French director Claude Lelouch.

With his 49th film, the legendary French auteur weaves a delicious web of deceit, intrigue and romance
Alex Simon

Editor's Note: This article appears in the May issue of Venice Magazine.

French director Claude Lelouch was born October 30, 1937 in Paris. After some harrowing childhood experiences during WW II, Lelouch survived to become a rabid filmgoer as a child and teen, often skipping school to attend the cinema. He was billing himself as a "cinereporter" when he made his first short documentary films in the mid-1950s. In 1960, he formed Les Films 13 productions, where he produced over two hundred "scopiotones" -- short musical films designed for jukebox use, much like the "Soundies" produced in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s.

Lelouch produced, directed, wrote and acted in his first feature, The Right of Man, in 1960. His first international hit in 1966, Un Homme et Une Femme -- aka A Man and a Woman -- captivated audiences with its warmth and simplicity. The film became a sensation, winning a Palm d'Or at Cannes, as well as a Grand Prix award and an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Lelouch instantly became one of the most popular and influential directors in Europe. One of his most legendary films is the 1976 short Rendez-Vous, in which Lelouch mounted a camera on the front of his Ferarri 275 GTB and tore through the deserted Paris streets at dawn, ignoring all traffic signals, at speeds upwards of 140 km/hour, to his waiting wife. What resulted was one of the greatest sensory experiences ever captured on film, as well as a hefty fine for the director from the Paris authorities after it was screened! To watch Rendez-vous in its entirety, please click below:

Many of Lelouch's subsequent films dealt with the symbiotic relationship between sex and crime, or sex and politics, or crime and politics. Taking a more straightforward approach in his narrative than many of his contemporaries in the French Nouvelle Vague (Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, et al), Lelouch has made 49 films under his Les Films 13 banner since 1960, and enjoyed commercial success with virtually all of them. His 49th film, and his 50th year as a filmmaker, is marked with Roman de Gare, a delicious blend of deceit, intrigue, romance and playful humor that has become a Lelouch signature. Starring veteran French stars Dominique Pinon and Fanny Ardant, as well as newcomer Audrey Dana, Roman de Gare arrives on U.S. screens April 25.

Claude Lelouch sat down with us poolside at a Beverly Hills hotel recently, along with interpreter Katherine Vallin, to discuss his amazing career and latest cinematic offering.

There are so many different layers to Roman de Gare, like three different films in one. In fact, I could see pieces of all your previous work interspersed throughout Roman de Gare.
Claude Lelouch: Yes, I think it is a film that is a result of 50 years of work. I tried to mix know-how with spontaneity. It’s a film about life with all its contradictions and a mixing of all genres. I am fascinating by the spectacle of life, and by the strength of lies, because I’m afraid the world is being led by lies, much more than the truth, especially now. A lie is a bit like a loan from the bank, and we see today the world of credit is collapsing. Soon the world of lies will collapse as well. Lies are for unhappy people. The truth is reserved for rich people. It’s a luxury. What would the most unhappy people in the world do without lies?

Dominique Pinon and Audrey Dana in Roman de Gare.

Have different parts of your life been based on lies?
Of course. When I started out as a filmmaker, I started out with a lie: I lied to myself that I had talent! (laughs) But what is great about lies is that they eventually bring us to the truth, which is what gives truth its power. So this film is about lies, and this particular love story is built upon lies. It’s stronger. If a couple tell the truth from the start, they don’t have much left to discover. (laughs) So I really wanted to do a little ode to lies. All the world’s religions are against lying, when in fact all artists are liars: that’s where you find creativity, imagination. And of course at the same time, I am fascinated by the truth, which is what I try to film. I want my actors to be truthful. So that’s the very interesting paradox. When I try to say that we live in a very chaotic world, I mean to say that’s what makes the world so fascinating to me: all the things that escape me, all the things I cannot control. The other thing I try to get across in my films is that the most important thing in life is the present. For example, if I take you to see a movie, and I tell you we’re going to miss the first ten minutes, and that we’re going to leave ten minutes before the end, you’re never going to see another movie with me. But life is like that! We arrive in a film that’s already started, and we will have to leave before the end! So we have to be content with the time we have, with the sequence we’re seeing. We never know where we come from or where we’re going. It’s much better to just be there for the moment. So that’s why I talk about love in all my films, because as soon as he or she is in love, a human being becomes much more interesting. The love story in Roman de Gare was built upon all these lies. It’s like all the couples who met during wartime were much stronger as couples that met during a vacation. The other thing about Roman de Gare that appealed to me is that it’s a film about appearances. We live in a world that puts far too much emphasis on one’s physical appearance, and so does the cinema.

