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From L.A. City Beat: Patrice Leconte, Unlikely Auteur

July 9, 2007

Photo by Max S. GerberAn encounter with a master of encounters

by Wade Major

On the same day that literally thousands of Angelenos have lined up to purchase an Apple iPhone, adding yet one more digital interface to their already overdigitized lives, Patrice Leconte utters what almost sounds like information-age heresy: “I love meeting people.”

He’s talking, of course, about meeting people in person – the old-fashioned way, before the era of cell phones, Blackberries, Treos, and text messaging. “For me, meeting people is something very important and fascinating,” he adds. “It seems that all of society is pushing us to be more and more closed-off to others, to the outside … that we’re being forced into these bubbles.”

Leconte’s fascination with the challenges of human relationships is, of course, nothing new to fans of his films. The Man on the Train, Intimate Strangers, Monsieur Hire, The Hairdresser’s Husband, The Girl on the Bridge, The Widow of St. Pierre, and 2001’s unreleased Felix and Lola all wrestle with the difficulty of forging bonds in a world increasingly determined to tear those bonds apart. But it’s his latest release – My Best Friend – that finally tackles the subject head-on, deconstructing the very concept of friendship in ways both humorous and deeply disturbing.

The story centers on a self-absorbed art dealer, François Coste (Daniel Auteuil), whose sudden realization that he has no friends leads him to seek the help of Bruno (Dany Boon), a talkative cabby with an uncanny talent for making friends. In the hands of someone like Francis Veber (whose comedy The Valet also featured Boon earlier this year), such a scenario would be irresistibly ripe for broad comedy. But Leconte aims to cut deeper, using François and Bruno’s relationship like a can opener – forcing the audience to ask the very same penetrating, existential questions of its own friendships.

“Stories of friendship take you to a different place from a love story,” Leconte explains. “When Harry meets Sally, you already have an idea what’s going to happen. But when you explore a friendship – in this case between two men – you don’t really know where the story is going to lead you.”

Such thinking is anathema to disciples of screenplay-structure gurus like Syd Field and Robert McKee, whose rigid approach to storytelling has held sway in Hollywood for more than two decades. But Leconte and his ilk may yet have the last laugh; he now has three films slated for Hollywood remakes – My Best Friend, Intimate Strangers, and The Man on the Train – suggesting that studio aversion to character-driven (as opposed to plot-driven) material is finally on the wane.

“I like to develop a script through the characters and how they evolve,” says Leconte. “The structured, American way – which is done very well – where characters are forced to go through mandatory structure points like a slalom, left and right, through this door and around that corner, that’s not my cinema. Serge Frydman, my cowriter on The Girl on the Bridge, said that the true screenwriters are the characters – they write the movie. No matter what you want to impose on your characters, they don’t always want to do what you want. Sometimes they rebel or slip through your fingers. They have their autonomy.”

Former Paramount Classics chief Ruth Vitale, who acquired and distributed The Girl on the Bridge, The Man on the Train, and Intimate Strangers, isn’t surprised that Hollywood has finally taken notice, albeit belatedly. “Patrice has an elegance to his storytelling that surpasses most directors,” she observes. “Combined with this elegance is a simplicity of story that is relatable across cultures. Thematically, Patrice deals with fate and mankind. Do we determine our own fate, or is it predestined? His films explore this in a manner that draws audiences worldwide. I only pray that the remakes do his work justice.”

Though Leconte is generally best known for 1996’s Oscar-nominated Ridicule, few would agree on which of his films is the best – a testament to his consistency as an artist. But Leconte, a trim and youthful 59, remains an unlikely auteur: Affable and self-effacing, he can be his own worst critic, so uncomfortable with facile praise that he won’t hesitate to pinpoint what he perceives to be flaws in his own work. If he sometimes seems too quick to modesty, it’s because he genuinely believes in sharing the credit, particularly with his actors.

“Daniel Auteuil said something to me during the shooting that was very touching,” he recalls. “He said, ‘When the director is good, the actor cannot be bad.’ And I replied, ‘When the actor is good, the director cannot be bad!’”

Leconte specifically credits Auteuil – with whom he previously made The Girl on the Bridge and The Widow of St. Pierre – with helping the film achieve its tricky balance of humor and drama. “Some say that the difference between comedy and drama is where you place the comma,” he says. “And you could say almost the same thing for Daniel Auteuil – when he’s in a comedy, he’s not playing the comedy. And when he’s in a drama, he doesn’t play the drama. He’s just faithful to himself. You never see him working to prove that he’s a good actor. On the surface it appears simple and easy, and yet it’s the result of an elaborate amount of work underneath.”

Riskier was the casting of Boon, an enormously popular standup comic, whose previous film experience had been limited to supporting roles in straight comedies. But Leconte, no stranger to eclectic casting, saw Boon as the perfect Bruno.

“When you offer a comic actor the opportunity to do something more intimate and more truthful, all of a sudden they’re more naked than a dramatic actor would be, because the comic is accustomed to wearing different masks,” says Leconte. “Once you remove all of that, he doesn’t have the instruments that perhaps other actors have, so he finds himself more naked and will give a more naked performance.”

Though Leconte doesn’t deny that My Best Friend deals more directly with certain aspects of contemporary culture than his previous films, he is quick to dispel the notion that it harbors any messages apart from the obvious.

“It’s not my intention to teach anyone any lessons, to engage in any kind of moralizing,” he says. “If the film has any message at all, it’s about being open to others, being open to opportunities for dialogue and not being focused only on yourself. Just respect one another. It sounds like a big statement, but it’s a very simple thing. Respect one another. I’m convinced the world would be better if everyone acted in that way.”

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