Women in love, men who betray them, resentful daughters, and endless other roles all exist within the genealogy of Claude Lelouch’s films. What can life still teach a man who at 76 has not only lived an outstanding existence, but who has used his experiences to imbue many of his 44 films with pure realism. He has reinterpreted his joys and regrets into vivid pieces of cinema for more than half a century. Winner of the Palm d’Or, two Oscars, three Golden Globes, and garnering a collection of other nominations and awards, Lelouch’s career is one marked by its longevity. His extensive filmography includes titles such as the international hit “A Man and a Woman,” “Bolero,” “Live for Life,” “Les Miserables,” “And Now My Life,” “Happy New Year” and “Crossed Tracks.” Perpetually developing a new project, he as prolific now as he was at the beginning, and he has no plans to stop any time soon.
Joyful, charming, and with tremendous wisdom, Lelouch accepts suffering and happiness as a unified continuum in which each part can’t exist without the other. Cinema has been a tool for him to let go of the bad and highlight the good, not surprisingly his stories often champion the human spirit in heartfelt and inventive ways. And although his career has not been continuously acclaimed, he has learned a thing or two about overcoming failure and not dwelling on sudden success. With his latest work “We Love You, You Bastard,” the easygoing French auteur returned to COLCOA, Los Angeles’ French film festival, to once more delight his audience with what may not be a perfect film, but one made with honesty and lots of “amour pour la vie.”
After so many years working in the industry and with a filmography of over 40 features, what keeps inspiring you to venture into new projects?
Just that I’m still trying to figure things out. Life is stronger than anything. The more I go the more I love life. I’ve become more and more curious about life. Despite all the down falls of life, I think it’s extraordinary. I feel like I’m an observer in a science laboratory where you study life, truth, lies, and love. It feels like we are like a bunch of rats in Petri dishes experiencing love. I have the feeling we tried to tweak the human being and perfect him before we send him off into the universe, and I’m delighted to be a part of this experiment.
Why do you think your films have connected with audiences throughout your extensive career? Is there a secret?
I think that cinema allows the audience to become the actors. When a film is good the spectators feel like they are the actors of the film. What I love in film is not to watch the film, but to live the film. I try to make films in which the public can live the film and not just look at it. Our stories interest us much more than other people’s stories. I do my best to make stories that can become their stories or that are actually their stories as well.
Your films often deal with broken families, profound romances, and various others personal stories. How much of your own personal story comes into play when you are writing a screenplay?
A lot. I speak much better about what I know. In all my films I always speak of my personal experiences. I am the guinea pig of my films in a way. I test the stories before I make them a bit. I’ve never hung myself like the character in my latest film [Laughs], but I’ve tried to be a reporter of life, nothing more. As I was saying life is the most impressive screenwriter, life comes up with things that I would never come up with.
What is your approach to working with actors?
I deal with my actors as if they were my friends and people I love. I’m in love with my actors and they are in love with me. We have a love relationship in a way, not physically or literally, but my actors want to make me feel good and make me happy, and I want to make them happy. We are not in a professional relationship; we are in a passionate relationship.
Did the global success achieved with “A Man and a Woman” change the way you made films after?
Yes, because I’ve never had any success as huge as that again. I still have great successes, but nothing in the scale of “A Man and a Woman.” I’ve made 44 films, 10 of them were huge successes, 30 were sort of in the middle, and the rest were huge flops. It’s a good average In spite of the failures and successes, was there a reason why you never decided to make films in the U.S. like, for example, Francois Truffaut? In the U.S. the producer is the boss of the film and the director is an employee. I cannot tolerate that. For me the boss of the film is the director.
Regarding your latest film “We Love You, You Bastard,” where did the idea for this story come from?
The idea of this film was easy. I was looking for a chance to have 7 children with 5 different wives, so that was the screenplay [Laughs]. This story is a story I know well — I devoted more time to cinema than I did to my own family. I felt like asking for forgiveness from my family. This is my way of asking for forgiveness.
Music is very important in your films and I know that you’ve worked with the same composer for many any years. How do you balance the musically and the drama in your work?
Music talks to the subconscious, and the screenplay talks your intelligence. The screenplay talks to the conscious mind and the music to the subconscious mind. When I want to reach the subconscious of the audience I used music. Our subconscious tells us we are eternal, but our consciousness tells us we are mortals. We are going to die. Music is part of eternity. For me, if God exists, he is the composer.
As filmmaker whose career started in an unusual way being a photojournalist and learning the craft as you went, what would be your advice for new and up-coming filmmakers?
Advices are like toothpicks; once you used them nobody else wants to use them [Laughs]. If you love life everything is possible. To make films, to make children, you have to love life. When you love life, life loves you back. That’s the only advice I have, try to really love life with all its flaws.
What’s next for Claude Lelouch?
At my age I don’t know when the referee is going to call the end of the game. So each new film will be an amazing present for me. Let’s say that I’ve started making my last films. I don’t know. Now everything that happens is a gift, it’s a bonus. Each second is a gift: today, my wife, a film, you. Most people are dead at my age, now I’m in the age of “gifts.” So I will try to make more gifts for all of you with my films.