Yes, in particular American cinema.
Absolutely. Since the beginning of cinema, it appears beautiful people are the focus of everyone’s interest, when in fact it is the other people who are far more interesting. In Roman de Gare the protagonist (played by Dominique Pinon) has a terrible physique and is not a handsome man in the conventional sense. And I show that one can love him, too.

Yes, but most of the male leads in your films have never been conventionally handsome, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Jean-Paul Belmondo certainly aren’t handsome the way Paul Newman or Brad Pitt are, although all your women are always very beautiful.
Yes, but Belmondo and Trintignant are much more handsome than Pignon is. (laughs) In fact, one day I would like to do a love story between two people who are very ugly. Love is inside, not outside.

Do you know the play Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune by Terrence McNally?
No, I’m not familiar with it.

It was made into a film by Garry Marshall starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer as “plain” people who fall in love. Neither of them could ever be mistaken for “plain,” but on stage it was played by Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh, both of whom are very “plain” looking, and that’s what his play was about.
Ah, but in Hollywood they did it with beautiful people! (laughs)

Maybe you should do a French version, the way the playwright intended it!
Not a bad idea. Maybe I will! (laughs)

Earlier you mentioned people falling in love during war. Your early formative years were spent in Nazi-occupied Paris. How did this color your perception of the world?
I think maybe it allowed me to appreciate things a little better than somebody else. With my mother, we actually escaped death during the war very tightly. So after that you feel you live on borrowed time.

You’re Jewish?
Yes. So the Gestapo was actually looking for us during the war. We had fake papers. My father was Jewish, and my mother was Catholic. She converted to Judaism, so she had Jewish papers.

Where did you hide?
We had to move practically every week, all over France, in all directions.

I recently interviewed Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who is a contemporary of yours, and survived Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. He says when he closes his eyes, he sees burning buildings and dead bodies. It’s amazing to me how you’ve remained such an optimist when people like Verhoeven and Roman Polanski have such a dark view of the world due to their wartime experiences.
First of all I have been blessed with no memory. If I had memory I would probably be falling out with everybody. I’m in love with life. I love life. Every morning I’m amazed to see the sun coming up, and that is what I try to transmit in my films. While of course I am not fooled by the fact that everything isn’t complicated before it becomes simple. At the same time, it is because of this contradiction that the show of life is so fantastic. There is nothing more fertile than this chaos. Everything comes from there. It is just like at the beginning of time, when the world in which we live was created by earthquakes and eruptions and various cataclysms. The world in which we live fascinates me more and more. I have no idea how far we’re going to go. Whoever wrote the script for the world’s story is the greatest scenarist of all time! (laughs) There are now six billion actors on Earth, and they all feel like they are the principal character in the story.

Shakespeare had the most famous quote about that: “All the world’s a play…”
Yes, exactly. He, too, was fascinated by the spectacle and the contradictions. The beauty, and the horror, together. It’s amazing.

I think what you’ve touched on is what I view as the most important part of being an adult, and that is having the ability to hold onto your idealism, even after you’ve lost your innocence.
Absolutely. But I have been 18 all my life. (laughs)

Lelouch, circa early 1960s, lines up a shot.

Yes, you have the romantic optimism of a very, very young man.
Because for me, the most beautiful years of your life are the ones you haven’t yet lived. And for the past 70 years, each year I live is more interesting than the last one. I try to put that in my films, as well.

I’ve spent the last week getting reacquainted with your films. They all share this wonderful sweetness, even after you’ve shown incredible darkness in many of them, they usually end on a very sweet, optimistic note.
It’s because the human being is the greatest invention of this world. It’s one that isn’t perfect yet, and needs some major work, but it’s possible. Yet the time we’re living in is far less cruel than the time I lived in when I was a child. For the past 70 years, I find things are getting a little better, and I have been witness to it. Older people try to tell young people that it’s not as good as it used to be, but it’s simply not true. It’s much better now. It’s more complicated, but it’s also more fascinating. The game is more fascinating. Life is a game. The problem of this game is that you have to fight, and watch the cheaters, and there are more and more cheaters.

