Roman de Gare: French Director Claude Lelouch

Interview with Claude Lelouche

Film’s title

Claude Lelouch: The term ‘roman de gare’ refers to popular literature, which is not derogatory: what works commercially is not necessarily bad. The title was inspired by some reviews written about my work in recent years, which compared my movies to photo romances or romans de gare (books sold in train stations: it designates an easy-read for the traveler, romance or thriller best-sellers). I said to myself: Why not, I will demonstrate that if you extract the best from this genre, it can very well compete with more glorious ones. I played the game. I admit that it was a sort of provocation, a reply to a long ongoing debate. I do have an awkward relationship with the elite, ever since A MAN AND A WOMAN. But the film is also an open letter to film audiences, who often encouraged me and were moved by my movies.

Thoughts on creativity

C. L.: This film is a mixture of genres, as are most of my films, but here probably more than usual. I keep changing moods; I play a game with my viewers, asking them to be active participants in a playful movie. Of course, there is one thread that links all of my 41 films together, which is love. Its the most essential subject. I once improvised a little poll at the end of one of my films screenings. I asked the audience how many of them loved the ocean and about 30 people raised their hand. When I inquired about mountain lovers, and then regulars of good restaurants, I got similar results. But, when I asked who was moved by love, every single one of them raised their hands.

Directed by Herv Picard instead of Lelouch

C. L.: Its a way to deal with fame. I wanted to send a message to those who dismiss my work. I wanted one of my movies to be seen for what it really was and not as a Claude Lelouch film. Of course, film audiences are prejudiced when they see the latest offspring of a director who gives birth to a new film every year, such as Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar or the Coen Brothers. I wanted to feel young again and treat myself with this film, which could have turned out to be a punishment instead, if it hadnt seduced the public. Hence my choice of remaining anonymous. We thought of Romain Gary who won his second Goncourt award (the most prestigious French literary award) for a book he wrote under the alias Emile Ajar. I thought that all artists have this fantasy sooner or later, because they suffer from a public image of themselves that may have been long established but doesn’t correspond anymore to who they really are. Artists evolve. You believe that they always create the same painting, the same symphony, the same film, but its simply not true. I directed 41 movies and Im convinced that each one of them was a draft for the following one. We are students who make a living studying, sometimes in quite comfortable conditions. I never stop searching for something I havent yet found, and, I think, that if I do find it one day, I will stop making movies. But, I dont see it happening anytime soon.

Romain Gary at his desk, Becoming Emile Ajar

C. L.: I thought that this joke would stand for a week. In fact, after the very first day of shooting, I thought that was it But then I asked everyone to keep the secret and they all did it. What I found fascinating was that no journalist showed any interest in Herv Picard, not one! Nobody came on the set to discover this young director shooting his first movie. Which confirms, if need be, how the media only has eyes for established filmmakers, for those who sell. The joke was very successful and I could have pushed it further even. I didn’t stop because I didnt want to be a thief. If someone buys a ticket in a theater to see a film by Herv Picard, it’s a scam to show them a film by Claude Lelouch.  Besides, it became too complex when dealing with royalties and the protection of author rights, in particular for Pierre Uytterhoeven who wrote with me the adaptation and dialogue. You had to register with the CNC (National Film Office), the censorship Commission and other official organizations to whom I couldn’t lie. I was defeated by the tax and legal institutions. As soon as the film was selected for Cannes we started to tell the truth.

Notoriety a burden

C. L.: It can become one. If you are famous, prejudices and appearances are more important than the creation. As a matter of fact, its one of the themes of this film: it deals with appearances and the use of aliases. I personally experienced the story told in the film.

Fiction reflecting reality

C. L.: Absolutely. It was great on the set. I really played the game.


C. L.: I needed an icon. I needed someone believable for the character of Judith Ralitzer, someone who would have an aura of intelligence and whim. This role called for a star. Whereas casting stars for the two other roles would have been counterproductive. It would have been a disservice to the movie and spectators would have guessed too many things. With Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, it would be too obvious. You know very well that if you put these two together, theyre supposed to fall in love sooner or later. In this specific movie the love story must remain completely unexpected. You cant picture these two as a couple for a second.

