STALK­ING WOODY ALLEN

The di­rec­tor of Paris-Man­hat­tan talks to Stephen Fitz­patrick about her un­abashed homage to the cham­pion of neu­rotics and dream­ers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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