Let’s talk about your background. What did your father do for a living?
He was a shopkeeper. He made cushions for furniture, so I was raised in a craftsman family. On the side, he was an amateur filmmaker. So in 1937, my father had a very small camera that he used to film my birth. So the first film I ever saw, was me on the screen! (laughs)

So instead of a rattle, your father put a camera in your hand as a baby.
Yes, exactly. My earliest memories are of my father filming me and my sister, who was born ten years later.

When did you know you were a filmmaker?
Right away. My father met my mother inside a movie theater, during a showing of Top Hat, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 30 years later, they are the ones who presented me with my Best Foreign Film Oscar for A Man and a Woman. Isn’t that amazing? When my mother was pregnant with me, for nine months every day she went to the movies! So I heard all those films in the womb! And during the war, my mother was hiding me inside movie theaters. When I was ten, my father gave me his old camera, and I started to make films from ten years old.

Do you still have that camera?
Oh yes, it’s in my office, a small Kodak.

Was there one film you saw as a boy that really cemented your love of film?
There were many, but Snow White was the primary one. It was the first film that really marked me, and traumatized me, when she died. After that, I realized the power of film. I didn’t go to school. I went to the movies every day. I got kicked out of every school for playing hooky at the movies! (laughs)

Did you ever run into Truffaut? Apparently that’s what he did, as well.
I think we probably hung out in the same theaters.

Do you consider yourself to have been part of the so-called Nouvelle Vague, or “French New Wave”?
Not at all. Actually, I should say I owe a lot to the Nouvelle Vague, because they showed me everything I didn’t want to do.

Such as?
I don’t like pretentious films. (laughs) It was too pretentious for me.

That’s one reason your films really don’t date: they’re very straightforward, and not pretentious at all.
Thank you. I’ve tried to make them that way.

One thing you were a pioneer in was mixing different film stocks: black & white with color, 35mm with 16mm and super 8. You did this to great effect in A Man and a Woman, and Lindsay Anderson did the same thing with different stocks three years later in If…
You know the primary reason I used both color and black & white in A Man and a Woman? I was running out of money! (laughs) And black & white was cheaper.

That’s exactly why Lindsay Anderson shot If…that way! And for years, all these pretentious critics were debating the symbolism of it!
(laughs) Yes! And they did the same thing with A Man and Woman! It wasn’t symbolic. It was financial! But that’s one example of how problems and constraints often breed your greatest creative decisions.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimee in A Man and a Woman (1966).

A Man and a Woman was your seventh film, and was made during a very difficult time in your life.
Yes, it was the final chance I was giving myself as a filmmaker, because all of my previous films were flops. If it hadn’t succeeded, I probably would have stopped making films.

And done what instead?
I probably would have started making films again a few years later! (laughs)

In the States we have a television show called Inside the Actors Studio. The actress Shelley Winters was one of the first guests on the program. Miss Winters had a theory about how artists are created. She said “There are those of us, when we’re babies, a fairy flies over our cribs and sprinkles dust over us, and says ‘Now you will be an artist, and now you’re fucked!’”
(laughs) Oh my God, yes! It’s so true. And do you know something? I’ve never really known any actors who are completely happy people.

I’d say it applies to any creative person I’ve ever met. None of us are completely happy people. I think part of the creative process is feeling dissatisfied with things, don’t you?
No, not necessarily. I’m happy, I think, but I’m also not an actor! Acting is very, very hard. A hard life.

Speaking of, let’s talk about some of the actors you’ve worked with, starting with Jean-Louis Trintignant.
I think Jean-Louis is the actor who taught me how to direct actors. We really brought each other a lot. He changed his method of acting while working with me, and I began to truly understand what directing actors was all about, working with him. I think the relationship between a director and actor is the same relationship as in a love story between two people. One cannot direct an actor if you do not love him or her. And he cannot be good if he or she does not love you in turn. We can give only when we are truly in love. It’s the result of great generosity. One is generous only when one is loved. So I think I’ve lived this kind of love story with all of my actors, men as well as women, especially with the women! (laughs)

You also got to work with the late, great Jacques Brel.
It’s interesting, I hired Jacques Brel for L’Adventure c’est l’adventure because Trintignant passed on the part. When I worked with him the first day, I told him that I was going to tell him the story of the film we were about to do. He stopped me and said “I don’t care. The only thing I want is to look at you shooting for eight weeks, because one day I will make films, and in order to so I’ll spy on you during this one.” And he became my best friend. I think he is the man who taught me the most. In the dictionary if we had to give the definition of the word “man,” we’d put Jacques Brel’s picture beside it. This is the man who looked most like a man I’ve ever met, both within and without. He understood everything.

