Monday, September 6, 2010

Ah, the French! Duris and Paradis star in HEARTBREAKER; Q&A with Pascal Chaumeil

The reputation the French have for creating romantic comedy non pareil is well-deserved. In the last few years alone, we've had sophisticated charmers from Shall We Kiss to Priceless to Après vous. Now comes yet another, sporting a knock-out premise that is so original that it almost makes it impossible for the movie to live up to its nifty/nasty concept. That it finally does is due as much to the mysterious workings of chemistry between actors (Romain Duris, above, left, and Vanessa Paradisabove, right) and the talent of a director new to the full-length-movie-scene (Pascal Chaumeil, pronounced Show-May, with the accent on the month), as to the film's very funny and unusual script.

TrustMovies will not give away, plot-wise, even that very smart premise -- though I am sure most of my colleagues will do so (and, yes, it is tempting to talk about). Instead, be content with knowing that HEARTBREAKER (French title: L'arnacoeur) involves a dashing and sexy young man (Mr. Duris), his smart sister (Julie Ferrier) and her slightly demented boyfriend (François Damiens), a lovely woman about to be married (Ms Paradis) and her father (Jacques Frantz), who for some reason is not particularly keen on the marriage. Out of this mix, M. Chaumeil (pictured at left) and his script-writing team (Laurent Zeitoun, Jeremy Doner and Yohan Gromb) have spun their sometimes flaky flax into something approaching gold.

The thing about romantic comedy is that we can almost be certain that our hero and heroine will end up together. That this can be not true and still immensely satisfy us is a rarity. My Best Friend's Wedding, one of the great rom-coms of all time, managed it because those who did end up together were meant for each other, and the road to getting them there proved as funny as it was emotionally satisfying-- thanks in no small part to Australian's P.J.Hogan's smart direction and Ronald Bass' writing.

What Chaumeil and crew do is to keep us in a good deal of suspense about "will they or won't they," right up until the finale. So well-constructed are the characters, however, that whichever way the movie went, I was prepared to accept it. Being French, the film offers more philosophy -- on the surface and beneath it -- than we usually find in American rom-com, more quirkiness, too, and a lot more subtlety. The relationship between Duris and Paradis blossoms oh, so slowly, in the smallest of increments, moving forward then back a step or two.  There is no big moment when either of them have the usual "realization."  Yet we know, without a doubt, what these two have begun to feel for each other. And we appreciate being allowed to figure this out for ourselves.

If this were all Heartbreaker had to offer, it would be a lot in these days of spell-it-out-for-the-imbeciles brand of movie-making. But there's more.  The supporting cast is terrific, too, with M. Damiens -- shown above, center, who is so memorable in Axelle Ropert's The Wolberg Family (so far my favorite film of the year, and still with no U.S. distribution, damn it!) -- funny and bizarre in equal doses. He's backed up well by the super-rational and quite charming Ms Ferrier (shown above, right, from the recent Mic-Macs).

The director, too, has a number of quiet but clever tricks up his sleeve, from his terrific opening, in which his camera moves from one character to another, with barely a glimpse of the person who will soon be all-important. POV here is everything, and Chaumeil uses it very well -- just as he (and his sound crew) do, later in the film, with an effect that I don't recall noticing ever before: the sound of rain stopping.

If the knock-about farce threatens to go over the top -- and does with the not-once-but-twice whomping on the head of a female subsidiary character (played by Helena Noguerra, above, right) who is suddenly de trop (this is a rather stupidly inhumane moment over which someone on the creative staff ought to have cried foul) -- still, the movie manages to arrive home pretty much intact. Watching a con artist, which our hero, in a decidedly different manner, certainly is, succumb to his own con is usually a treat, and M. Duris makes the most of it.  Ms Paradis, on the other hand, is surprisingly stern and unforgiving. When she melts, there's a sadness to that dissolve and yet her strength remains, so that we simply cannot be sure what her final decision will be. The way the chemistry of these two performers meets, greets, smashes and fumbles makes for enormously entertaining fun -- and then for some simple, sweet, very genuine feeling.

Heartbreaker, from IFC Films, should easily corral the sophisticated rom-com crowd for the fall season. It opens Friday, September 10, in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the IFC Center and will soon be playing around the country in major cities -- and via IFC On-Demand starting September 22.


