STALKING WOODY ALLEN
The director of Paris-Manhattan talks to Stephen Fitzpatrick about her unabashed homage to the champion of neurotics and dreamers
SOPHIE Lellouche is a stalker, and an international one at that. But the upside of this for the starstruck French first-time director is that the object of her obsession — fellow filmmaker Woody Allen — took the whole thing in his stride. So much so that, after several approaches (including an ‘‘ accidental’’ one in the street outside a Paris hotel where she knew he was staying), Allen agreed to a brief appearance as himself in the film she had spent anxious years cooking up.
The result is Paris-Manhattan, an unabashed homage to the prolific New York director and his world of neurotics and dreamers, and an endearing romantic comedy that bears more than a passing resemblance to Allen’s own 1972 work, Play it Again, Sam.
In that film, Allen plays a cinema critic who imagines himself in the life of Humphrey Bogart and his 1942 screen classic Casablanca. Lellouche’s imaginary world, by comparison, focuses on the character of Alice Ovitz, a nice Jewish girl working in her father’s pharmacy who is hopelessly bound to the wisdom of Allen and his filmmaking. Alice waits impatiently for each new work from the director — Allen has rolled out an average of one film a year for the past four decades — to give her an update on how to behave and think. She has been doing this since she discovered his Hannah and her Sisters aged 15, and now, as a mostly single 30-something, she even prescribes Woody Allen DVDs to her customers, alongside more conventional medicines, to help with their psychological ills.
The result is that Alice never quite lives in the present, preferring a fantasy existence; early scenes in the film feature snippets from Allen films fitting into a conversation that Alice is having in her head.
There has to be a love interest, of course, it being a Woody Allen-inspired story, and in this case it is Victor, played by one of France’s most adored leading men of the big screen — and a fabulously successful pop singer in his own right — Patrick Bruel. Alice is played by the impossibly charming classical pianist turned drop-dead gorgeous actress Alice Taglioni; with a pair of leads such as that, surely it would have been hard for Lellouche to go far wrong. HAVING spent the early part of her filmmaking career in assistant roles at best, Lellouche says she was convinced that creating a feature film of her own was beyond her reach. At 25 and having secured an eight-month internship with the great French director Claude Lelouch, she was convinced her mentor was teasing her when he insisted she must make her own film.
‘‘ I was sure he was laughing at me because for me there was Claude Lelouch, Woody Allen, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder — and I don’t have my place with these movie directors,’’ she says. ‘‘ I wanted to work in the movie business because I love movies, but that’s all.’’
The voice in Lellouche’s head wouldn’t go away, however, and even a 13-year break following a short film in 1999, during which time she reared a family, didn’t silence it.
‘‘ One day, I got enough courage and I said, ‘ OK, I’m not Woody Allen. I’m not Claude Lelouch, I’m not Ernst Lubitsch — but maybe I can be myself. And if I do my best, I can be happy.’’
It was the genesis for a film that has returned only very ordinary French box office results since its opening in June, but that has repaid the confidence Lellouche’s backers showed her by being picked up for worldwide distribution. ‘‘ Filmmaking is such a gamble,’’ she says with a sigh.
Nostalgia runs throughout Allen’s oeuvre, and in his hit from last year, Midnight in Paris — Lellouche’s present favourite — Owen Wilson’s screenwriter character travels back to the 1920s to meet Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and other artistic greats.
In Paris-Manhattan, too, Alice lives in a nostalgic dream world driven by her imagined relationship with the director.
Taglioni, 36, remarks that the irony of playing Alice is that she didn’t grow up particularly interested in Allen’s films; the first one she saw was only 10 years ago. ‘‘ I grew up more with my father’s movies — more Hollywood movies like Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Fatal Weapon with Mel Gibson, Star Wars; this was my cinema.’’
Her co-star, Bruel, she says, suffered the opposite problem in Paris-Manhattan: unlike his steady and predictable locksmith character Victor, who has never watched an Allen film in his life and is bemused by Alice’s obsession, Bruel is a huge Woody Allen fan — so much so, according to Taglioni, that he was anxious about shooting three short scenes with the American. ‘‘ He was like a little boy, he was really afraid,’’ she says with a laugh. ‘‘ And Patrick is a huge star here, you know. He was nervous. It was cute.’’
As Allen pointed out in this year’s Woody Allen: A Documentary, a primary motivation for his work has been the basic existential questions of the human condition. As Taglioni puts it in the context of her character: ‘‘ He’s the only one Alice can speak with. She can discuss everything with him — sex, life, death, love, men, girls — and it’s a real exchange. It’s like he’s a god she’s praying to, or perhaps a psychoanalyst.’’
Here Alice reflects Lellouche’s sentiments: it’s the existential questions Allen asks in his movies that have always appealed to her. ‘‘ He’s talking about man — what is the place of man in the universe — and he does this with humour,’’ she says. ‘‘ I think that’s why he has his own universe: there are a lot of existentialist directors, but they are not funny.’’
She also insists that the often patchy quality of Allen’s body of work does not diminish it. Even the less brilliant are very important, she says, ‘‘ because sometimes the less important movies help you to understand an important movie. I think there are some Woody Allen movies that help you to understand Match Point, for instance.’’ (The 2005 thriller set in Britain won huge plaudits; leading US film critic Roger Ebert declared that it deserved to be ranked among his best films, such as Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanours and Everyone Says I Love You.)
In many ways, Paris-Manhattan exists because Lellouche finally was able to step aside from her adulation of Allen, and while her film is far from perfect, it has charm and a convincing style. A lot of this, she’s sure, is due to luck and what you do with it.
She uses a well-known Allen line, from Manhattan, that ‘‘ talent is luck; the most important thing in life is courage’’, both to push the Alice narrative along in the film and to describe her own experience.
‘‘ I think this is one of the quotes that helped me make the movie,’’ Lellouche says. ‘‘ Because it’s not my fault, the issue of talent, you see? I wasn’t born a genius, but courage is [up to me].
Paris-Manhattan opens nationally on December 13. Stephen Fitzpatrick travelled to Paris as a guest of UniFrance Films.
Director Sophie Lellouche, above, on the set of Paris
Manhattan, and Alice Taglioni and Patrick Bruel, left, in a scene from the film