Meet Patrice Leconte - Jacques of all genres

New film, new direction. Plus ça change, says Robin Buss
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The French director Patrice Leconte is slightly disconcerting. He refuses to make the same film twice. He started by directing shorts, had a big success in France in the late 1970s with the comedy Les Bronzés, gained an international reputation some 10 years later for the psychological mystery Monsieur Hire and has since made action movies, offbeat comedies, the historical chamber piece Ridicule and a black-and-white love story about a knife-thrower and his target, La Fille sur le pont, still on release in London.

The French director Patrice Leconte is slightly disconcerting. He refuses to make the same film twice. He started by directing shorts, had a big success in France in the late 1970s with the comedy Les Bronzés, gained an international reputation some 10 years later for the psychological mystery Monsieur Hire and has since made action movies, offbeat comedies, the historical chamber piece Ridicule and a black-and-white love story about a knife-thrower and his target, La Fille sur le pont, still on release in London.

His latest film is a large-scale historical romance, La Veuve de Saint-Pierre. When I met him last week before the film's preview screening at the French Institute, he said that this diversity suited him very well: "None of us is a single person ... and I want to make each of my films with the freshness of a beginner." Even so, his critics and his fans can find the changes of direction perplexing. One member of the audience at the French Institute, in the discussion with Leconte after the screening, indignantly declared that he would rather have had three minutes of The Hairdresser's Husband (1990) than the whole of La Veuve de Saint-Pierre. Leconte shrugged his shoulders and said everyone is entitled to their opinion. He has received more letters congratulating him on this film than ever before.

Perhaps the best tactic is to approach each of his works, if not with the freshness of a beginner, at least with a willingness to judge it on its own terms. La Veuve takes as its starting-point a real event in the 19th century, when a fisherman on the French island of Saint-Pierre, off the coast of Newfoundland, was condemned to death after killing a man in a drunken brawl. No one had ever been executed on Saint-Pierre, so a guillotine had to be brought by sea from Martinique, which took eight months. As Leconte says, "during that time the man was rehabilitated; he was the only person ever condemned to death on Saint-Pierre and the guillotine is still there, an object of shame."

The title, which means "The Widow of Saint-Pierre", is both a reference to the women in the film and a pun on the popular name for the guillotine, " la veuve" (since she loses all those who lie with her). The gallows humour runs through the dialogue: the condemned man is referred to as " le raccourci" ("Shorty", perhaps anticipating his abbreviation); the Governor's children are rebuked for interrupting their parents' conversation by being told that "you don't cut a grown-up off", and so on. Behind the wordplay is horror at the obscenity of judicial killing, especially of someone who committed a murder on the spur of the moment, and may have changed in the period between the deed and the execution. Who better to understand that than a director who hates to make the same film twice and insists that "none of us is a single person"?

And yet, he protests that this is not really a film about capital punishment: "Big subjects bore me ... and in any case, is there any point in making a film today against the death penalty?" No, he says, this is a love story, and an entirely fictional one, that the author of the original script, Claude Faraldo, built around the historical circumstances of the murder and execution. In fact, it is a three-way love story, involving the Captain of the Guard on the island (played by Daniel Auteuil), his wife (Juliette Binoche) and Neel, the condemned man (Emir Kusturica), for whom she develops an intense, though platonic, affection.

The film was originally to have been made by another director, Alain Corneau, and Auteuil and Binoche had already been chosen for the leads when Corneau pulled out, for reasons that, to Leconte at least, are unclear. "For an actor, being orphaned of your director like that is tremendously unsettling, but Daniel and Juliette believed strongly in the project." Working with Auteuil, Leconte says, was "more than easy - we hardly needed to speak to understand one another." Juliette Binoche was harder, because she is extremely intense, "constantly on the alert, searching for something." For the third leading role, that of Neel, Leconte took a risk, choosing the film director Emir Kusturica, simply because he looked right, even though Kusturica had no acting experience. During the shooting, Kusturica refrained from making any suggestions to the director, but apparently drove Binoche into a fury by saying repeatedly that acting was easy, directing is the really hard job.

"In this business," Leconte says, "you are allowed two failures for every success." And when it comes down to it, the success or failure of this film depends on how far the audience is convinced by Auteuil and Binoche in the characters of the Captain and his wife - the condemned man, Neel, is less important, since he has little to do except to look contrite, innocent and bewildered (no wonder Kusturica decided acting was easy). The Captain's wife is one of those characters in historical fiction who are ahead of their time: she defies convention, angers the narrow-minded ruling group on the island and ultimately causes disaster. The Captain himself supports her, without always understanding what she does: "he's not really as modern as she is," Leconte says. "He's more of a Romantic hero, a bit of a rebel, but very 19th-century. He tells her not to have any regrets." All these grand gestures and tragic endings may be too much for some modern audiences; but Auteuil and Binoche are excellent, and Leconte is a fine craftsman, so - love it or hate it - you won't be bored.

'La Veuve de Saint-Pierre' (15) opens on Friday

Comments