Dominique Pinon and Audrey Dana

C. L.: Dominique is not usually seen as a seducer. But, I wanted him to become attractive by the end of the movie. I wanted to cast light on this evolution, how one can be charming without good looks. Appearance is valued too much in our society. People dont bother scratching beneath the surface. Claude Gorettas La Dentellire also developed this theme.

Audrey Dana is a newcomer

C. L.: This is how I discovered her. It took the most amazing detour to eventually choose this duo. Its not a choice that just appears in front of your eyes. I started with more famous people and then I gradually realized that it didnt work with the script, that stardom would kill this script. I knew that choosing less popular actors would have a negative impact on the box office, but I chose to serve the film first. You had to be convinced by Audrey Dana from her very first line. This girl had to be annoying at the beginning of the movie and endearing by the end.

Notions of real and fake

C. L.: We live in a world based on lies. Its like poker. Poker is a wonderful game because you can win a lot even with bad cards. Similarly, its possible to succeed in life even if you start off with only a few assets. Humans try to oversell themselves. When they try to seduce someone, men show the best side of themselves. This can be said about love but also about the business world. We have built a world that revolves around lies. For this reason, if someone comes off as sincere, he is immediately successful. This is what I tried to show in ROMAN DE GARE, whose characters only exist within lies. I was a great liar myself; I know what I am talking about. At times I had to make people believe I was able to make movies when I wasnt sure about it myself! Pure bluff. Then I succeeded in proving I was not too clumsy with a camera Without lying, how would the most deprived do Lying sometimes enables them to escape inextricable situations. You need to be very rich to be able to tell the truth. Its a luxury.

Deauville beach and a woman walking her dog inspired A Man and a Woman

C. L.: Life is fascinating. Its a spectacle I never get tired of. I pick the best seat to watch it, I get closer to its characters, I even talk to them sometimes. When I directed Les Uns et les autres, I used the story of a lot of people with whom I crossed paths. I am curious about people. And, I constantly use my five senses. There isnt a moment in my life, which couldnt be used in a film. I always have a little recorder with me, which is my memory because I have a very bad memory!

Painful urge to create

C. L.: When a boxer is a world champion, he knocks out everybody. Then one day, he’s the one lying on the floor. But, when that day comes, he wont regret to retire if he produced a good fight. What is terrible is to be knocked out by a poor move. As far as Im concerned, Im jealous of bad movies that do well because I resent injustice. When I see a beautiful movie, however, I bow down. It makes me feel happy because I know that this film will feed me, that when Ive digested it, I can eventually make some progress.

Killing for art

C. L.: Artists can go very far for their art. I have been living an amazing love story with cinema, and when you love, you give everything. You can kill out of love. It may be the same thing for a work of art but I never reached such extremes. If I were an attorney, I could defend a murderer who killed for art. Perfection deserves all the sacrifices made in its name.  At least in the movie, Fanny Ardant’s character does sacrifice herself. There arent so many cases of artists who were murderers, but many of them committed suicide. Hemingway, Romain Gary so many, it makes you dizzy.

A Man and a Woman, greatest commercial success

C. L.: When I made A Man and a Woman, I was wondering if it would be my last film. I was broke and playing my last card, like in the Olympic Games when athletes have a few chances to jump before being eliminated–if they fail, theyre out. Oftentimes, its not until their last attempt that they beat records, because they put all their energy into it. A Man and a Woman was my sixth feature and I knew I wouldnt be given a seventh chance.

Getting to know authors intimately

C. L.: Creating art is like confessing in a way. Sacha Guitry explained that no dialogue he wrote was ever random: the lines he gave his characters had strong roots, originating in personal scars. He also said the worst thing that can happen to an artist is to become famous. He was right. Artists should never be placed too quickly on a pedestal. Many were praised too early and ceased to be inspired. Look at Orson Welles! I think that nothing he made after Citizen Kane was as good as that film! If he hadn’t been called a genius, his potential would have been limitless. If he had been criticized, he would have struggled to convince us. To a certain extent this can be said of Godard too.

