INTERVIEW: The Family Who Stole
Christmas; Thompson Stuffs the Season with "La Bûche"
by Andy Bailey
(indieWIRE/ 11.17.00) -- Veteran French screenwriter Danièle Thompson, whose work includes "Cousin, Cousine," "Queen Margot" and "Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train," tries her hand at directing with "La Bûche," a bittersweet comedy-drama revolving around three French sisters and their extended families as they try to cope with the mounting frenzy of the Christmas season in the contemporary, consumerist City of Lights. Starring Sabine Azema, Emmanuelle Béart and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Thompson's holiday treat hits New York screens on the same day as "The Grinch" and serves up a vision of Paris drenched in festive lights and English-language carols that isn't that far removed from Whoville.
Only Thompson's special effects are of a more internal nature -- no prosthetics and silly make-up here, thanks very much, just the very real machinations of a French family in crisis during a season when everyone's expected to be filled with merriment and mirth.
Redolent of a French "Hannah and Her Sisters," Thompson co-wrote the script with her son, Christopher, who also stars in the film. Mother and son have peppered the movie with enough universal wit and wisdom to transcend national borders, making "La Bûche" a delightful holiday moviegoing alternative to overblown studio fare. indieWIRE spoke with Danièle Thompson about a variety of subjects, including growing up in the specter of a famous father, navigating the American cultural occupation of France and unlocking the secrets of the extended family.
indieWIRE: It was reported in Harper's Bazaar that the film would be titled "Season's Beatings" in America -- one of the most dreadful titles of all time. Usually it's the French translations of American titles that are so absurdly funny.
Danièle Thompson: What an idea! There is not another title, don't worry (laughs). We thought of changing the title but somehow I didn't like the idea of having a title that had something directly to do with Christmas. Because la bûche is a word in France that means a Christmas cake but it's a lot of other things. To take a bûche means to fall down, for example. And it's also a log you put in the fire to burn.
iW: Claude Rich's quote in the film "there's nothing more precious than the family" seems to sum up not just "La Bûche" but the principal theme of most of your work. How did you come to write so eloquently about extended families?
Thompson: It's an interesting conversation between Stanislas and his son, who says he's given up on family. But in fact he hasn't. Even though he's messed up his own family by being unfaithful he still believes in the idea of family. It's very much what the movie's about, how much we have to struggle through this very basic idea of family. I think inside the family is where there's the most love but also the biggest amount of lies. I believe our close friends, or our lovers or husbands or wives are people who know the most about us. But the things that we disclose to them are very often the things we hide from our families. Basically the structure of the family is built around pretending that everything is okay. Whenever there's a suicide, for instance, the most surprised people are the ones in the family.
iW: Your film suggests that we haven't lost the true meaning of Christmas, which is family and togetherness, but you give us this vision of Paris that seems to be in the midst of a consumer frenzy -- and you pepper the soundtrack with American Christmas carols sung in English. Is this a commentary on the American cultural occupation of France?
Thompson: When I came to America, at the age of twenty, nothing much was happening in Paris for Christmas. It was very dull. For my first Christmas in New York, I was totally entranced, the lights, Park Avenue with the trees, Rockefeller Center, Christmas carols outside the department stores, it was amazing. I thought, Oh my God, it's so terrible no one celebrates in Paris. Then years went by, and Paris did it. Let's face it; it's more fun. The Champs-Elysées with lights is beautiful...
iW: But there are a lot of critics of that, you know.
Thompson: Yes, of course. This is why I used all these American songs in the film. I like these songs; I think they're lovely! The Christmas holidays is the one time of year where if you do not want to participate it's a statement of failure and hostility.
iW: The closing line of the film is, "Christmas cake makes me puke!" What kind of statement did you want to make with that line?
Thompson: It was an ironic reference to the title. I wanted people to understand that the title had several meanings...in fact, this Christmas cake, "la bûche," which is on every Christmas table in France, is something no one wants to eat. Because you've had tons of foie gras, turkey, oysters; it's an orgy of food! When the cake arrives, I can assure you, no one ever wants to eat it.
iW: Your father (Gérard Oury) was a famous film director -- what was it like growing up in a film family, and did dad put pressure on you to follow in his footsteps?
Thompson: My parents were actors when I was a little girl, which was really hard. They kept on saying what a difficult thing it was and they didn't wish for me to become an actress. I thought I was going to be a lawyer; I went to law school for a year and I got so bored. Then I came to America and studied art history at Columbia and got married. My father had switched from acting to screenwriting, then directing. He wrote a comedy that was an enormous hit and he could literally do anything he wanted after that. And he said I want to have my daughter work with me. He thought I had some talent, because I'd been around all the time, listening, giving ideas.
iW: You wrote "La Grande Vaudrouille" with your father, one of the most successful French comedies of all time, and then you wrote "Cousin, Cousine" in the early 1970s with Jean-Charles Tachella. At what point did you realize you were a successful screenwriter?
Thompson: I never thought I was any good. Very often things happen without you realizing what you're doing. Directing a film was the thing that convinced me. I wasn't totally convinced I would do it even through the writing of the screenplay. Four days after I turned in "La Bûche" the film was in production. Suddenly I woke up and realized I was a director!
iW: You said in the production notes "I did what I wanted the way I wanted, it's my movie!" That's probably an important statement because you've mostly collaborated with people throughout your career.
Thompson: It was an enormous pleasure [to work on my own] and of course it was very scary because as a scriptwriter, you get both sides of the story. The bad side being you have influence over the director but never power. You don't have to bear the responsibility of success or failure as a writer.
iW: Like Woody Allen did in "Hannah and Her Sisters," you've found a way to make the family in "La Bûche" come across as universal. They may be French but anyone in the world can relate to them. How do you achieve this in your writing?
Thompson: I think it comes from the nature of the story, but I thought about Woody Allen a lot. I have great admiration for him and I know "Hannah and Her Sisters" very well. For instance the construction of that story, I was tempted to do that very early on in the screenplay. "Hannah and Her Sisters" starts on Thanksgiving and ends the following year at Thanksgiving. I thought about starting mine at Christmas and ending the following year, but he already had that idea. What I love in Woody Allen, and what I consciously tried to do as well is create this mixture of laughter and seriousness, so when you come out you realize you didn't watch a comedy at all.
iW: There are funerals in a lot of your films, but there's an absurdity to your funeral scenes. Is it because sometimes it's just easier to laugh at such things?
Thompson: At my mother's funeral, the people from the funeral parlor came to me and they asked, "Are you pleased?" (Bursts into laughter). I guess everybody sees their own thing. "Yes, thank you very much, I said. Everything's perfect!"