INTERVIEW: Man on the Bridge; Leconte Balances Classic and Contemporary with "Widow"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 02.28.01) -- Since hitting cinematic homeruns consecutively in 1989 and 1990 with "Monsieur Hire" and "The Hairdresser's Husband," French director Patrice Leconte has been a significant and prolific figure of the Gallic film industry. Making about one film a year since then, including such other respected titles as "Ridicule" and last year's successful "Girl on the Bridge," the 54-year-old Leconte just keeps on cranking them out with a smooth mastery of the craft. While "Felix and Lola," Leconte's latest got trashed at its recent Berlin premiere, count on Leconte to bounce back; he's already working on his third film in the last year, "Rue de Plaisirs," starring French starlet Laetitia Casta.
After "Girl on the Bridge" and before "Felix and Lola," we encounter Leconte on the eve of the release of "The Widow of St. Pierre" -- or as Leconte confusingly jokes, "Widow on the Bridge" -- the story of Neel Auguste (well-played by Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica in his acting debut), a simple man who lives on the French Canadian isle of Saint-Pierre who kills his former boss. Sentenced to death and held under the custody of the military captain (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife (Juliette Binoche), the small town holds their breath in wait for the guillotine -- "the widow" in old French slang -- to arrive from overseas to execute poor Auguste. It's a story so neatly constructed, it feels like it was adapted from a 1930's French classic. But Leconte's best work lies in its intriguing bridge between classicism and the contemporary -- a trait he credits to Jane Campion's "The Piano." At "The Widow of St. Pierre"'s Toronto Film Festival premiere, indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman spoke with Leconte about making several films at once, modern period films, and working with Kusturica, the actor.
indieWIRE: Last year, you were screening "Girl on the Bridge," and now you've got "Widow." You're very prolific.
Patrice Leconte: Yes, I am very prolific. After "The Widow of St. Pierre," I promised myself that I would slow down, but I just couldn't, for a simple reason, which I was able to analyze very easily: I adore making films. So what I had done was promise to stop what I love doing. It was very masochistic. So since then, I did one last spring, and started a new one in January and I have a project for September after that. And after, I drop dead. No, but it's not because I'm getting older that I'm trying to accelerate. But something very curious is happening: The older I get, the more ideas I'm getting. About ten years ago, I could do a film and then think, what am I going to do now? At the moment, I have six to eight projects that I have in my head. And I suppose, it's not very serious of me, because it's very trying to make a film. When you do this job with passion and professionalism, it's very tough. On the other hand, like John Huston, I'd like to become very old and go on and make films until I die.
iW: How do you keep all the projects separated in your mind?
Leconte: I can't separate things. I've always done 20 things at once. It's my way of staying alive, not to keep one dish cooking, but several dishes going. And I'm pretty organized.
iW: After the screening, some journalists were saying the film is like a "classical" movie -- like an old fashioned classic of '30s or '40s Hollywood or France.
Leconte: When I made "Ridicule," I consciously knew that I was taking liberties with a classical structure, and when the film came about, people who wrote about it said that it wasn't your typical classical film: it was original and modern. And I was very happy, because that's the idea I had. A long time after, I saw"Ridicule" again, and I thought it wasn't modern at all. It's a very classical film. Often we have ideas in our head that are big and then, finally, when we get there, maybe they're small. The style of "Widow of St. Pierre," the mise-en-scene, takes liberties with the setting that I did deliberately. Still, there is something that you can't get around. Costumes, for example. Even if you want to be different, she's still wearing a corset and you can't get beyond that.
iW: I was talking about story, actually, not mise-en-scene.
Leconte: It's true, the story is classic like the great stories in cinema that we all love. One of my favorite films is "The Piano" by Jane Campion. I don't presume to have one ounce of her talent, but I often thought about that film when I was doing this film. Not to imitate her, but simply because thinking of it gave me the energy to do this film because I was saying to myself, she managed to pull off a troubling modern film, with similar classical elements.
iW: So how and why and when Emir Kusturica?
Leconte: Why not? I was looking for an original idea, something different. I didn't want three important French actors in the credits. Juliette [Binoche] and Daniel [Auteuil] fine, but the third had to come from somewhere else. He would be a Martian compared to them, so that the strange fascination he (Kusturica's character) exerts on Madame La (Binoche) could be a sort of very fierce animal fascination. So he had to be different. One day, I just happened upon a photograph. I knew his face, but I didn't know him. I'd never met him. So I had this flash of certitude that he'd be fantastic, and I proposed to him and he accepted.
iW: It's funny because French director Francois Ozon cast Miki Manojlovic, a Yugoslavian actor in many of Kusturica's films, in "Criminal Lovers" and he plays this ogre in the woods. I see this similarity in casting Balkan types for these burly, rugged-type men.
Leconte: When I was casting, somebody had asked me, "Do you remember all those weird types in Kusturica's 'Underground,'?" So for that reason, I was looking at this book, "One Year of Cinema in France," and looked for the actors. I saw a picture of Emir directing the movie and I thought what about Emir? It was just chance.
iW: This is the first time Kusturica had really acted and Juliette is a classically trained actress, did the scenes between them create challenges?
Leconte: Working with a bunch of actors is like trying to tune each violin. When we do scenes with Juliette and Daniel, it's already difficult, because Daniel is an actor who is very intuitive, and he gives the best of himself in two or three takes, never more than that. Juliette is a very passionate actress and who will do as many as eight takes. So when you do a scene with two of them, it's not easy to find equilibrium. With Emir (Kusturica), it was no problem, because he would just wait around and if he needed a couple of takes to make it perfect, he would just do it. He had an infinite respect for Juliette and he would do things again for her, no problem. What was really simple with Emir was I wanted him to play himself, not a role. So if you only have to play yourself, you can do it 20 times over.