Disappearance as another mirror of reality

C. L.: Its an obsession of mine. When I’m really down, I play with the idea of disappearing. Im not talking about suicide, the difference being that you give yourself the possibility of a last chance. I sometimes wish I could start all over again, and using an alias to direct this film comes from this desire. Like making your first movie again I sometimes consider staging my death like Dominique Pinon here or Belmondo in Itinraire dun enfant gt.

Watching peoples reaction from a distance

C. L.: Isnt it everybodys fantasy We always dream of attending our own funeral and listening to what people say when they drive back from it.

You want to make sure people would miss you

C. L.: I hope they would! But, by the end of a funeral you dont talk about the defunct anymore. Its over. You forget them fast, with the help of a glass of wine and a sandwich. It often starts with wet eyes and ends in laughter.

Pretending to be someone else

C. L.:  I often wondered if I was in the right place, and I often imagined being someone else. I use to flirt with certain ladies at a time when I was not known, pretending that I was someone else. As a newcomer, I was ashamed to say I was a film director thinking they wouldnt believe me. So, I invented other professions for myself, and, I loved when they discovered the truth. It showed curiosity, sharpness and a lovely sense of humor Its a delightful game to start a relationship with a lady by messing with her a little like that. Its a way to test her and to learn a lot of things about her. People dont play this kind of games enough.

Children are magical

C.L.: Indeed, I asked my own daughter Shaya to play the part, and I did have occasional fights with my children. But, we also have extraordinary moments of love. I see fights as exercises for love. A child is in constant need of testing you and giving you ultimatums. Since Im an impatient man, it didnt always go well The relationship between the characters of the teenage girl and her mother does resemble the one I had at times with some of my children.

Your children had their go at acting thanks to you

C.L.: This is my victory over amateur cinema. I started as an amateur filmmaker. Now that Im a professional, I find it amusing to put my children in all of my movies. But, these are just nods to the viewer, for fun, the way Hitchcock did. If I have specific needs for child actors. My children are happy today to see themselves when my movies are on TV. Salom recently saw There were days and moons again and was very touched. If I had screened an amateur film for her, she wouldnt have been so moved. Amateur films all look the same: people walking toward the camera and waving hello!

Gilbert Becaud’s Songs for the soundtrack

C.L.: Bcaud belongs to the post-war era. I think he replaced Charles Trenet. Bcaud was the first singer who had fans rip off their seats in concerts. Before him, concert crowds were well-mannered. Girls didnt faint when listening to Tino Rossi, but, Bcaud started another era. His audiences tore down the Olympia music hall and he destroyed his piano. You had never seen a guy jump on his piano before, he was youth and madness, he was the first rock star in a certain way. Before the Beatles. I dont think hes always granted the title he deserves. He was a friend of mine. I grew up with him and saw him at the Olympia early on, standing in the cheap section. He played his love song Les Cerisiers sont blancs to me at the time. He wrote it after one of his biggest hits, Et maintenant, and it flopped. I told him I would correct this injustice one day in a movie. To which he replied The song is yours.

Songs tell a story like short movies

C.L.: I am jealous. I would have loved to be a writer, a composer, an actor. For me the best of all is Georges Brassens. His songs are pure gems, masterpieces. Here’s a scoop for you: one of my next movies will open with a Brassens song.

Audrey Dana as femme fatale

C.L.: Absolutely, and you can tell at the end of the movie, she already behaves like one. Pinon doesnt fall in love with the silly girl, he falls in love with the femme fatale.

Marriage as the perfect crime of love

C.L.: Fanny Ardant is completely burnt out which makes her touching. Shes one who does things to the full extent. She doesnt believe in love anymore. When she invites Dominique Pinon in her bedroom, its not because shes in love. Shes
up against the wall and trying to find a way to negotiate with her ghost writer.

