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Ultimately, Lelouch’s films are all love stories of a sort, because, he says, “men and women are more courageous, more honest, more beautiful when they’re in love. What does it mean when we say, ‘I love you?’ It means that I love you more than I love myself. And this is what I want to film. The cancer of the world is selfishness, and love is the best medicine to combat this cancer.”
You may find this hopelessly seductive — by which I mean Lelouch and his films — or utter hogwash. Or perhaps you deem it a guilty pleasure of the sort not admitted to in mixed company. (While I was working on this article, a former programmer for a prestigious North American film festival informed me that he and his colleagues had unanimously rejected Lelouch’s 1998 film Chance or Coincidence, despite the fact that they had thoroughly enjoyed it.) As one who has always had a soft spot for Lelouch’s willful naiveté, his films of the ’60s and ’70s seem better to me now than ever, and not nearly as superficial as many have claimed. Love is a Funny Thing, in particular, is rueful and wise about grown-up romance in a way that surpasses A Man and a Woman, while the ebullient L’Aventure c’est L’Aventure — in which a gaggle of popular French entertainers, all effectively playing themselves, gives up show business for the more lucrative trade of political kidnapping — is surprisingly shrewd about the infernal entanglement of art, politics and commerce.
Those films were popular hits in France, and even into the early ’90s, a movie directed by Lelouch could be counted on for more than a million admissions at the French box office — a benchmark no Lelouch film of the past decade, by contrast, has come close to reaching. It’s clearly a sore subject for the filmmaker, who (naturally) likens audience rejection to being spurned by a lover. But the audience has changed, he says, and the pictures, as Norma Desmond foretold, have gotten smaller.
“Today, the films that come out in cinemas are essentially TV films, not cinema films,” Lelouch says. “They resemble television, and all the directors who make these films with the rhythm of TV have success. The audience wants immediate gratification, to understand right away everything about the story. There’s no investment in the scenario. Scene by scene, there is a question and an answer. Before, there was a question, and two hours later, you had the answer. Now, the public doesn’t want to wait two hours. You need time to go to the movies, and people don’t have time anymore. Antonioni wouldn’t have a chance today. Bergman wouldn’t have a chance.”
Yet Lelouch, who calls failure “the most important lesson in the school of life,” has persevered, self-financing his films when necessary and preparing, as we speak, to direct a movie that will be “a remake of my 41 films. It’s not that I’m going to remake all 41 films in one film, but I’m going to take what touched me most, what was most important to me.”
In the meantime, with the characteristically beguiling Roman de Gare, he has become, at long last, a critical darling. (“The film gives Lelouch back to us at the top of his form — fast, playful, infatuated with humor, feelings and fantasy,” wrote Michel Ciment in the influential French film journal Positif.) Perhaps it’s for the very reason that the more things change, the more Claude Lelouch remains the same.
“I believe that we stay one age all our lives,” he says. “The body changes — my body is 70 years old now — but in my head I’m still 18. Today, I’m still energized by the incredibly beautiful and cruel spectacles of life. There are people who turn 40 very quickly. I remain an adolescent.”
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