INTERVIEW: The Cruel Comedy of Francis Veber's "The Dinner Game"
by Andrea Meyer
Francis Veber is a master of French comedy known primarily in the States for a string of bad remakes of his films. Almost every movie he’s written or directed — “La Cage aux Folles,” “The Toy,” “The Man With One Black Shoe,” “La Chevre,” among others — has been transformed into American comedies ranging from mediocre to embarrassing, with the possible exception of Elaine May’s “The Birdcage.”
Veber’s most recent film “The Dinner Game,” which has been a box office smash in France and a critical one at festivals, is being released by Lions Gate on July 9. Much to the filmmaker’s surprise, the film won him the Cesar Award (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Director and a special tribute at Cannes — honors that comic directors rarely receive. The movie’s about a group of stuck-up sophisticates in Paris who amuse themselves by hosting dinners to which they each invite the biggest loser they can find for a game of my nerd’s lamer than your nerd. When one of the hosts, a handsome, successful publisher (Thierry Lhermitte), throws his back out, he ends up stuck at home with his guest, a chubby accountant (Jacques Villeret) with a passion for building monuments out of match sticks. The result is brutal French comedy at its best.
indieWIRE: What is it about your films that makes American filmmakers want to remake them?
Francis Veber: I think it’s because I’m attracted by high-concept movies — you know, easy to tell in two words. For instance, I did a film called “L’emmerdeur,” here called “A Pain in the ‘A.'” Billy Wilder remade it. He made a so-so movie [“Buddy, Buddy“]. But if I tell you the story, it’s very easy — a man who has to kill the president is in a hotel room, and a salesman who wants to commit suicide is next door. And those two guys will meet, the suicidal and the killer. I know American studios are attracted by high concept movies.
iW: How did it feel to have one of your films remade by Billy Wilder?
Verber: I was very flattered and then, at the same time, a bit disappointed, because he didn’t succeed. He made the same mistake I did on stage, because the film was first a stage play that I wrote. For the film to be effective, you have to have a real killer in front of the salesman. And because he was used to work with this odd couple, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, he had Walter Matthau as the killer. No way. At that point, he should have chosen a young Bronson or Clint Eastwood, a guy who is really scary, and then the film exists. Now, I did the same mistake on stage in Paris, because I had two gay guys playing the parts. They were charming, but nobody was believing in the killer. So, Billy Wilder made this mistake in the film, but nevertheless he is my master and my legend.
iW: The original version of your films always seems to be superior to the American remake. Even the one you directed, “Three Fugitives,” was much better in French. Why do you think that’s the case?
Verber: It’s like in church when we had the mass in Latin. It was more mysterious. Then we translated it in French, and it was not as interesting. It’s the same thing with adaptations. In French, we like them, because it’s more exotic. But what is the point is that it did well. It did $45 million gross for a film that cost $16 million. It was a kind of hit, which is what counts in Hollywood.
iW: How did you come up with the idea for “The Dinner Game?”
Verber: The game existed in Paris. There were sophisticated, mean people who were inviting the biggest jerk they could find to make a contest between their jerks, and at the end of the meal the jerk had an award without knowing it. It’s so disgusting that I said to myself that I would like to punish one of those guys. So, I chose this publisher who was rich, famous and handsome, and I brought in his house Pignon, this jerk, and his life is destroyed by this man. I don’t like contempt. It’s very contemptuous, this game. It reminded me of an American game called Dog Fight [made into a film by Nancy Savoca]. In fraternities, they choose a poor, ugly girl, who doesn’t understand why this handsome man is inviting her and who goes to the hairdresser and asks her friend to give her most beautiful dress. She arrives so happy. It’s a dream. And it’s only to make fun of her.
iW: Do you think someone will remake the film in this country?
Verber: I’m sure the Americans will remake this film. But what I would like to see is the American audience’s response to the French film. I have seen the film in Miami and Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, at festivals, and the audience responds very well. People laugh, so I’m thinking that it translates. I don’t know how it will do in America, because it’s so difficult. We have limited openings. Now with Benigni’s film, I hope it will open things up a bit. It’s so sad that except for a few intellectuals, the elite, you don’t know the world’s films. You only know the American movies. I cross my fingers.
iW: What do you think of the state of comic films today?
Verber: I think that the American and French comedy are dying, because there are very few of them that are good. It’s a serious time for movies. Reviewers are very cruel to comedies and nicer to serious movies, the ones who have a kind of meaning that is more than just a joke. I have done two or three serious films, but they haven’t done as well as the comedies. People expect me to make them laugh.
iW: Do you have to be cruel or make fun of someone to make people laugh?
Verber: Well, you have to make fun of someone. Even when Charlie Chaplin was performing, you make fun of him. It’s difficult to be funny without being mean. My grand uncle was a famous writer in France called Tristan Bernard, and he was supposed to be at the same time funny and tender and nice. My ass! No way! He was so mean, so funny. He said about a girl who had a very big nose, to kiss her you had to go behind her. That is not very nice. And “The Dinner Game,” there’s something that’s interesting. In a big audience, you have a few jerks. They think “oh, this one is more stupid than I am.” They see someone on the screen who’s supposed to be a world-class jerk. It reassures them.
[Andrea Meyer is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to indieWIRE.]