“One day I’ll make a film for the critics, when I have money to lose.”
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Hopeful romantic: Claude Lelouch
Mention movie critics to Claude Lelouch and he understandably grimaces. “It’s very complicated, my relationship with the critics, very complicated,” he says on a March afternoon at the Paris offices of Les Films 13, the production company Lelouch founded in 1960 and, six years later, saved from financial ruin with the success of his sixth feature, A Man and a Woman. Coming on the heels of four flops and a fifth (Les Grands Moments) he refused to show publicly, A Man and a Woman seduced much of the world’s moviegoing public, with its story of a widowed script girl (Anouk Aimee) and a widower race-car driver (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who fall in love amidst rain-soaked Paris vistas, long walks on the beach and the immortal strains of Francis Lai’s la-la-lalalalala score.
In addition to big box office, A Man and a Woman won Lelouch the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or and two Academy Awards (for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay), as well as the scorn of critics, who regarded the director as a flashy but shallow interloper at the French New Wave ball. (Both Variety and The New York Times featured the word banal prominently in their reviews.) Lelouch was, after all, arriving on the scene smack between two revolutions — the cinematic one sparked by the early films of Godard, Truffaut, et al., and the real one soon to erupt in the streets of Paris. 1966 was the same year Godard released Masculin Féminin, his generation-encapsulating portrait of the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” And here was Lelouch making escapist, love-conquers-all movies about ... what, exactly? People of privilege doing glamorous things in glamorous locations? Quel horreur!
Not that the subsequent four decades, during which Lelouch has averaged one film per year (some of them admittedly poor), have done much to improve the director’s critical rep. (“French cinema and innocent audiences alike need to be defended against him,” writes the critic and film historian David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.) His movies are rarely shown in major festivals anymore. Most of his recent work has been little seen outside of France. “I make films that speak more to the heart than the intellect, and critics have more intellect than heart,” Lelouch says from behind a large mahogany desk of the sort a Golden Age Hollywood mogul might have used. “So, I’ve had a very difficult time.”
It’s doubly ironic, then, that Lelouch’s latest film, Roman de Gare, has on both sides of the Atlantic been garnering the 70-year-old filmmaker some of the best reviews of his career. Ironic, because Roman de Gare deals, in part, with a popular mystery novelist (Fanny Ardant) who achieves highbrow respectability only after hiring a ghostswriter (Dominique Pinon) to pen her latest tome. And ironic because Lelouch, bruised by the critical and commercial disaster of his previous project, Le Genre Humaine (the ambitious planned trilogy he abandoned after two films), himself directed Roman de Gare under a pseudonym. Using a friend, tennis player Hervé Picard, as a front, Lelouch went public with the deception only after the film was selected to premiere at Cannes.
Pseudonym or not, it’s doubtful that anyone familiar with Lelouch’s work would mistake Roman de Gare for that of any other director. Just consider the variables: A man. A woman. An escaped felon. Fast cars. Luxurious yachts. The late Gilbert Bécaud singing lovelorn chansons françaises all over the soundtrack. Indeed, we could just as soon be talking about And Now Ladies and Gentleman, Lelouch’s globetrotting 2003 caper featuring a master cat burglar (Jeremy Irons) who crosses several continents in pursuit of a sultry jazz chanteuse. Or about 1974’s And Now My Love, which followed the parallel destinies of a wealthy heiress and a reformed pickpocket until they finally intersect in the last scene of the film. Or about one of Lelouch’s best and least-known movies, 1969’s Love Is a Funny Thing, in which a French film composer (Jean-Paul Belmondo) passing through L.A. and the leading lady (Annie Girardot) of his latest film set out on a romantic road trip through the American West. Even Lelouch’s titles start to blur together after a while: A Man and a Woman; Another Man, Another Chance; Men, Women: A User’s Manual; and, of course, A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later.
More than most filmmakers, Lelouch embodies Jean Renoir’s maxim, “A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” Fittingly, Lelouch has even made several films, including the millennia-spanning La Belle Histoire and the aptly titled Partir Revinir, devoted to the cyclicality of history and human relations. But for all the feelings of déjà vu his movies engender, there are subtle variations. With Roman de Gare, which revolves around a chance encounter between the ghostwriter and a beautiful woman (newcomer Audrey Dana) who has been abandoned by her fiancé at a highway service station, Lelouch wanted to offer audiences a window into his own creative process. “My first job was as a journalist, a cameraman doing reportage on actual things,” he says. “When I became a filmmaker, I kept on behaving the same way. If I met a woman, like the woman in the film, I would talk to her and find out about her. I wanted to show the way I’m interested in people. I like to get into their lives. And I wanted to show that an author is also a predator. If I have a romance with a woman, every single thing we say to one another may become a dialogue in one of my films. Every second of life is useful for creation.”
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.
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“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.”