Wednesday 11 October 2023

“You have to learn to live with imperfection.” - Part One of Tom Ryan's interviews with Cedric Klapisch and Romain Duris rediscovered


Photographs by Tom Ryan. Cedric Klapisch before I invited him to smile for
the camera in a room at the Hotel Meurice, and then afterwards.


In his recent piece for Film Alert drawing readers’ attention to the arrival on Amazon Prime of French filmmaker Cedric Klapisch’s delicious 2023 series, Salade Grecque (Greek Salad), made in collaboration with wife Lola Doillon, Peter Hourigan rightly observed that the 62-year-old writer-director is worthy of closer attention than he’s so far received. “Klapisch is a director with a solid career, many successful films, with prizes and nominations from many major film festivals,” Peter wrote. “Yet, he doesn’t seem to have quite become a ‘name director’, the kind who attracts scholarly monographs from academic writers.


Klapisch is a writer-director whose work I’ve long admired too, from the first film of his that I saw, 1996’s irresistible Chacun cherche son chat (When the Cat’s Away), co-written with Buenos Aires-born Santiago Amigorena (with whom he’s worked on seven projects) and starring Garance Clavel. After it, there were many others, including Un air de famille (1996), which he co-wrote with lead actors, Agnes Jaoui and her then partner Jean-Pierre Bacri (they separated in 2012 and he died in 2021), and the very wacky Peut- être (1999). 


Then there was the thoroughly engaging Paris (2007), with Fabrice Luchini and Romain Duris, and 2011’s biting social comedy, Ma parte du gâteau (My Piece of the Pie) with Karin Viard. In 2017, he gave us the splendid family drama, Ce qui nous lie (Back to Burgundy), and, two years later, the amiably wry romantic comedy, Deux moi (Someone, Somewhere), with Ana Girardot. 


Perhaps best of all, though, is his wonderful ensemble trilogy, which began in 2002 with L’auberge espagnol (The Spanish Apartment, aka Pot Luck), which starred Duris alongside Kelly Reilly (now probably best known as Beth Dutton in TV’s Yellowstone), Cécile de France and Audrey Tautou and which takes place in Barcelona. After it came Les poupées russes (Russian Dolls) in 2005, whose settings include St. Petersburg, Paris, London and Moscow, followed in 2013 by the Manhattan-based Casse-tête chinois (Chinese Puzzle). And now Greek Salad, which is set in Athens, revolves around the Duris and Reilly characters’ brother-and-sister offspring (played by Aliocha Schneider and Megan Northam) and dealing with the ways in which the new generation’s immersion of themselves in life’s complications is similar to and, in some ways, different from their parents’.


Although Klapisch satirises the world of television in Russian Dolls as a relative outsider – in 1994, he’d made a couple of short films as part of an AIDS-prevention program that ended up on French TV as 3000 scénarios contre un virus – in 2015, he became a full-fledged insider. He directed the first and third episodes of the opening season of the hugely enjoyable series, Dix pour cent (Call My Agent!), as well as, in 2018, a live HD broadcast of the ballet Quatre chorégraphes d'aujourd'hui à l'Opéra de Paris: Thierrée/Shechter/ Pérez/Pite.


In 2005, I travelled to Paris for The Age, on a junket organised by UniFrance to promote French cinema where, with my estimable Age colleague Stephanie Bunbury – who remains the masthead’s finest feature writer about film and the other arts – I interviewed the amiable and very likeable Klapisch about the first two films in the trilogy. That interview, along with my discussion with Duris about his work with Klapisch, begins below and will continue in subsequent editions of Film Alert.


In March 2014, corresponding with the Australian release of Chinese Puzzle, I spoke to the writer-director again, this time by phone. That interview will appear in Film Alert soon after the first.



Part One: “You have to learn to live with imperfection.”


Tom: Both L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls seem like very personal films. Are they?


Cedric Klapisch: L’Auberge Espagnole was a very strange experience because it was done very quickly. I had five months to write the story and shoot the movie, which was almost impossible. It was a crazy set-up. Everything we did, I didn’t have time: I didn’t have time to rewrite, I didn’t have time to think. And it was just pure energy which went really well with the subject. It was a matter of trying something and, if wasn’t really the right thing, it didn’t matter because it’s really about the energy. 

The ensemble in L'Auberge Espagnole/The Spanish Apartment

I’d been thinking about the movie for a long time, maybe 10 years, so I had the story somewhere in my head. And so, when I wrote the screenplay, it only took me two weeks. I think I had many things ready to say, so it wasn’t really two weeks. So that was L’Auberge Espagnole and, at the end, when I saw the movie, I felt I needed to make a second one, to redo it, this time with thinking. With some distance and with reflection. 