We meet with Pascal Chaumeil, below, at the elegant and fun little Crosby Street Hotel on the border of east Soho and Manhattan's lower east side.  Considering that Chaumeil is a first-time, full-length-film director, the man is older than I 'd expected.  He also seems quite grounded, warm, easy-going, very well-spoken and with an excellent command of English. Since we have only ten minutes together, we get right to it. (TrustMovie's questions appear in boldface below, while Chaumeil's responses are in standard type.)

How difficult is it, in France, once you have established some reputation for working in television, to move over into movies?

It is normally very difficult. Because the producer, or the financials -- they say, "This guy has not done movies, so he will not be able to do movies."

You say “financials”...

Yes, the budget people. Usually, if you come with the story or script, and then the producer says, "OK, I think of this guy to be the director." But if you have never done movies, and only TV, they think you cannot do both.

I have been lucky on this film because the producer was already a friend of mine. He really trusted and had confidence in me. He was a producer for lots of the TV commercials I did and he knew my work on TV.

You started in commercials and then went over to directing TV shows?

Yes, first I was an assistant director for many years, then I did short films. I was picked up by some agency and so I did a lot of TV commercials. Then I got bored with commericals and I had an opportunity to go on to TV. But you know, the specific thing about France -- and this comes from La Nouvelle Vague -- is that the director is usually the writer of the script. So to do a first film, you usually have to write your own script.

But you did not write this one.

I am not good to do the writing on my own, alone.

But has the Nouvelle Vague and its successors never heard of Alain Resnais – who almost never  writes his own scripts? 

(Chaumeil laughs) Yes, but still, usually to make your first film, you also have to write it. For me, I can react to something once it exists. But I need something first to start thinking about.

Well it is certainly good to know your limitations. And what you’re good at.

Exactly! And I have tried very hard with writing but I did not succeed. So I was very lucky with this first film. To have my producer and to have the London office of Universal Pictures as the co-distributor and producer.

Yes, I noticed that Universal logo! It’s so funny to see the IFC logo first – and then to see Universal’s logo afterwards, and then, after that, to see the Focus Features logo! That’s all sort of, uh, backward.

(He laughs) Yes, isn’t it?!  But I am in luck because I think that the Universal people in London did not have the usual attitude about TV directors not doing cinema.


Yes, -- because, you know, many good film directors come out of TV in Britain. Stephen Frears and the Harry Potter-director (he thinks a moment) -- Mike Newell -- they both did TV.

In America, that is sometimes true, too, and even more so these days, I think, with so much happening on our cable TV.  But it is getting so crazy here: Who knows what's going on?

So the people at Universal, they wanted to meet me, they wanted to see what I had done for TV. And so they said, OK: He can tell a story, and what he does with the camera --

And you really can tell a story. I was impressed with how you began the film. Here’s a character that we don’t know, and we don’t like very much, but he’s appears to be at the center of things, but then we move to his woman, whom we like a little better, and then we see just a tiny glimpse of Romain Duris. This is really a very interesting beginning, and good use of POV and change of focus. All this works very well.

Thank you!

In the interview in the press kit, it says that you had some problems with the script by Laurent Zeitoun (you mention this in your press package interview without any specifics). What were those problems?

In fact, the concept was there, and many of the big, funny things were there. But I think the characters did not have too much depth. I really worked on the characters and their pasts. And that last bit of the movie where they are together for one night. Nothing really happened in the original script. It was a bit childish. I had to put in more background, like the story he tells her, and the Dirty Dancing theme.

Did you add that?

Yes. It was not it the original script.

Wow! It is also interesting to me how slowly and very gradually their relationship builds. And how it is never talked about between them. So it all depends on the actors doing such a good job, and your knowing just what and when to show about the relationship. Even by the end, we still have not seen the relationship talked about! (Chaumeil laughs) But we believe that the relationship is there!

Yes, you believe it! I am so happy that you say that. And you are the first journalist to point this out! I am very happy you see that because that is really all the work I am trying to do on the film. It is something very important to me to show that in this way.

I think that is one reason why the film works as well as it does.

