French without tears

He says his humour does not travel. But Eduardo Molinaro's films are so well liked in Hollywood that they've remade several of them. Will 'Beaumarchais', his latest creation, be spared?
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The Independent Culture
You would be forgiven if, while mentally scanning a list of contemporary French directors, the name of Edouard Molinaro did not spring immediately to mind. He bears some comparison in this respect with Claude Sautet, director of the recent Nellie and Monsieur Arnaud. Both are now in their sixties, both have careers in the mainstream cinema with more than 30 features to their credit, and both are known in this country for only two films. "I have made mostly comedies," says Molinaro, by way of explanation, "and I think a sense of humour does not travel well..."

Molinaro's first film to be noticed here was L'Emmerdeur in 1973 (translated into the purse-lipped title, Pain in the A...), which starred Lino Ventura as a hit man being driven to distraction by the attentions of the mournful Jacques Brel, forever trying to commit suicide. Billy Wilder remade it into what proved to be his last film, Buddy Buddy, with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. "Billy Wilder was one of my favourite directors," says Molinaro. "But he shot the film as if it were a stage play, while I treated it as an action piece with lots of shoulder-mounted camera. It turned out to be one of his worst films, and his last." So he will go down in history as the man who killed Billy Wilder? "Yes, yes, exactly," he says with a wicked smile.

The second film for which Molinaro gathered worldwide fame was La Cage aux Folles (1978), the tale of screaming deeds in a drag club, which was also remade recently as The Birdcage starring Robin Williams. "La Cage was pure vaudeville, and so not really to my taste," says Molinaro. "For years I forbade my friends to see it." Has he seen the US remake? "Yes. Hmmph."

Finding Edouard Molinaro's house in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine was not easy. Unlike most Parisians, he prefers to live in a house rather than an apartment. This is situated up a tiny private road, which the taxi managed to pass three times before recognising it. The house is a four-square, three-storey villa fronted by trees in a small patch of garden. "Rather English, don't you think?" says Molinaro, and indeed it is. There are several cats sitting around in the windows and a huge English shepherd dog. There are also huge models of historic aircraft hanging from the ceiling, including a scale reproduction of Bleriot, the first aircraft to fly across the Channel, which he likes to take into the country and fly by radio control.

Molinaro grew up in a small town on the Garonne river, outside Bordeaux. When he was 15, his father, who was a dentist, gave him a small hand-cranked projector on which he played hired short films. He then contracted osteo- myelitis, for which there was no penicillin at the time, and so he demanded that if he recovered he should have a camera. Thus are film directors born. On graduation in 1949 he went directly into the film business and made short films and documentaries until his first feature in 1957.

Beaumarchais, his latest film, is shot in Bordeaux, "where I knew I could find all I needed for the period. The cobbled streets. The old theatre. Even the parliament house, which is only 50 metres from the hospital where I was born." Beaumarchais is known here if at all as the writer of the plays The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, both of which furnished Mozart with operas.

But, as the film shows, he was more than just a playwright. Apprenticed as a clock-maker to his father, he invented a revolutionary mechanism in 1753 which brought him to the court of Louis XV. Beaumarchais then invented a pedal for the harp, and he was asked to teach the instrument to Louis' four daughters. "All of whom fell in love with him," says Molinaro. He acquired a title by marriage and bought himself the right to sit on the magistrates' bench, where he dispensed justice which often landed him in duels with the nobility.

The film covers one intriguing episode in 1775, when Beaumarchais is sent on a secret mission to England to recover some potentially damaging plans for a French invasion which had fallen into the wrong hands. There he encountered the Chevalier D'Eon, a former spy for Louis who had fallen out of favour and taken refuge in England where he pursued a career of intrigue while dressed as a woman. The part is played in the film by a woman, but the nagging doubts about his or her true sex remain.

"Yes, he was in fact a man," Molinaro says. "When he died they did an autopsy to confirm it. But it was a great sport to wager on what sex he was. And no one could ever find out. I don't think he went right to the end of his natural ... er, penchant.

"Beaumarchais was also fond of money, and a very good businessman," says Molinaro. Alas, he got his comeuppance when he supplied the American revolutionaries in 1776 with huge amounts of weaponry. They never paid him, and the official thanks from Congress in 1779 did not save him from bankruptcy. "Everyone in America knows of General Lafayette and the help he gave to the revolutionaries, but in fact they owed a far greater debt to Beaumarchais."

The script for the film is taken from a play that Sacha Guitry wrote just after the war but never performed. Guitry had kept his theatre open throughout the occupation and was arraigned before a clean-up committee to answer charges of collaboration. He wrote the play while in prison awaiting trial, just as Beaumarchais wrote some of his. "It was written to settle accounts with his rivals," says Molinaro. "In Guitry's version there is a confrontation after Beaumarchais' death between the tribunal of immortals and Beaumarchais. The tribunal are all academicians and conformists, and they claim that Beaumarchais does not deserve his place in posterity. I could not use that in the film, but there are four main scenes that I did use, and I wrote the rest. I saw Guitry perform after the war. He had such vivacity, such incredible vigour. The stage came alive when he was on it."

Much of the same could be said for Fabrice Luchini's Beaumarchais. A smallish man, of precise, almost pedantic speech (we last saw him as the lawyer in Colonel Chabert), he nevertheless suggests a man of boundless joi de vivre, whether taking a new mistress, directing a new play in a theatre, or talking up a storm of rhetoric in court. "He is mainly a theatre actor," says Molinaro, "I chose him because of the extreme attention he pays to the text. He is so very accurate. A point." It's a barnstorming performance of the sort we usually expect from Gerard Depardieu.

The new mistress that he takes is played by newcomer Sandrine Kiberlain, a young woman of very pale skin, with a swan-like neck and long grave features. "I chose her because she looked like so many portraits of society beauties of the era," says Molinaro. "You will be seeing a lot more of her, I think," he adds with a smile.

For his next project Molinaro is planning a thriller taken from Fifties author Mildred Davies, on location in America. It's not his first time out of France; he once made a disaster called Just the Way You Are for MGM. But this time round he is going to try to shoot it in two versions, one in English and one in French. "That should put a stop to this ridiculous remake business."

n Ryan Gilbey reviews 'Beaumarchais' overleaf. It is released on Friday

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