Angelo, neatly suited and rather intense, has the appearance of a typical European intellectual - a younger Umberto Eco, perhaps. He speaks with predictable enthusiasm of his female lead, Fanny Ardant; and positively gushes over the still more cerebral Fabrice Luchini, an actor who may be unfamiliar to foreign audiences, but is marvellously cast in Chabert.
And what about Depardieu? "An animal, but warm and generous: you can tame him. He has to like the person who takes him in hand. He acts purely on instinct, but if he likes you, he has this astonishing instinct for the part. You can't talk to him as you might to Fanny Ardant, and say, at such and such a moment, Chabert feels like this or that. You have to speak to him in terms of images, otherwise he will lose his instinct, and then he becomes a very commonplace, even a bad actor."
Angelo has had plenty of opportunity to observe Depardieu, more or less from the sidelines, as director of photography on some of the actor's most prestigious films, including Camille Claudel, Cyrano de Bergerac and, most recently, Germinal. You can hardly imagine Angelo accompanying Depardieu for a night out on the town. But it was Depardieu who said, some years ago: "When you want to direct your first film, come to me."
When the time came, Angelo suggested Chabert, but found that Depardieu's ideas were quite different from his own. Honor de Balzac's novel is the story of one of Napoleon's soldiers, assumed dead at the Battle of Eylau, who returns more than a decade later to find that his wife is remarried, to a successful politician.
Depardieu envisaged a historical epic with lots of colour, and it took some time for Angelo to persuade him that it was an intimate story, about identity and about "these people who are all unhappy, and yet, despite that, fight one another". Angelo was emphatically not interested in lots of historical colour, seeing period films as interesting only to the extent that they serve the present: he compares it to a painter's self-portrait, which can reveal to those who look at it something about themselves. When he started writing the script, he began by choosing the music (by Beethoven and Schubert).
In fact, Angelo's earliest ambition involved music. He wanted to be a concert pianist, and studied piano assiduously up to the age of 16. Then, "quite suddenly, I realised that I had understood nothing about music, so I gave up the piano". Instead, he considered studying to be a sound engineer, but a chance remark when he arrived to enrol at the Ecole Louis Lumire made him change his mind and sign on to become a cameraman. "It was entirely by chance; I've never been interested in the technical side."
You have to be true to yourself, he says, and to your own sensibility: "For example, I could never do a comedy or an action film." Though Chabert is no historical epic, he devoted a good deal of attention both to the locations and to details of early 19th-century life. Most of the filming was done in French chteaux, using the original furnishings and paintings ("there are some very valuable pictures, by Boucher, Fragonard and so on"). He had to go much further to find the location for the scenes at the Battle of Eylau, eventually settling on Poland, where he worked entirely with a local crew.
He is scathing about the French cinema world: "There's no community spirit - a lot of bad feeling and egoism." And French films, though British film- makers drool over the levels of government support they enjoy, are still "fragile". His next project is a very small, low-budget work, about a musician. Despite his doubts about cinema people, Angelo loves directing ("I got enormous pleasure - 53 days of pleasure - directing Chabert"), while retaining an intellectual's modesty, lucidity, and even detachment about his achievements: "When I don't enjoy it any more, I'll give up with no regrets."
Robin BussReuse content