How We Met: Louis Malle and Leslie Caron

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The Independent Culture
The French film director Louis Malle (60) was born into a middle-class family of seven children. After starting out as a cameraman for Jacques Cousteau, he went on to direct films such as Lacombe Lucien, Pretty Baby, Atlantic City and the award-winning Au Revoir les Enfants. He is married to Candice Bergen, with whom he has a daughter. Leslie Caron (61) trained as a dancer at the Paris Conservatoire and was brought to Hollywood by Gene Kelly when she was 17 to star in An American in Paris, and Gigi. She has two children with her ex-husband, the theatre director, Peter Hall.

LOUIS MALLE: I vaguely knew Leslie's brother in the Fifties, when she was a brilliant young dancer working for Roland Petit's ballet company. We were all crazy about her. She had an animal grace, a way of arching her back that was astonishing. I remember Brigitte Bardot, who also trained as a dancer, had the same quality, especially when she walked. But then Leslie went off to Hollywood when she was still a teenager and became a star, and we didn't actually meet until I came over to Los Angeles - probably looking for money for a project. She was shooting a movie with Warren Beatty, and we were hurriedly introduced to each other between takes by a studio executive.

When Leslie came back to Paris a few years later, we began to see a little more of each other. But the strange thing is that it was as if Leslie were already in my life because I'd seen and liked her so much on the screen. I felt that I knew her, that she was a part of my entourage. Leslie has always had this childlike quality, combined with wickedness and humour. The other day, I was watching Gigi with Chloe (his seven-year-old daughter) where Leslie plays a girl who's not more than 15. I don't know how old she was at the time - certainly close to 30 - but she's completely convincing. She's so good she makes the men in the movie - Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan - look very wooden, like idiots.

I'd always told Leslie when we saw each other that I'd like to work with her one day. Then, when I cast Juliette Binoche in the role of Anna in my film Damage, I had no hesitation in asking her to play Anna's mother. She was able to act a woman who's silly, childish as well as being bitchy. When we started filming, Leslie - without any prompting - spoke in this French-American accent, which was exactly what was required for the part. She's a remarkable actress and totally unpretentious about it.

One of my rather strange connections with Leslie is that she's long had a house not far from Paris by the River Yonne, near a town called Auxerre. By sheer coincidence, it's literally next door to a place that belonged to an uncle of mine. I used to stay there with my parents when I was a little boy of five or six. The house had a tower, and I used to think of it as

a mysterious, fairy-tale place. She's now starting up an arts festival there, and she's asked me to be on the board.

There are two bad ways for a woman to age. The first is when she has plastic surgery. Believe me, I know actresses in Hollywood who start having things done before they are 30. They become someone else - it's totally uninteresting. The second is when she has an unattractive personality. A woman's true character shows in her face when she is over the age of 40, and sometimes it's horrible. But Leslie has aged in the best possible way. She is like the same mercurial, mischievous Gigi, who has grown older with enormous grace and dignity.

LESLIE CARON: I met Louis something like 17 years ago, when I came back to Europe. He was very kind and invited me to his apartment one evening with some friends, and it was very convivial. He was a slight man, with the most extraordinary fast, darting eyes. That was in 1974. We had common friends in America, so we always expected this meeting. I knew his then wife, Alexandra Stuart, the Canadian actress. And I know Candice, Louis's present wife, of course. I've played with her mother, the wife of Edgar Bergen, the ventriloquist.

Further back, in the Sixties, I got a message saying Louis was making Viva Maria. At that point, he was thinking of doing it in English and he wanted Shirley MacLaine and me. He was one of the directors I always wanted to work with, because I had so admired his film, Le Souffle au Coeur. But in the end, Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau got the parts.

That was when I was living in England. I broke my contract with MGM when I married Peter Hall to come and live in London. I longed for bad plumbing] It was extremely hard for me. I found the English attitude very forbidding. I was extremely nervous on the phone with English people, especially women. I lingered there for two years after the end of my marriage. Then I married an American, and I went back to Hollywood for four years, but that didn't suit me at all. So I decided to return to France.

Louis came back to France himself in the Eighties, after spending several years directing movies in America. He must have been considered very original over there. He's always liked the idea of being international, but in fact he's totally French. He has a Frenchman's tact and sensitivity. He's good at intimate scenes and the rapport between people. He can treat the most dangerous subjects with a great deal of charm and delicacy - like someone on a tightrope. It's definitely a very special quality, and I don't think he would have had it if he'd been born an American.

He was at the opening night of Don Giovanni, directed by Peter Sellars about three years ago. He was there with Alexandra - they're still friends - and I suddenly noticed this self- effacing at her side. A few months later, Louis called up and said he'd like to see me about a part. I was thrilled because my dream of working with him seemed to be at last coming true, and because I was just about to sign a contract to play in Grand Hotel on Broadway, which I'd just done in Berlin for seven months, and the idea of doing it again, eight times a week, filled me with dread.

Louis came to my flat to tell me about the part in his film. I was to be the mother of Juliette Binoche. When we worked together, he was forever asking me for less, less, less. He likes underplaying. He's vivacious, intelligent and courteous, and it shows on his face. The men who age badly are the boring ones, the ones who are pompous and take themselves seriously. He's anything but pompous.

When Louis works, and smokes his pipe, he gets so involved with the scene that he doesn't realise what he's doing. Sometimes the smoke from his pipe gets in front of the camera. He doesn't hear anything else going on. He takes his arms and locks them over his head. I always thought he looked like Woody Allen playing an eccentric director. He trips over the cables. He's concentrating so hard on the set that there's something almost clownish about him. -

(Photograph omitted)