I think Russian Dolls is the same kind of movie with more reflection. I wanted to add some kind of depth to the process because L’Auberge espagnole works on the lightness. Which was also good for the subject, because it was about someone who’s turning 30 and knows he’s making important choices about his life. Russian Dolls is a much more thought-out movie.


It’s a deeply romantic film, not just because the couple get together at the end but because of the way they reflect on love. Everybody talks about it, but they’re all talking about something different. I found it really moving. And when Wendy says, “I’m in love with all your imperfections,” I just cried.


I agree with you. I think it’s something that I came to understand as I grew up, that, in the first part of my life, I was looking for perfection, or dreaming about it, and I had to realize that perfection doesn’t exist and I had to get along without it. Not just with love, but with everything. There are always mistakes and stupidities, and you have to learn to live with them. You have to learn to live with imperfection.


Is Xavier you?


I don’t think so. I think he was more me in L’Auberge espagnole. I felt close to him because I went to study filmmaking in New York and spent two years there. And even though it’s not the same story that happens in Barcelona, I made an effort to put some distance between me and Xavier when I was writing L’Auberge espagnole. And with Russian Dolls, while I was trying to follow the same character, I was trying to be mindful of his logic. He’s 30 in 2005, which is not the same thing as being 30 when I was, 14 years ago, so I think that he’s not who I am any more. 

Romain Duris, L'Auberge Espagnole


He’s a writer but I don’t think his doubts about life and love are like mine. Perhaps in some period of my life they were, but I didn’t go through the same things. And I think that the Xavier of Russian Dolls is more truthful for someone who is 30 years old now, when teenagers seem much older than they used to. 


When I grew up, it was very different. There was no Play Station, or internet, or social media. The leisure civilization that we’re dealing with puts people into problems where they want to stay children for longer. They’re infantilised and gentrified. I can still relate to Xavier, but he’s really a fictional character.


Stephanie: Has Xavier taken on any of Roman?


When he and I are interviewed together, journalists also ask him if he’s Xavier. But it’s really not me and not him but somewhere in-between, because it’s his body... But he’s not like that in real life.


Tom: Is Xavier going to become your Antoine Doinel?


Yes, it’s already happened. What I said to the actors was that we’d call each other in five or ten years and see where we were and what’s up. With Russian Dolls, when I called the actors, they were really keen to work together again, not only with me but together again. So if I feel the same need in five years, I’ll try to find a story. But I’ll have to see with the passage of time whether it’s worth it or not. Maybe we’ll hate each other in five years…


Stephanie: That could still be interesting…


[Laughing] Yes.


Tom: It strikes me that all your films keep coming back to the same theme, the same idea: how groups of people come together and work out their lives. It’s as if the idea of people finding themselves through communities is something that’s really important to you… Are you consciously looking for this?


Well, it wasn’t conscious before, but now I have to admit that it’s more and more conscious. It wasn’t intentional, but everything that I’ve come up with, every story that’s interested me, deals with what binds people: how boundaries exist in a family, or a group of friends, or a couple, or a company. If I deal with only personal problems, for me that wouldn’t be enough. And I think that I can go even further in that direction. 


The ensemble re-assembles Russian Dolls

I try to see what can be the connection between psychology and politics. Is there a relationship between personal, intimate problems and globalisation? When you tell stories, you’re dealing with conflicts, you’re dealing with problems and it’s just a matter of what kind of problems you’re dealing with. Whether that character is the President or an ordinary person, it’s just a question of scale for a movie. 


I think that the world is like that. Globalisation has made us more aware of the rest of the world. I think that we can be emotional about the World Trade Centre in 2001 and about the tsunami, whereas years ago I think it wasn’t like that. A Frenchman now knows about how someone in Pakistan lives, or Africa, so I think that you can deal with international problems in an intimate way… 


It’s very interesting to be an observer of that. And I think that racism gives you the temperature of how people are relating to each other and to their own lives. How you deal with differences is critical. Modern life drives people to experience diversity much more than before.


There are problems everywhere: people marching in the streets in Paris, race riots. And we’re still seeing people blindly adhering to the American myth that when you’re poor, you can still make it. That’s what 50 Cent’s film, Get Rich or Die Trying [2005, directed by Jim Sheridan, written by Terrence Winter] is about. Whereas in France, people don’t believe that when you’re poor you can change your social circumstances. There is a powerful connection between psychology and politics: if you can make people believe something, then it becomes true for them.


Bush and Sarkozy are both authority figures, making empty gestures towards doing the right thing: like affirmative action, which creates quotas for the conduct of public life.


Is the satire in Russian Dolls about what happens behind the scenes of TV shows based on your own experience, or are you imagining it?