Singer/songwriter/actor Jacques Brel.

That came through in his music.
Yes, precisely.

James Caan in Another Man, Another Chance (1977).

You did a film in the U.S., a western shot in Arizona, called Another Man, Another Chance. What was the experience of making a film in the States like?
That’s a great memory. I thought I was going to learn English, but alas…(laughs) I was lucky to be able to do a film in the States as though I was in Europe. I had no restrictions. I had the final cut. I had the best of both worlds. I felt that since I wasn’t fluent in English, it limited me a bit with the dialogue and everything, it was a bit of a constraint. It’s a film that mixed my love of love stories, and my love of westerns. And I think James Caan is terrific in it. I think he could have been one of the greatest American actors. He was a dream actor to work with.

Let’s talk about what I feel is your greatest film, Les Miserables, an epic masterpiece which I think can stand up against anything done by David Lean. What inspired you to re-think Victor Hugo’s classic, and set it during WW II?
The story of Les Miserables is a timeless one. Since the dawn of time, there have always been miserable people. The characters in Victor Hugo’s novels are people you meet every day. In this story, you have all the archetypes you keep running into. More importantly, this is a story my mother told me when I was a child. During the war we were on a train together one night. It was discovered that our papers were forgeries. The Gestapo made us get off the train, and we were about to be sent off to the camps. In the corridor, my mother took off her watch, and gave it to the officer who arrested us. This man let us go. So we got back on the train, and my mother fell apart and cried and she made a remark “What a Thenardier,” who is a character in Les Miserables. So I asked her, ‘What is a Thenardier?’ So for the first time, she told me the story of Les Miserables on the train. So all my life, I had this story in my head. Then I read the book again several times, and I realized that it’s the same story today. It can be set in any period of time.

A poster for Lelouch's Les Miserables (1995).

You really should make your own Au Revoir Les Enfants about your experiences during the war.
If I have time.

Tell us about Jean-Paul Belmondo.
I think he was the most important French actor after WW II. After Jean Gabin, it was Belmondo. So I’m very proud to have made three films with him. I think he’s a mix of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, both of whom could do anything.

Actor Philippe Leotard.

You mentioned the character of Thenardier, who was played by a terrific actor named Philippe Leotard who, like Jacques Brel, also left us far too soon.
He was a bit like Jacques Brel, actually: also a great singer, a great actor, and I loved him very much. But unfortunately he had a problem with alcohol, and was somewhat remote. I don’t think he ever watched the films he did. He was very tired at the end, because of his lifestyle.

Actress Fanny Ardant in Roman de Gare.

Roman de Gare features the great French actress Fanny Ardant as one of the two female leads. Tell us about her.
I cast her because she’s an icon in France, and is a woman who is a symbol of womanhood, both the weakness and the power contained therein. When you talk with Fanny, it’s amazing to see what an amazing physical presence she has, yet at the same time she’s like a little baby. It’s this mix of strength and naïvetee. But I liked working with her very much. I actually knew Fanny before Truffaut (Ardant is Francois Truffaut’s widow) did, because she was in Les Uns et les Autres.

She’s always reminded me of Anouk Aimee, actually.
That’s very interesting you should say that: if Fanny hadn’t been available, I would have offered the part to Anouk!

Audrey Dana, your other female lead, is a real find. This is her first film.
I think she’s the most gifted actress working today in France. She was so great in this, I’m giving her the lead in my next film.

What is your next film about?
It’s a big epic, which starts in 1900 and goes to the present day. It’s very musical, and it’s about five love stories of one woman, between 1940-1960. The English translation of the title is Those Loves, but it doesn’t sound as good in English as it does in French! (laughs)

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