06/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"In the Beginning" Premieres at Cannes: Solid Story with Emotional Punch

It is a compelling true story: a French convict is released from prison, finds it impossible -- with a prison record -- to get work, and decides to get a highway built instead, by pretending to be a project manager for a construction firm.

At first, French director Xavier Giannoli's new film In the Beginning seems just a fascinating expose of a clever financial scam: Philippe Miller (the man's pseudonym) cons agencies to loan him thousands of dollars, makes false checks, and hires local workers to build the road. The film races along with thrilling road-building scenes: cranes and bulldozers galore, clearing out a path, while workers cheer each other on.

Philippe Miller becomes the town hero: after all, he has brought employment and activity to a village devastated by unemployment.
But then Miller begins not to care about the money at all. He keeps pushing this elaborate scam simply to get the highway done. The highway will be made come hell or high water (literally; there is an exciting rain scene).

And -- what is truly great -- it is a highway that goes nowhere. Something that no one--not even the workers -- seems to notice.

The pleasure of the film lies, in fact, in the mad absurdity of this man's heroic task. One identifies with Philippe as he pursues his beat-the-odds ingenious schemes. Moreover, one cheers for the disheveled ex-con as he -- divorced from his wife, friendless, and alone (and taciturn to the point of handicapped) -- rebuilds a "family" for himself: the community of workers in the village.

One senses a message in all this: a message of hope for the disempowered, as well as a message of defiance against corporations. While the music overstates the point sometimes, the movie delivers one emotional punch after another.

And another message as well: the triumph of the self-made man. Philippe manages all this by taking things in his own hands -- quite an American message, a fellow journalist noted, predicting the Hollywood remake.

Who cares that the highway goes nowhere? Or that in real life, the 40 kilometer stretch that was built has since been destroyed?

I met with Xavier Giannoli at the Orange Plage in Cannes to learn more.

What is this film about for you?

I created this story from what I could piece together from interviews with the man in prison (but he spoke very little, only about facts) and people who knew him. There is a lot of me in the story. My idea of the character is that he is utopic. He reconstructs a new life for himself -- a new family. It's an American concept I like: the idea of having a second chance. He also learns to care more for the community than himself. Between him and the young thief in the story there is also solidarity -- fraternity -- which is very important for me.

I am also very taken with the concept of illusion. To make things real, we must act. The man must keep his promise to the workers. Society is possible when politicians keep their promises. My film is possible when it goes from being an illusion to reality: a film is society in miniature: workers, financiers, directors are all involved in its construction.

My film is also about freedom: my character has an inner adventure in him. This highway that goes nowhere is beautiful just like the absurdity of life.

You have said that this film is a critique of the society in which we live, but how is it also a critique specifically of your country France -- where being an entrepreneur, defying the big companies, is not particularly encouraged?

My film has a universal theme. However, watching my film last night, I did see for the first time how it could offer a critique of France, and this lies in the relationship to words. My character is without words. Now France is a place of words, but do we still act? Do we -- with all our words -- have any influence on the world? We are in chaos in France, trying to find out what kind of society we can have.

How did you approach your film aesthetically?

I tried to create in my film a sense of documentary vibration. I wanted to film my character always in a state of urgency. I also like to film actors in motion: I like the sensuality of actors, how they move together. I wrote the script intensely in a chambre de bonne, writing constantly, while my neighbor downstairs re-constructed his apartment. The drill was awful!

What is your own favorite moment of the film?

It is when my character sees all the machines around him, the trucks coming towards him. I also like the last half-hour when he is sweeping the highway in the rain. The scene where he dances with the bulldozer, of course, is in homage to Fellini's 8 1/2..