Romain Duris gives good audience. His first word during our interview, in fact, is a hearty “Bravo!”, when I announce that I’ll forgo the help of the hovering interpreter. France’s favourite leading man, Duris may be more accustomed to receiving plaudits than dishing them out, but today he’s the picture of humility, nodding encouragingly and listening with utmost gravity to questions that, posed in my rusty French, have the linguistic elegance of a five-year-old.
This is all the more impressive given that Duris could be the nightmare interviewee – a jet-lagged actor with a heavy cold promoting not one but two films. He’s done LA-Paris-London in the past couple of days on a double junket for Cédric Klapisch’s Chinese Puzzle, out this month, and Michel “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” Gondry’s Mood Indigo, released later this summer. “I’m not feeling very well,” he concedes, reaching for a tissue and ordering a double espresso, but his good humour – admirably maintained when said espresso arrives 20 minutes later only to be spilt just as it reaches the table – is almost as striking as his appearance. Adolescently slim in skinny jeans, with his trademark mop of dark curls, five o’clock shadow and a trio of unusual, arty rings (“Palestine, New York, Africa” he glosses), Duris is bohemian Paris chic made flesh and so youthful that it’s hard to believe he’s been a star of French cinema for 20 years.
“I don’t think about it in that abstract way,” he reflects when we meet a week or two shy of his 40th birthday. “When you say 20 years – yeah that’s something, but I don’t have any distance on it. There are the finished products – the films – but the shoots, the concrete experience of making them, that’s just my life.” Nevertheless the output is impressive; Duris is a prolific actor in France, with a body of work that spans every genre and incorporates sustained working relationships with several directors, including the late Patrice Chéreau. Meanwhile, he is best known internationally for his 2005 performance as the thuggish property agent with dreams of being a concert pianist in Jacques Audiard’s acclaimed The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and – at the opposite end of his impressive range – his dashing turns in frothy romcoms Heartbreaker and Populaire.
Chinese Puzzle can be seen as a return to his cinematic roots. It is the third and final part in Klapisch’s era-spanning trilogy following the lives and loves of a group of bright young things from their time as university students thrown together on a study-abroad year in Barcelona and it sees Duris reprise his role as callow writer Xavier. At 19, Duris got his first big screen role in Klapisch’s Le Péril jeune and since then the director has cast Duris in several films, including The Spanish Apartment (2002) and Russian Dolls (2005), the previous films in the trilogy. Both were huge domestic hits and gained a cult following among Francophile audiences the world over, with Duris taking the lead alongside British actress Kelly Reilly and fellow Parisian Audrey Tautou. The latter also stars alongside him in Mood Indigo and dashes in half way through our interview, her own press done for the day, to kiss Duris goodbye.
Where the first couple of films dealt with typical 20-something teething problems, personal and professional, Chinese Puzzle raises the stakes. Having married since the previous instalment, Xavier and fellow writer Wendy (Reilly) are now tetchy divorcees-in-the-making and when she decides to relocate with their two kids to New York, Xavier also uproots to be close to them, negotiating the trials of obtaining a permanent visa, while crashing with old friend Isabelle (Cécile de France) and her girlfriend.Isabelle also happens to be pregnant with his baby, after an informal sperm donor arrangement. And for a final layer of complication, ex-girlfriend Martine (Tautou) keeps flying over from France.
Great cinema this is not. Though it shares the time-lapse concept and coming-of-age themes of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy, Klapisch’s is undemanding by comparison, playing for easy laughs. Isabelle’s absurdly vast, designer New York loft, the preserve of a multi-millionaire, epitomises Klapisch’s glossy finish and cushy world view.
But, as with the earlier instalments, there is an endearing, Gallic craziness running through Chinese Puzzle that marks it out from a standard Hollywood romcom, notably in dream sequences like that which sees Hegel and Schopenhauer advise Xavier on the finer points of existence. At a press screening – not usually a forum for wild reactions – one or two people laughed like drains throughout. “I think what’s very French is the mixture of comedy with intimacy and a kind of reflectiveness,” ponders Duris. “For US audiences the nearest thing is Woody Allen.”
Duris, who has clocked up a rite of passage of his own in the interim with the birth of his son with his long-time partner, the actress Olivia Bonamy, is clearly full of affection for the trilogy, but he admits that it’s not been his easiest gig. “The hard thing to capture is what’s normal, banal. In other films where I’ve played characters with serious problems, it was more obvious to me how to play it. Like a scene where your father dies – you can play that well or badly, but either way there is something to get hold of.”
In that respect, the darker tale of Mood Indigo was easier for Duris to get his teeth into. Based on a 1947 novel, it’s a surreal love story, set in a fantastical, steam-punkish Paris. Playing up the melancholic undertow of the post-war ambiance, the initially sentimental premise gives way to troubles involving social unrest and moral and physical degradation.
Duris is keen to point out that he never trained as an actor – he went to art college and intended to become a painter before being talked into acting by a casting agent in the street – and refers on several occasions to his job as a “sport”, fittingly given that he seems effortlessly to master a physical idiom for each new part. As Xavier, he moves with a clumsiness that mirrors his character’s emotional befuddlement, while in Mood Indigo he’s a cartoonish slip of a thing, languid one moment, skittish the next, in keeping with the Duke Ellington track from which the film takes its title.
But while that mercurial charisma has facilitated his career in his homeland, it may paradoxically hobble Duris’s chances of Hollywood success. For if he has yet to make the leap to LA performed by fellow French actors Vincent Cassel and Jean Dujardin, that’s down to his refusal to be typecast. “I’m curious, I’ve met agents, read scripts,” he says. “But I’m waiting for a good role, I don’t want a minor part as the criminal or the lover – I want something similar to what I can get in France.” He has even been polishing up his English in anticipation, which perhaps explains his forgiveness for my French. “I really like acting in English,” he smiles, “Je suis ready!”
‘Chinese Puzzle’ is released in UK cinemas on 20 June; ‘Mood Indigo’ is released 1 August