Arms Wide Open: Patrice Leconte Talks About “Intimate Strangers”
by Ryan Mottesheard
Even the arthouse crowd digs high-concept. They may act like they’re not susceptible to the same tagline marketing of Hollywood summer tentpoles (Where Will You Be “The Day After Tomorrow”?), but don’t buy it. This summer isn’t the year of “Time of the Wolf,” it’s “Before Sunset” (“What if you had a second chance with the one that got away?”) and “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
Not that French filmmaker Patrice Leconte is complaining. Leconte makes deliciously high-concept films such as 2003 standout “The Man on the Train” (aging thief and aging school teacher ponder what life would be like in the other’s shoes) or “Ridicule” (a poor lord must gain favor in the French court by using his razor wit) and infuses them with his own brand of warm humor and humanism. With a string of hits that also include “The Girl on the Bridge,” “The Hairdresser’s Husband,” and “Monsieur Hire,” you could even argue that no other foreign filmmaker (INCLUDING Pedro Almodovar) has had as strong of an impact on U.S. arthouses.
Leconte’s latest film “Intimate Strangers” is about a woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) who walks into the wrong office for her first appointment with a psychiatrist. The office belongs to an accountant (Fabrice Luchini) who, after the initial confusion, not only can’t bring himself to tell her of her mistake but also finds himself turned on by her confessions. Like most high-concept movies, the premise isn’t waterproof. But Leconte knows this and after 20 minutes or so, he discards it in favor of his own preoccupations, namely the interconnectedness between two lost souls.
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indieWIRE spoke with Leconte after a recent AFI screening of “Intimate Strangers.” Paramount Classics releases it today.
indieWIRE: You started out as a cartoonist, right?
Patrice Leconte: Yes and no. When I was young, my idea was to become a filmmaker. My dream was to shoot movies, write scripts and so on. After film school in Paris, I don’t know exactly why, but I worked in a newspaper as a cartoonist — I did the drawing and writing — for five years. I made a lot of short films the whole while and I made a promise to myself in front of the mirror that I would stop drawing when I signed my first contract for a feature film.
iW: Did your background as a cartoonist help you in your early films? Did they help you work out certain visual ideas?
Leconte: Well, I think the best thing I learned from drawing comics is that it’s a great exercise in concision. My movies are, more or less, very short. I’m terrified of boring an audience. In the case of “Intimate Strangers,” it’s an hour and forty minutes and I was terrified — especially since there’re only two characters — that people would be stomping out of the theatre.
iW: Your early films are not well known in the U.S. What were they like?
Leconte: My earlier films are comedies. And I don’t denigrate that at all. They’re big, broad comedies. The films were very, very popular in France and it’s not like I had any great ambition to transition to more “serious” films. I was very happy doing what I was doing. But after making six films, all comedies, a producer asked me if I wanted to make comedies my whole life. I said, “no, not necessarily” and the producer offered me an action-adventure film. That film (“Les Specialistes”) was a huge success in France and it gave me the confidence to try other types of films.
iW: The first film of yours to gain notice internationally was “Monsieur Hire.” Why do you think that was the film that began to make your international reputation?
Leconte: “Monsieur Hire” was selected for Cannes. And with that movie, my life completely changed. Cannes puts such a huge spotlight on your work and suddenly, people from other countries became aware of my films. In America, you know my films since “Monsieur Hire.” Not all of my films since then have done well (in the U.S.) but a lot of them have. And the difference is Cannes. Cannes changed my life. “Monsieur Hire” didn’t win an award there, unfortunately, but audiences and critics appreciated the film.
iW: How did your filmmaking style, or at least your creative process, change after that?