No, it’s not my experience because I’ve never really worked for TV. But I know it’s like that because I have friends in the business. What was of interest to me was that I had two characters, Xavier and Wendy, who were going live inside a love story. I thought it would be interesting to look at the way we’re surrounded by such stories: we read books, we see films and we always talk about our love lives. But when you experience it and have to actualise it in your life, it’s different. And that difference is what those scenes were really about. You said the movie was romantic, but it’s hard to be romantic because we’re overfed with romanticism.


Like Passionate Love in Venice! [in Russian Dolls, this is the title of the TV show Romain Duris’ Xavier is writing for BBC2]


[Laughter] That’s right. But it’s true that when you go with your lover to Venice, it’s great. But it’s about how to deal with the cliché when you’re on the beach and the sun is setting and it’s all so nice. I have two children and I see the way children make fun of lovers when they’re holding hands and kissing and hugging. They look stupid and, when you fall in love, you have to go through the fact that it is stupid. I think that’s what’s funny about love: how it’s difficult to accept being ridiculous when you fall in love.


Audrey Tautou, Romain Duris, Russian Dolls

I was just thinking you might have had some trouble with backers, or financiers or producers who would come to you and say, “You can’t do that.” And “It has to be a happy ending”.


No. That’s what’s great about the French way of producing. When we made When the Cat’s Away, we had intended to make a short film about that and we made a feature. I was inventing it as we were shooting and the producers – Canal Plus especially – were prepared to be blind on the script because they knew I was able to work like that. And for them it was more trusting my way of working than trusting a script or a story. It’s a great privilege. They know that if I feel free, then I’ll do better. It might be different for other directors, but I have to feel free in order to be creative.


Like Xavier.




Stephanie: In those films, there’s a very dim view of corporate life. Xavier does not want to work in that company, and he doesn’t want to work at that television station. I’m with him, I must say. And you did seem to be making a sly comment or two about the nature of corporate life.


There was a scene that I cut where Isabelle [the Cécile de France character] says she was enjoying working for that company in London, and it was important for me to have somebody say that. She doesn’t need to be free with her job in the same way that Xavier does


So why did it get scrapped?


The film was already too long and the scene wasn’t well-written enough.


It sounds like you’re quite hard on yourself when you’re editing.


I need to be. I’m very loose in the way I make films. But I have to be hard on myself at some point because I think that writing and storytelling is about erasing and getting rid of things that aren’t working.


You must lose a lot that you like.


Yes. But it’s always for good reasons. I know at the end of the editing that I’ve made choices to make the story work better. You can’t put everything you shoot in and so it’s always going to be a question of choosing.


Well, it has to be said that the films all move along very briskly. Romain has mentioned Howard Hawks…


How it what?


Howard Hawks. 

Tom: As in Bringing up Baby.


[Laughter] OK, I heard “how it works”


Stephanie: Yes, I was going to use his films as a point of comparison. And we all agreed that there was this feeling of effervescence. Comedy that moves very quickly.

Tom: But that’s also serious underneath.


That’s what I like about Howard Hawks: how you can be serious and light at the same time.


Stephanie: It’s interesting how your humour really travels, and often that’s not the case. I wonder if you’re particularly conscious of that?


I’m discovering that. And it’s interesting for me. But do you know why?


I have no idea. But in your films, the humour is very immediate. And the humour about national characteristics is also very immediate. It doesn’t seem to be a particularly French point of view.


I also travel a lot. Maybe it’s something you get when you live in another country for a long time? Then you come to know what’s working in different places. There’s more of a chance to be human rather than just national. Maybe because of that I’m dealing with human nature rather than specifically cultural humour or cultural things.


There’s that wonderful scene where the German character is trying to study for his exam and the English boy comes into his room and says, “Oh, this room is so tidy. You’ve got to be German.” That’s so hilarious. And I can’t believe that someone from another country wrote that because it says so much about the relationship between the English and the Germans.


We were rehearsing in Paris and I had all the actors together and I said to the German guy that we should have something about Nazism. All the actors agreed, but he said, “No, why? I don’t want to do that.” It was funny because he then realised that he had to go through that. 


And Kevin Bishop [who plays the Kelly Reilly character’s brother] said, “I’d like to try an improvisation and he had the idea of making it funny and I rewrote the script in line with his ideas. I was glad that he came up with that because it was much better that someone English came up with that and not Xavier and the other guys.


No, Xavier would never say something like that.


But he would think the same thing. [Laughter]


Tom: Is there a lot of improvisation in these films?


Ummm. In L’Auberge Espagnole, yes, because I didn’t have much time and I thought it was a good thing. With people like Kevin, it was great to work that way because he’s great at that. But I needed to rewrite and so I used it in rehearsal as something to give me ideas. But on the set we weren’t improvising.

Next: A Conversation with Romain Duris

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.