This nail-biting narrative study of the mind of a very troubled though quite prolific serial killer in Toulouse, France explores many facets of human existence, from childhood trauma to dreams of the future to the pains of growing old. Despite the murderers’ dastardly deeds, he is painted so carefully that the audience can’t help but feel a bit of pity for him.
Why did you want to tell the story of a serial killer? Is it based on a true killer?
Cruel is not based on a true story of serial killer. The real serial killers kill for psycho-sexual reasons. Because their fantasies combine sex and death: the suffering of another human gives them sexual excitement. This is not the case of the Cruel killer, who takes no pleasure in what he does.
I wanted to make a film about the anguish of passing time. With existential questions: What meaning to give to our life? What can we do of our existence? And to these questions, my main character responds with violence. I am convinced that most of the time, we react to what is beyond us by violence. Obviously not killing. But by a form of violence. I chose the character of the serial killer because it is a symbol, a symbol of a man believes he finds meaning in his life by killing other humans.
And then there is something that fascinates me with serial killers: they are not monsters but men. One day they were children. They had these children’s laughter one day. My question is then: What is this horror that is in each of us?
The genre has been explored in depth already, so was it a challenge to come up with a new and quite touching portrayal?
I have a real passion for Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, and other films, of course, but at the same time, I did not feel Cruel was a serial killer film because I wanted to show a serial killer who would have exactly the same life, the same problems, that we do. He would not be alone. He would like to be in love. He would live happily with his parents. He dreams of beauty. This is a man who wants to enjoy the beauty. But the life he has and that he would like to have are so different. And he kills. There is no objective reason for his murders.
Are serial killers as much a part of French culture as they are in America?
No, the character of the serial killer is not at all an important part of French culture. Of course, there Landru, Petiot, and recently other killers like Guy Georges and Patrice Allègre. But the way we look at this phenomenon in France is a bit like looking at things from a distance. As if that was not us. And often when we talk about serial killers, we use the Anglo-Saxon word.
Why did you set the film in Toulouse?
I filmed in Toulouse because it is where I live. I had just to come out in the street to film. Cruel is a very small budget film and it was an obligation. The apartment of the girl in love with the killer, it’s my apartment. The home of the killer, it is that of my grandparents’. The clothes of the killer, they are mine. Furthermore, I wrote the film with the idea that this story could happen in any city in the world. But I wanted to “feed” my movie with real locations where I filmed. While trying to remain universal, I have tried to show Toulouse, to use its history in order to tell my story. This is why there is a plane factory in reference to Airbus, this is why I filmed the Garonne, the old town, the Canal du Midi. But I tried to make universal symbols.
Furthermore, Toulouse is the city of Patrice Allegre, a French serial killer. Although my killer is very different, I filmed in the area, the streets where Allegre lived and killed. The horror was there.
The killer is haunted by his childhood. Do you think that is a common thread for many true serial killers?
I think everyone is haunted by his childhood. Consciously or not. So yes, I guess serial killers are the same as us. Often (but not always), they had an unhappy childhood. My killer is different. He had a happy childhood. A paradise lost. This must be the only serial killer with such a happy childhood!