Leconte: Before “Monsieur Hire,” I was making one comedy a year… which was great. But after “Monsieur Hire,” I felt like I had more freedom in terms of where to look for inspiration and where those ideas would lead me. What stirs my passion is making cinema, and that means doing different things, making different types of films. While the two films weren’t made back-to-back, “The Hairdresser’s Husband” and “The Widow of St. Pierre” are two very different films. As a spectator, I have very eclectic taste, whether it’s comedies or action or very small, intimate films. And I feel as a filmmaker I should be able to have that same eclectic taste.
iW: At last night’s screening, you said if there was a recurring theme in your work, it was to live with your arms open, not closed… and it’s certainly manifested itself at least from “Monsieur Hire” to “Intimate Strangers.” Why do you think you’re continually drawn to that?
Leconte: I just feel deeply that it’s one of the secrets of life, to live like that. It’s just an observation that I have. Years ago, I thought that as life goes on, as we get older, we will do this more. But I see it’s not happening. I see people growing more and more isolated in their lives. It’s not like it’s a new thing, but it’s more preoccupying now as you can do so many things without leaving your home. You can work, shop, do everything from home, and I find this unsettling.
iW: From a screenplay standpoint, your films to have a very strong sense of structure, yet the filmmaking seems very loose and almost effortless. How does your mindset differ when approaching the two things?
Leconte: I like films that are well-written and concise and with not a lot of room for improvisation. I like films to be complete in their written form. If a film is very clever and well-written, that’s what gives you freedom as a director. Part of the freedom in directing, for me, is that I’m also the camera operator. That’s the place where things are less rigid, where I can adjust as I go along. I can zero in on subtle things because I’m holding the camera. I never storyboard. I hate it. I don’t understand why so many directors want to make comic strips of their films. How can they decide shots before getting to the set? I don’t get it. The only time I ever did storyboards is for the action scenes of “Une Chance Sure Deux.” I have colleagues in France who will storyboard a scene between two actors! For me, it’s crazy.
iW: Do you try and create a certain spontaneity on set or is it a hard-earned spontaneity?
Leconte: I take this as a compliment because it’s an illusion of spontaneity that I strive for. I’m not one to dwell on rehearsal or preparation. I like to just go out and do it. Of course, that doesn’t mean actors are free to do whatever they like, they’re always being directed. But sometimes it only takes three words, so long as they’re the right words, to direct an actor in the right way.
iW: Do you think part of this feeling of spontaneity has to do with the fact that you’ve worked with some of collaborators for many years now? (“Intimate Strangers” is cinematographer Eduardo Serra‘s eighth Leconte film, production designer Ivan Maussion has done 10 of his films.)
Leconte: Working with the same people is so much quicker and frees up your energy for other things. But I won’t work with the exact same crew film after film because I feel the work would get a little complacent. Some habits I keep, however, like Ivan and my editor, Joëlle Hache.
iW: You don’t take on the airs of these filmmakers who sort of become bigger than their work. You seem much closer in spirit to old Hollywood studio system-era filmmakers or the French films of the ’40s and ’50s, which I know you’ve mentioned as an influence. What are your thoughts on this?
Leconte: The types of films that I love in French cinema are from that era. Julien Duvivier, Henri-George Clouzet, etc. But it’s thanks to the French New Wave filmmakers that filmmakers of my generation have the gumption to make films our way. I would rather my films be well-known than I be well-known. Maybe you could present a film by saying, “This is the new film by Patrice Leconte” and people would go see it, but I don’t think that’s the case.
iW: At the Berlinale, you said that this would be your last film about love and intimate affairs. What films in particular were you referring to?
Leconte: I said that because I realized I’ve made lots of films that examine the intimate relationship between man and woman. With this film, I feel like I’ve come to the end of an exploration and for me to continue making films in this same subject matter, I’d be terrified to fall into the trap of repeating myself. So the ideas in my mind right now are not in this style of storytelling. But I won’t rule out returning to them at some point.
iW: What types of films do you think are in your future?
Leconte: Since “Intimate Strangers,” I’ve been working on another film that’s very experimental. No actors. No script. It was shot in Cambodia and is a very militant film that speaks about men, women, children and life. [The film, “Dagora,” will premiere at the Locarno Film Festival next month.] Then I think I’ll return to comedies or perhaps an American remake of “Monsieur Hire” …or I’ve always wanted to do a musical.