'They do not talk. They have only sex'

Take one Hanif Kureishi story, add French director Patrice Chéreau and leave to smoulder
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The Independent Culture

Best known in this country for his blood-drenched 1994 costume drama La Reine Margot, Patrice Chéreau is a man of parallel lives. To the French, he's simply one of the great theatre directors of the age. To opera aficionados the world over, he's the man behind the legendary centenary Bayreuth production of The Ring of the Nibelungen (1976), which gave a Marxist slant to Wagner's opera cycle, turning the gods into a dynasty of industrialists with a hydroelectric dam across the river Rhine. Empire readers, meanwhile, might just remember him as General Montcalm, the double-dealing Frenchman who put Daniel Day Lewis through his paces in Michael Mann's epic 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans. In view of such remarkable versatility, it is tempting to speculate that there might be not one but several Patrice Chéreaus beavering away out there.

Best known in this country for his blood-drenched 1994 costume drama La Reine Margot, Patrice Chéreau is a man of parallel lives. To the French, he's simply one of the great theatre directors of the age. To opera aficionados the world over, he's the man behind the legendary centenary Bayreuth production of The Ring of the Nibelungen (1976), which gave a Marxist slant to Wagner's opera cycle, turning the gods into a dynasty of industrialists with a hydroelectric dam across the river Rhine. Empire readers, meanwhile, might just remember him as General Montcalm, the double-dealing Frenchman who put Daniel Day Lewis through his paces in Michael Mann's epic 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans. In view of such remarkable versatility, it is tempting to speculate that there might be not one but several Patrice Chéreaus beavering away out there.

Now 55, Chéreau is still diversifying. He's on a fleeting visit to London to reshoot one last close-up for his latest film as director. He filmed the bulk of Intimacy, an adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's best-selling tale of marital break-up, earlier in the year. While here, he has taken the opportunity to check out Mark Rylance (his lead actor in Intimacy) as Hamlet at the Globe.

During the interview, Chéreau occasionally winces at the agonising pain caused by a trapped nerve in his back. And asked for his verdict on Hamlet, Chéreau - who directed the play in Paris in 1988 - grimaces with pain once more: "A very strange production. But Mark as Hamlet was very good."

Given the stream of dreary British movies currently turning up in the nation's multiplexes, the combination of a director of Chéreau's international stature, a literary hot property such as Intimacy and a cast including Rylance, Timothy Spall and Kerry Fox might seem a juicy cinematic prospect. Not, however, in the eyes of Britain's film financiers. They, in their wisdom, chose to invest not a penny in Intimacy - saving their lottery cash, no doubt, for more dodgy gangster movies and Full Monty knock-offs. The resulting film, when it emerges next year, will be something of an anomaly, an adaptation of one of the most talked-about British novels of recent years, shot in London with a mainly British cast - but funded entirely with French money. It's time for that pained expression again. "It was so ... surprising," Chéreau sighs. "In France they told me it's an English film, and here they told me it's a French film. It's difficult when you try to do a combination between two cultures."

Kureishi's controversial novel, a confessional account of a writer's decision to abandon his wife and children, led to accusations of misogyny and self-obsession. But Chéreau is quick to defend the film, saying that it in fact owes more to a story called "Nightlight", from Kureishi's 1997 collection Love in a Blue Time.

"We kept the title Intimacy, but it's really about this very beautiful short story of five or six pages about a man who is living in a basement in south London who has a sex affair with a girl who is coming every Wednesday afternoon at his place, and they don't talk, they have only sex," he explains in his fluent but Gallic-metred English.

Chéreau made a point of co-writing the script with a woman, Anne-Louise Trividic, in order to flesh out the female characters Kureishi so blatantly neglected. But this also seems to be something of a habit with Chéreau. His last two films were also co-scripted with a woman, the prolific French screenwriter Daniÿle Thompson. The first of these was La Reine Margot, which set a passionate romance between Isabelle Adjani's Catholic queen and Vincent Perez's Huguenot dreamboat against a graphic recreation of the 1572 massacre of St Bartholomew in Paris. (Viewing the rushes while composing the film's score in 1993, the Bosnian-born musician Goran Bregovic told Chéreau: "It's exactly like what's happening in Sarajevo.") This was the film that put Chéreau on the world map; none of his six previous efforts had been thought worthy of a UK release.

The next Chéreau-Thompson collaboration was Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, which was made in 1998 and cleaned up at France's Oscars, the Césars, the following year. Its belated UK release was on Friday.

Although it is thankfully free of beheadings and disembowelments, Those Who Love Me shares Margot's emotional turbulence and its fluent handling of a large ensemble cast, which includes many of the same faces. It is dynamically shot in handheld Cinemascope, to an intense soundtrack of Björk, Portishead and Massive Attack, and focuses on the funeral of a domineering bisexual painter (Jean-Louis Trintignant), whose mixed bag of mourners - friends, family, ex-lovers, drug buddies - are thrown together on a train from Paris to his hometown of Limoges.

"A train is always beautiful in films, I don't know why," says Chéreau. "Probably because the landscape is running so fast and changing all the time, always in movement. The interesting thing was to bring everybody together on the train, to close the doors, to centre the whole thing in this immersion, and then see what happens when you open the kettle again arriving in Limoges."

The post-funeral wake, presided over by the dead man's identical twin brother, degenerates into an emotional bloodbath worthy of La Reine Margot, stoked by the unexpected appearance of the mysterious Viviane, who turns out to be the late painter's son, post-sex change (Vincent Perez, proving one of the cinema's most alluring transexuals).

Chéreau consistently attracts the cream of French acting talent to his projects, so it comes as something of a surprise when he announces that British actors are "more committed" than their French counterparts. "They work more. They arrive already with propositions, already full of something. Sometimes French actors arrive in the morning completely empty, and say, 'So, what do you want?' But British actors work at home. They know the lines."

But what of his own acting? Over the years, Chéreau has racked up an impressive set of film credits, cast exclusively as great figures from French history: the revolutionary Camille Desmoulins alongside Depardieu's Danton; Napoleon in the Egyptian epic Adieu Bonaparte; Resistance leader Jean Moulin in Lucie Aubrac; most recently, the voice of Marcel Proust in Raúl Ruiz's adaptation of Time Regained. Which brings us back to the Marquis de Montcalm in The Last of the Mohicans.

At the very mention of the film, that pained expression returns, accompanied this time by an extravagant roll of the eyes and a single word: "Terrible!" I try telling him how much I admire his performance, which injects a chilling note of realpolitik into Mann's rousingly romantic epic. Chéreau, however, is having none of it. The only reason he agreed to be in the film at all, he says pointedly, was because "at that time" he was very good friends with Daniel Day Lewis. Day Lewis's then girlfriend was Isabelle Adjani - a relationship that ended on famously bad terms - and Chéreau leaves no doubt where his sympathies lie. But then he realises there was one positive aspect to the shoot.

"Isabelle was there on location," he says, "and while I was waiting for my part I was in the trailer talking about Queen Margot with her. I can say I was paid to talk with Isabelle in North Carolina in a trailer in the jungle." He pauses for dramatic effect. "It was funny for that."

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