Sea, quiet and sun. A holidaymaker on his paddleboard. In a few minutes, this idyllic picture is shattered: the man is knocked off his board into the water, and is then devoured by a shark.
Almost 50 years since Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” brought terror to the New England beach town of Amity Island, a shark has appeared on the other side of the ocean to cause panic among French vacationers heading for the Atlantic coast.
“Year of the Shark,” which premiered this week at 21st Neuchatel Intl. Fantastic Film Festival, ahead of its release in France on Aug. 3, is neither a remake of “Jaws,” nor a pastiche of the genre, explain the directors, French twins Ludovic and Zoran Boukherma, who are 30 years old.
The Boukherma twins are well-aware that the arrival of the first shark film ever to be made in France, with a five-star cast, is creating a great deal of anticipation among genre fans: “We wanted to take this well-known figure of American cinema and revisit it, anchor it in our region, the French Southwest, to make a dramatic comedy, with a little social vibe,” Ludovic Boukherma tell Variety. “We were not interested in the shark as an animal, but as an intruder who arrives in a peaceful community and crystallizes the anger of some and sows havoc among others. It’s a hybrid film that straddles the line between comedy, drama and shark film.”
“Year of the Shark” stars Maja (Marina Foïs) as a stolid cop, assisted by Blaise (Jean-Pascal Zadi) and Eugénie (Christine Gautier). Throughout her career, Maja has been selflessly committed to her job, with a seriousness that contrasts with the cushy routine of her fictional town of La Pointe, where, as the narrator admits, nothing ever happens and all you do is “sit on your ass on the sand and watch the waves.”
The unexplained disappearance of a vacationer, whose remains have not yet been found, obviously intrigues Maja. She is a few days away from her early retirement, which she dreads, but which delights her loving husband Thierry (Kad Merad), who dreams of finally spending quality time with her, doing just that: sitting on the beach, watching the ocean. The promise of some long-awaited action thanks to the presence of the 4-meter-long beast drives Maja to embark on the mission of her life: capture the shark to end her career on a high note. But she has a hard time convincing the inhabitants of the seaside resort that after having closed everything due to COVID, the tourist season is this time threatened by an animal.
It was in 2017, a year after the success of their first feature film, a slightly offbeat comedy-drama “Willy 1er” (“Willy the 1st”), co-written with Marielle Gautier and Hugo P. Thomas, that the Boukherma twins began writing this film, willing to try their hand at what they loved as children: genre comedy. But they struggled to find the hook. At the time, the news in France, marked by the theme of radicalization, inspired them to take on another scenario, that of “Teddy” (Cannes official selection 2020), featuring a werewolf. And “Year of the Shark” had to skip a round.
“COVID ended up providing us with the angle of attack we were looking for,” explains Ludovic Boukherma. Like COVID, our shark wreaked chaos and was, at first, a faceless monster pitting those who believe in it against those who don’t. It messes things up for a while, and then people will talk about something else. That year is the year of the shark. Next year, there’s going to be another thing to get riled up about.” In the background, the film also addresses the violence on social networks and the warming of the oceans that led the shark to the French coast. But while it might make people reflect about these major issues at a time when crises follow one another at an unprecedented rate, “Year of the Shark” remains mostly a funny, entertaining movie, with impeccable cinematography and acting.
A graduate of the École de la Cité, founded by Luc Besson, Zoran Boukherma and his self-taught brother Ludovic, who holds a degree in languages, shot the whole film in June and July 2021, between Cap Ferret and Biscarrosse, in their native Southwest. They benefited from past lessons: unlike Steven Spielberg, who had trouble in 1975 with salt water damaging his shark, they shot in one of the two lakes of Biscarrosse. It was mainly to avoid the Atlantic swell and be able to shoot more serenely, they add. In post-production, it was then only necessary to erase the horizon.
For the sake of realism in the action scenes, the directors also chose to confront the actors with the “beast” by opting for a real-size animatronic, and not for an inlay in post-production. They too had their share of mishaps: due to a bout of capricious weather that summer and an animatronic received shortly before the shoot, because of a very tight schedule. “The technicians learned how to handle it almost on the job. The first day it stayed stuck in the mud for four hours!” recalls Zoran Boukherma. “We also wanted this monster to be physically there and not created digitally because we like the fact that it might sometimes look a bit fake. It’s a wink to old movies’ pasteboard sharks and it allows us to assume that it’s a fictional monster and not a real shark.” To support this tribute, they also included the most famous line from “Jaws”: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Wishing to emphasize the fictional aspect, the brothers opted for shooting with a wide angle lens: “It gives our film its own identity and leaves no doubt that we are in a fiction [film]. We like the idea of having a region that exists, but a fictional universe.” They also put their cherished Southwest in the spotlight through their cast, including non-professionals actors cast in the region: “On set, we like to control everything. But working with non-pro actors causes small ‘accidents’: they are sometimes not placing themselves correctly in the field or forget a line of text, which surprises the pro actors. These little mistakes create a strangeness that we love having in our movies.”
During the interview, Ludovic and Zoran Boukherma speak as one. On a set, it’s the same, they confide. “There is never any conflict. And if we disagree on a point, it allows us to talk about it, to make the film evolve,” Ludovic says. Zoran continues: “It’s so stressful to make a film, I don’t think we will ever make one separately. I don’t know how others do it alone. A lot of writers around us are looking for a co-writer. We’re ahead of the game: we already have the perfect co-writer.” For the Boukhermas, cinema has really become a family affair: their brother Youri is a costume designer and worked on “Year of the Shark.”
However, when they were younger, Ludovic and Zoran thought they would never be able to achieve their dream: “We grew up in a small city that was light years away from cinema. Film director seemed an inaccessible job. But every day after school, we wrote scripts together and shot short films. Our luck was to believe in no-budget films. Convincing producers for our first feature was then easy.” Selected by the ACID at the Cannes Film Festival, “Willy the 1st” launched the Boukherma’s career at 23. “We didn’t have time to study cinema much longer, because it started so quickly. We are so afraid that it stops that we spend all our time writing,” says Ludovic. The future, however, is looking bright: next summer, they will be shooting a book adaptation. “The production came looking for us for this big project. We’re taking a break from genre, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop doing it.”