Claude Lelouch is one of the most celebrated of all living French directors. He is also one of the most disliked. That may seem like a contradiction in terms but it isn't.
Known for being obsessed with his subject matter - relationships for the most part - almost maniacally possessed by his work, he is also recognized by his peers as being someone who takes the time to work with - and not at the head of - his actors and crews. Another contradiction in terms which isn't one.
Now aged 73, his 47th and latest film marks a pause in his wildly erratic and mercurial life. From One Film to Another is a self-narrated biographical look at his life as a film maker which is on its way to release to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Films 13, the production company he has been associated with for almost all of his career. He was present at tonight's screening here in Lyon.
Anyone who didn't know much about who he was before the film began didn't have to wait more than a few minutes to find out. The beginning consists of the first scene from his 1976 film, It Was a Date. It's an 8-minute drive at terrifying and suicidal speed (up to 140mph) through the early morning streets of Paris with Lelouch himself (he is a car fanatic) at the wheel of a powerful Mercedes sports car with a camera strapped onto the front. The extract is authentic, with no special effects. (Video above.)
Up to the Arc de Triomph, down the Champs-Elysée to La Concorde, through the Louvre in a few seconds, up through Tivoli and Pigalle at breakneck speeds running reds, rocketing through the narrow streets further up, just missing pedestrians and other vehicles, driving up the other side of the road, screeching round bends, it was totally reckless, dangerous and potentially fatal. But he did make it to his destination, MontMartre.
He was arrested by the police and charged with various driving offences when the film came out and the extent of his exploit became public knowledge.
Lelouch narrated his reasons for this choice of introduction to this film, saying that all the dangerous driving, red lights, risks, going against the rules, being punished for it and making enemies then getting his license back and starting over represented exactly how his career had progressed.
And it is a very apt analogy. The film amply demonstrates the idea he has of himself as a kind of victim who has stubbornly stuck to his individuality and refused to kowtow to the industry to the point where he has refused many major Hollywood offers. He has carved himself the reputation as being a fiercely renegade and risk-taking individual and director. This occasionally comes over as a cheap and flagrant appeal to the 'support the underdog' emotions of the viewer but I'll pardon it as he does have a point.
From failure to failure, success to failure, depression to rebirth, recognition to rapture, he paints a candid picture of his work and is quite willing to accept his mistakes, such as not choosing the right actors and actresses sometimes, losing his way, being over-ambitious and he learned the lesson that "people who like westerns are not going to like love stories and vice-versa."
There's lots of 'making of' footage here for many of his films which the budding Speilbergs among you will appreciate. Lelouch is also a wonderful technician and any film buff will quickly see why.
This film moves at just the right speed, enough to demand attention but not enough to seem shallow. It's an honest attempt by Lelouch to evaluate his failures and his successes. He does it well, although hindsight does, doesn't it.
His major theme is encapsulated in the film which made him famous, Un Homme et Une Femme - A man and a Woman. He has gone back to it time and time again throughout his career.
When the film finished I asked him about why he seemed so obsessed by relationships. Was he documenting them? Exploring their possibilities? Or was it self-therapy and the quest to find himself? An attempt at encapsulating love itself?
His answer was this. "What's so wonderful about relationships is that they show the most generous side of human nature. People invest themselves in them, totally. I'm not interested in what happens when people get between the sheets because we all know what goes on there. I'm fascinated by the coincidences and the destinies and I'm interested in why people want so much to find themselves with a particular person, in the same bed, in the same life, as someone else and why they stop wanting that later. When people meet it's a miracle."
So Lelouch says that he's "...interested in why people want so much to find themselves with a particular person." "When people meet it's a miracle."
If you watch the end of the video you will understand perfectly why what he says is honest and shows that he has not changed his approach over the years. Love him or loath him, Claude Lelouch was already (and unknown to all) a monster and a savior of French cinema whan he made it, and his continuing will to push his cinematic eye to the limit ensures that he will remain just that.
And to think that his first film was welcomed by a critic for France's biggest and most respected film rag with the words "Claude Lelouch, remember this name well, because you will not hear it again."
Wrong. Very wrong.