan never materialized.
On the same day, there was also the case of the dog Hola, who stubbornly refused to stay in the fake rain (spit from a tank truck) to play actress: not crazy, she preferred to slip away to take refuge in the dry, out of the frame and out of the action!
The day after this trying day, the herd of sheep decided to collaborate and descended the mountain right in front of the cameras. It is difficult to describe in words the astonishing spectacle of these hundreds of animals walking in unison, accompanied by large white dogs – mostly Pyrenean mountain dogs, which the shepherds have baptized patous.
Despite the difficulties of this shooting almost entirely done outdoors, Sophie Deraspe feels that her film touches on “life at its most vibrant”.
The emotion is all the more strong for the filmmaker as this project has been in the pipeline for a long time, namely 2016, the year she was approached by micro_scope to co-write this Canada-France co-production with Mathyas Lefebure.
Solène Rigot, the Parisian actress who plays Élise, was very touched when she read this story “of different heroism, a heroism that is not Manichean, which is rooted in life and its cycles”.
Sophie Deraspe, for her part, wishes to recall an important element in relation to her film: it is not just a story of shepherds, mountains and sheep. “It is first and foremost the story of someone who makes a radical choice to find their place in the world. An act of free will that remains very inspiring. Whether you know sheep or not.
Quebec director, cinematographer and screenwriter, Sophie Deraspe has directed several feature films (including Searching for Victor Pellerin and Le profil Amina) as well as television series.
She distinguished herself in 2019 with her film Antigone, which won the award for best Canadian feature film at the Toronto International Film Festival, in addition to collecting six Iris awards (including best film) at the Gala Québec Cinéma.
She directed the Bête noire series for television (winner of five Gémeaux awards in 2021). The following year, she tackled the production of the series Motel Paradis, for which she co-signed the screenplay.