Interview: Patrice Leconte – “Life is already too serious”

French auteur Patrice Leconte made his international reputation with the chilly yet emotionally intense Monsieur Hire (which gave French comic Michel Blanc his first dramatic role) and his subsequent string of rapturous, often tragic romantic dramas (The Hairdresser’s Husband and The Widow Of St. Pierre), tales of friendship (The Man On The Train), and the sly, stinging satire Ridicule. And those are just the films that make it across the Atlantic.

Patrice Leconte
Patrice Leconte

So it may surprise some of his fans to know that the film school graduate and former cartoonist first made his reputation in France with second film, Les Bronzes, a goofball comedy released on video in North America as French Fried Vacation. A huge hit, it launched a series of popular comedies. He changed the course of his career with Monsieur Hire but recently returned to the comedies that began his career: My Best Friend, the reunion comedy Le bronzes 3: amis pour la vie and La guerre des miss / The War of the Misses (scheduled to play the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival).

But when it comes to love stories, Leconte’s cinema is all about the sensual quality of romance and sex. He makes the desire and longing palpable. He captures sex in the sensation of hands stroking flesh and bodies making contact and his camera is like a hungry lover caressing his love. The objects of his desire take on an idealized quality because Leconte presents them as seen by our protagonists.

Two of his most sensual films debuted DVD this week from Severin: The Hairdresser’s Husband (1990) and The Perfume of Yvonne (1994), the second and third films in his “obsession trilogy” begun with the Monsieur Hire). It’s the first release of any kind for The Perfume of Yvonne in the U.S. And if they are dramatically slight compared to other films in his career, they are completely given over to the fleeting pleasures of desire and passion, the fragility of love, the effervescent joys of physical love and the bittersweet emotions revived by remembrance.

I interviewed Patrice Leconte in 2004, when he was the guest of honor at the 2004 Seattle International Film Festival. Conducted on Monday, June 14, 2004, I previously published a version of the interview for GreenCine. I run this revised version to celebrate the release for the two new Leconte DVDs. Though fluent in English, M. Leconte is more comfortable in French and he relied upon interpreter Jerome Patoux to translate his answers (M. Leconte understood my end of the conversation just fine).

Many of your films are very romantic, but they are also about the intensity of love and friendship. In Monsieur Hire it’s an obsessive relationship, while in The Widow Of St. Pierre, the Captain and wife (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are so in love that they will do anything for love and its transformative. I find that unique in your films. It’s not just about friendship but how powerful these emotions can be and how it changes people’s lives.

I always thought that cinema was an incredible to tell love stories. And then moreover, I didn’t really know what else you could tell but love stories. Anyway that’s what interests me the most. You can take people who are living a love story really, really far. You can take off from reality and then you can be much more intense than what you would be in real life. And it’s true that The Widow Of St. Pierre is, first of all, an incredible love story. The love story in Intimate Strangers is must more toned down and suggested, but in the end they are all love stories.

In Intimate Strangers, the love story is transformative. It changes his life completely and positively.

Sandrinne Bonnaire in "Intimate Strangers"
Sandrinne Bonnaire in "Intimate Strangers"

It’s something that I really like in that project. You realize that there is something that is hovering above their heads, the feeling of love that is over there but never lands, but you know that it’s there, a little bit like a perfume. And then, in a sense, you have already smelled that perfume before them and so you know, before them, that they are actually falling in love with each other. That diffused feeling is what really touched me.

At the screening I saw, I think many people in the audience felt that Intimate Strangers had a sad ending. The characters fell back into their old relationship. He wasn’t able to, at that time, express his love for her. I find it a happy ending, that they had rediscovered their friendship and from there things might progress.

When I was shooting my previous movie, The Man On The Train, I realized something terrible. Quite often, I had a bad ending in my movies. Monsieur Hire is not very happy, nor The Hairdresser’s Husband, and The Widow Of St. Pierre is even less happy, and so on. I was shooting The Man On The Train and I thought, “Merde, another movie where they are going to die again.” And so we invented a different ending, a kind of a “higher” end after the climax, because I really wanted to interrupt that infernal series of dark movies. And so from The Man On The Train on, I swore to myself that I would never make another movie that had a bad ending. Not because I want to do a stupid movie with a stupid, syrupy happy ending, I simply want the movies that I do from now to slope up rather than slope down.

You can see that in Girl On The Bridge before that, where they get their happy ending.

C’est vrai, c’est vrai. (laughs) That’s exactly right. So I haven’t done only sad movies.

And it’s also another film where the love story is bigger than life.

The famous “bigger than life.” You’re right, cinema is not done to stick to reality. Otherwise it’s not worth making movies. Reality is right there, all day long, all around you. Imagine somebody leaving reality to go into a theater, and then seeing reality there on the screen. “I spent my money for nothing!” It’s true.

In The Man On The Train, when Jean Rochefort meets Johnny Halliday — it could be a love story between two men — he escapes his reality through meeting this gangster and living his romantic outlaw fantasy through him.

Each of the two is each other’s dream. It’s very often like that, that you want to have what you do not have. So the old teacher who has never left his home is dreaming of western movies, and the guy who’s been dragging his old bones from job to job all his life, all he wants to do is sit in an armchair and read. You always want what you don’t have.

You once said that Johnny Halliday always wanted to make a comedy. Are you going to make a comedy with Johnny Halliday?

(sucks in his breath and laughs nervously) That’s more difficult. I would have to use Johnny Halliday for the character that he really is, and then I would have to put him in comic situations, but he wouldn’t have to do anything, not even move his little finger. I think it’s very amusing when someone very serious winds up in a comic situation. I’ll have to think about it because I don’t have an idea about that right now.