Thank you so much! And you know it is a funny thing: When we first showed the first editing to the producers, they say, "Well, you know there is not one scene where we really realized that he is in love, and we should have a scene where he says this to his sister that he is in love…"

Oh, god...  Were these French men who were asking for that?!

No. Well, English and German. But they were working more to an American type of movie.

Yes, and that that is why Americans who like foreign films really like those films. Because of their subtlety and originality and because they are just... different in ways that count.

I think it is more rewarding when you watch a movie, that you understand things that the characters sometimes do not. So that you are ahead of the characters. I like to make the audiences a bit intelligent.

But not too far ahead.

Yes, not too far. But I like to play with this kind of thing.

Your film also venture into areas of morality – as when the lead character notes that he refuses to break up couples because of something like 'race' – and it is also particularly interesting that we really don’t understand why the Paradis character’s father is objecting to her marriage -- until the finale. But when we do learn this, it makes such good sense!

(Editor's note: Spoiler ahead!) Something very simple was needed. Not something huge and big. It was originally different: He comes to her and says that "the same thing happened with your mother when she married her man." But no, I wanted something simpler. “I know you. You are my daughter. You don’t want to listen to me, but I know you will be bored by this husband."

Funny, I saw Heartbreaker with my own daughter, and it made me recall the day that she came to me to tell me she was thinking about getting married to this man, and what did I think? We talked a lot, but I didn’t really know what to say or what to tell her. And now, seeing your movie, brought all those things up in my mind. Which is good, I guess...

(Chaumeil just smiles.)

Can we also talk about casting -- and François Damiens. Have you seen him in the La Famille Wolberg?

Not yet, I have not seen it.

Well, Damiens (shown at left) is so amazing. And so different in your film than in this one. You must see Family Wolberg!

And this is funny, because François is definitely not a professional actor. You probably don’t know about him, but the first thing he did was to play in those Hidden Camera showsHe goes into a shop and plays a sailor and does things that are absolutely crazy. He has a genius for improvisation. He is a kind of benediction for a director. Because you never know what he is going to do. He is so creative. Sometimes you need to bring him back on track.

But it is better to have too much than too little, right?

Exactly! And he is a very nice guy, too. Very sweet. Very talented and a good man! If you want to see what he is doing, you go on You Tube and make with François Damiens, you will see all these crazy things he is doing. He is like that character from Man on the MoonAndy Kauffman! He is like that.

Yes, he has that goofy quality. But he can also be very grounded and goofy -- and sad beyond belief, as in Wolberg.  

I would think, after this film, that your horizons have expanded exponentially with the great response to Heartbreaker. What are you working on now -- and what would you most like to work on in the future?

Well, my next film will be again with Romain Duris and with Marion Cotillard. Probably next year.

Marian Cotillard and Romain together? Nice! What is your dream project?

This one is my dream project. It is again a comedy -- and really crazy. But I am quite simple, you know? Just to find good stories and work with great actors: This is my dream. But not just to do comedy. I have another film I would like to do later – a very strong drama in English from a novel called Diamond Dogs, it was not very successful here, from a Canadian writer Alan Watt about a father and son in a criminal family. I read this years ago and we now have the rights to it. I also did a very dark story for French TV called Spiral. A very dark criminal story. So I also like to go to dark places.

It’s good for a director to go lots of different places, I think.

There is a director of whose work I really like: Stephen Frears. I really like his career, too: I would like to have a career like that!

Well, you might!

Look at him: he has done Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, which I really love, Cheri, My Beautiful Laundrette. He is a very good director.

(We get the high sign to close the conversation, but before 
I go, I ask Pascal to pronounce his name for me.)

My name is... Pascal Chaumeil.

(I then pronounce it the French way: 
Show May, with the accent on May).

Yes, that’s it!

Ah, as in “Show May the Money!”

OK. (He chuckles, maybe a little drily)  Hmmm. Yes......

(We thank Pascal for his time and efforts, and we'll look forward with great anticipation to seeing his next film with Duris and Cotillard.)

Photos are from the film itself, with the exception 
of those of M. Chaumeil, cribbed from the web.  
(I will be happy to give proper credit, if I can learn the source.)  
The photo of M. Damien is from the actor's Friendster site.

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