Happiness is everything we do for the first time

C.L.: First times are more and more rare with age, I can testify of that. But, I have the rare luck of having no memory. Im like a goldfish in its bowl: whenever I turn around inside I think how beautiful this apartment is! How beautiful! . I am amazed every time. I was always 18 years old, I think youre always the same age in your head. My body aged, but Im still 18. If I had memory, I would be angry at the entire planet.

Introducing characters briefly and then moving to something else

C. L.: I see life as a puzzle. You need an entire life to discover all of its pieces. A film is also a puzzle, with a beginning, a middle and an end, but I like to start at the end sometimes Think about a dictionary: if you read it from A to Z without skipping a page youre going to be bored to death But, if you go straight to the word youre interested in, it makes a big difference. In a movie, I start with sequences that stimulate the viewers intelligence and emotions. It is necessary to find each time the way to catch the viewers attention, because they come to the theater carrying their own baggage, their own worries. You can take them along into new fictional worries that have no real consequences. Theyre better off with those: two hours later everything will be back in order and our spectators will go back to their own worries. You have to strike hard from the beginning and create in their mind a depressurizing room between their own life and the one presented on screen. A movie is like an alternate life proposed to someone whos already
busy with their own, so these introductory sequences must make them forget their former life. I need disturbing sequences to alert their intelligence, sensitiveness and emotions. This is why opening credits are key and should contain strong scenes. The creators of James Bond got it right: the best scene of each James Bond movie is the very first one, even before the opening credits It catches the viewers attention.

Telling right away the film’s ending

C.L.: I tell the story of ordinary people to whom extraordinary things happen. And, since you wouldnt immediately be interested in an ordinary character, I have to reveal the stakes. If viewers know that the characters life will undergo a complete shift, they are hooked. If I show you a man and tell you that he will die tomorrow, you wont look at him the same way.

Manipulating the spectator more than the usual

C.L.: Its a turning point of the film. I think that there are actually three movies in ROMAN DE GARE. I wanted the viewer to think as a detective. When a detective begins an investigation, he does some research, questions a suspect, moves forward and then backward too. I played with that. The fact that my viewer is in a detectives position is the exact opposite of something like Columbo in which you know right away who the criminal is and what matters is how Columbo will corner them.

Travel and adventure

C.L.: I’m a great car lover, which I demonstrated in a few movies since A Man and a Woman. Its an enclosed space where you can be by yourself and watch others. Its a privileged place in constant motion that involves playing with light, speed, danger its not peaceful. Theres a permanent risk that an unexpected encounter could put an end to your trip. Cars are objects of tremendous freedom. I wrote most of my scripts in a car. When I need to focus on my work, I dont go sit in an office, I need to be in motion. Im a fast driver and when Im driving, my brain is racing – – its in the right state to create. Whereas in an office, I tend to fall asleep And, none of my dreams ever inspired a good story because they are not reliable. Hitchcock thought he had wonderful ideas during the night and wrote them down half asleep. But, in the morning he would discover how horribly common they were. Cars are important in my life. I took women in cars, seduced them in cars, been broken up with in cars: its a perfect place to talk. You can tell your passenger the truth without looking at them in the eyes. Its ideal for cowards.

Car chases 

C.L.: ROMAN DE GARE is full of references. Since I was using an alias, I enjoyed placing clues for those who might fear I was betraying them. I certainly didnt want to betray Claude Lelouch. Its a very lelouchian movie. I dont like this term too much but I know some people use it.

Terrifying scenes behind closed doors

C.L.: The film is also subjective: when viewers are rid of all hypotheses the only one left is that of a perfect crime. Dominique Pinon imagines twice a perfect crime, first when he stages his own disappearance, and later by pushing Judith Ralitzer to commit suicide. The only thing thats more beautiful than a perfect crime is two perfect crimes.’


Characters shot through windows

C.L.: The reflections are intended. While a scene between two characters is told, life around them goes on. At the end of the movie, when Audrey Dana and Dominique Pinon meet again, I showed the reflections on their faces to remind us that other stories are taking place at the same time. Backgrounds are ignored too often. At the very moment were talking there are wars going on, people living their lives, dying, billions of stories. Im not the only one who considers these reflections. Claude Sautet revealed their power too.