More from Cannes: Delphine Deloget’s ‘All To Play For’

Those familiar with Deloget's documentary works will recognize her fearless focus on social injustice in her first feature film.

The opening scene of All To Play For (“Rien à perdre”) shows two young boys on a deserted street at night. The older, in his mid-teens, is urgently pushing a shopping cart bearing the younger, around age nine. Something terrible has evidently happened; the youngest boy is wailing and holding his arm. Meanwhile, a glamorous blonde—Sylvie, played by Virginie Efira—is serving rowdy punters in a nightclub, oblivious to the many phone calls she is receiving from her sons and from the police.

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Unbeknownst to her, the younger boy, Sofiane, was burned in an attempt to cook fries in the apartment kitchen while she worked the overnight shift so she could be present for her sons during the day. His older brother, Jean-Jacques, brings him to the hospital, where he’s bandaged and released. That should be the end of it, except that it isn’t.

A mother and her sons in ‘All To Play For’. ©David Koska

Thus begins director and screenwriter Delphine Deloget’s Cannes contender, which has already been picked up in a flurry of international sales.

Single mother Sylvie suspects that the biggest challenge will be getting the ancient oven out of her apartment. But when child services show up at her door, police in tow, to remove her son from her care and place him in a foster home, it’s clear she faces a much greater battle—one that will involve justifying herself as a mother, a single woman and a woman without the luxury of choice.

“There is a part of me in all the characters,” Deloget tells me, speaking from the Cannes Film Festival. “Sylvie, she speaks to me in specific places when she acts against her interests and when her rebellion becomes awkward and embarrassing. I like characters who don’t even try to hang on to the branches when they are sinking. I wanted to illustrate through Sylvie’s story how one day everything can change, how one can lose everything.”

“I met dozens of families of children in care to write this script,” she continues. “I also listened to audio recordings of interviews between parents and social services and spent several days in a judge’s office: a dive into human complexity.”

She adds that she’s aware many foster placements go very well and are necessary, but she wanted to look at where it goes wrong. She liked the idea of telling a story in the gray area where there is neither a true victim nor a true perpetrator.

Efira’s acting is a revelation—funny, beautiful, outraged, vulnerable and devastated from one moment to the next, as her fate and that of her sons is determined for her. Through Deloget’s empathetic direction, and an intelligent script and nuanced plot, she demonstrates a rare talent.

A still from ‘All To Play For’. ©David Koska

“I proposed that she play Sylvie via her agent and, very quickly, she wanted to meet me,” Deloget tells me. “I thought that if an actress like her, who is in great demand and no longer has to prove her talent, accepts this role, it’s because she knows what she can bring to it.”

All To Play For continues Deloget’s thoughtful, narrative inquiries into the plight of those without the intergenerational wealth and privilege of French nationals who can live the French cliches of nibbling baguettes and brie while wandering down the Champs Elysees with a certain je ne sais quoi.

She doesn’t see All To Play For as a diversion from her documentary making but rather as a logical continuation of her work. While making documentaries, she began to work more and more on directing—to think about the narration of reality as a director might approach fiction. However, she still didn’t feel ready to try her hand at something new.

“In documentaries, the question of necessity is obvious,” she explains. “In fiction, I thought that it was necessary to have a great deal of self-confidence and faith in one’s talent to impose a story, a universe, on others.”

Then she wrote two short films, which won awards, and was selected for several screenplay workshops. Whether or not she had the self-confidence, she had the drive. But while it sounds like Deloget was fated to make All To Play For, the actual process of forging the final script from its conceptual origins was “a very long journey” involving a story that “changed a thousand times.”

“Behind this story of placement, what interested me was what remains of a family when everything exploded, starting with a deep fryer one night in an apartment,” she muses. “Does love in a family resist everything?”

Director Delphine Deloget. Photo: Stéphane Correa

Deloget describes reordering the material and refining scenes as difficult and sometimes painful.

She set the film in Brest—a city in Brittany, in the northwest of France—to tell the story of people who “live off odd jobs, music and parties on Saturday nights.”  It’s the world she knows, having spent part of her youth in Brittany, and oddly, a luxurious place in comparison to the haunting settings of her past films.

Under The Skin (“Voyage En Barbarie,” 2014) told the story of young African men who survived a treacherous trek through the Sinai desert only to be tortured, raped and chained together while held for ransom. The film won the Prix Albert Londres 2015; Best Documentary at NYC International Film Festival 2015; Grand Prize of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) at FIFDH Geneva 2016; Amnesty International Prix de l’Impact FIGRA 2016; and the Prix de l’oeuvre de l’année in 2016.

Unflinchingly, Deloget returned to the themes of kidnapping, trafficking and the treacherous nature of being a parent and loving a child in a violent world with her 2020 documentary The Man Who Was Looking For His Son (“L’Homme Qui cherchait Son Fils”), which told the story of Chinese father Wu and his search for the son who was kidnapped one night and never seen again. Wu sets out on a bike to find his son, undeterred by the carelessness of authorities and society’s lack of concern for his plight.

In All To Play For, those who are familiar with Deloget’s documentary works will recognize her fearless focus on social injustice. Those who are not will find a hugely affecting, intimate and unflinching story of a family and the flawed humans with whom they must engage, for better or for worse.

“I necessarily like to film where it hurts a little, where we don’t dare to look,” Deloget adds.

More from Cannes: Delphine Deloget’s ‘All To Play For’