You mentioned that you made all these films with tragic endings, yet your first five or six or seven films were all lighthearted comedies. How do you explain the transition from making these very light films to making much more serious and dark films?

I felt good doing pure comedies at the beginning of my career because that would correspond to my mindset at the time. I didn’t take the risk of being pretentious. But then one day I started to do different things. Not necessarily more personal things, but different. So what’s amusing is that right now, today, I really feel like doing comedies again. Just to change my mind and see if I’m still able to make comedies. Maybe I’ve turned into a curmudgeon. It’s interesting because the comedies I made at the beginning of my career were very popular and met with a lot of success. So am I still able to that today? That is the question. We’ll see.

Your film are notable in the casting of your leading men, who are so often non-traditional leading men. Jean Rochefort, Michel Blanc, Fabrice Luchini, these are not your traditional handsome leading men. But you always cast exceedingly beautiful leading women.

(smiles) Was that a question?

I guess the question is, I know why you cast the women, or I think I do, but why do you cast such offbeat choices for your leading men, and so often cast actors famous for their comedic work in dramatic roles?

Sandrine Bonnaire and Michel Blanc in "Monsieur Hire"
Sandrine Bonnaire and Michel Blanc in "Monsieur Hire"

It’s true that comedic actors very often are very good if you take them a little bit further into more dramatic roles. And the contrary is not true. Dramatic actors or action movie actors, the day they do a comedy, it’s usually a failure. Comedy actors very often want to be able to express something more than just making people laugh. When I made Monsieur Hire with Michel Blanc, he was very nervous because it was his first dramatic role, but he trusted me. It’s true that for a long time I made movies that were essentially about male characters. And it was stupid on my part because you can’t imagine the pleasure that you have working with actresses.

The women in your films, at least from Monsieur Hire on, are very vivid and often intense characters. They have tremendous, active lives and they are as interesting as the men.

Once in a while I think, “Hmmm, what if I made a film with essentially female characters?” But then at the same time I’m a little bit intimidated because the female nature has so many secrets. Les femmes est tres mysteriose — women are very mysterious, so how should I do it?

Sandrine Bonnaire is excellent in your films because she’s very mysterious on screen. You feel there are always secrets behind her face.

She’s really a great actress. It’s quite amusing because what she does in Monsieur Hire is not that easy. She’s an actress that has a remarkable sincerity in the way she acts. In that movie I had told her, “Whatever you do, we should never know if you are telling the truth or not,” so that there always remains something ambiguous. What she did was really remarkable. I say that because I had not seen the film for a long time, but last night I stayed in the theater to see the movie again and I was looking at her again the way she acts and I thought “Wow, that’s really remarkable.”

You became your own camera operator many years back (with the 1987 film Tandem. How did you prepare yourself for such a major undertaking?

You can’t just decide one day that you are going to become a cameraman and then become one. So I found the best school I could find, a school for advertising and commercials, because when you do advertising it’s good to do 20 or 30 takes. It shows how passionate you are so everybody feels good about it, and at the same time you are learning your job. Voila.

So you shot commercials before you came back to shoot movies?

In France and in the US, feature filmmakers also make commercials. I made maybe 200, I don’t remember for sure. I really liked it.

Do you work with a lighting cinematographer?

A DP? Oui, absolutement. Of course I frame but I am completely unable to do the lights. I’ve very interested in it of course and I talk with them a lot, but I couldn’t do it by myself. It’s more technical.

I love Ridicule. The film launched Charles Berling’s film career. How did you cast him.

It’s true that it was the film that launched his film career. Before that he was doing a lot of theater. I myself often go to see plays and I had seen him on stage and I found him really remarkable. And very quickly I thought of his for the role because I wanted an actor that was not too famous for that role, because my idea was that at Versailles there would be a court full of people that were relatively well known, and somebody unknown, who had come from the countryside, would step into the world of the nobility. So in a sense it was all these famous actors looking down upon this unknown actor, and that would work so much better with an actor that people has never seen in movie theaters. And since then, he’s been always making movies.

Did you find it a challenge to make a comedy that was commenting on the idea of humor and wit and satire, that was both funny and at the same time dissected that humor.

Honestly I didn’t find it very difficult because the most difficult part was the script, the scenario, and I didn’t write it. It was a very good script and I just had to trust it. And so I never asked myself that question, because I really had an objective view on the script because I had not written it myself. Maybe when you write your scripts yourself you ask yourself a lot more questions, you have a lot less confidence in yourself. But when I read the scenario I thought it was so great that I just went 100%. And it actually opened my eyes because that was the first movie I made that I had not written. I would never have written a script that was set in the 18th century at Versailles, so the scriptwriters were there to take me to different grounds, to different things.

Did that give you a kind of freedom that you didn’t have when you directed your own scripts? Did you approach the film differently and think about it differently?

Yes, I felt more free and light because I had a script under my arm that I had not written. Most of all because when I read that script I had really loved it, so I wanted to be up to the quality of the script. I wanted the scriptwriter, who is an incredible guy, I wanted to show him the finished movie and I wanted him to fall on his ass when he saw it. He’s a young guy who really has a lot of talent.

It’s an inspired idea, the way that they would use humor and wit as a weapon. It’s so double edged, because the film is funny, but it’s always at the expense of somebody else, so it’s dramatic at the same time.

It’s something that I have very often tried to do in my movies, it’s to not paint in just one color but to use different colors. A little bit like in real life. In real life you have very dramatic events in the midst of which something very funny can pop up. And I would really like to be able to make scenes that are very moving but at the same time would make you laugh. In Intimate Strangers you follow the story with a lot of interest but at the same time it’s pretty funny at times. In a sense it’s a way of not taking yourself too seriously. Life is already too serious.

ITALY-CINEMA-LECONTE