Cannes fave Lelouch says ‘prizes matter’

Helmer: Public often needs pointers towards pix

“Remember the name of Claude Lelouch — because you’re never going to hear it again” was the Cahiers du Cinema verdict on the director’s prospects over 40 years ago.

To put it mildly, the 64-year old Lelouch has disproved that early dismissal.

The filmmaker’s 38th film, “And Now … Ladies and Gentleman,” will close the fest on Sunday. The pic marks Lelouch’s ninth official invite to Cannes.

In 1966, his “A Man and a Woman” won 42 international awards, including the Palme d’Or and two Oscars. “I very much doubt I’d have had the same career had I not won the Palme d’Or,” admits Lelouch, whose Les Films 13 is housed in a cozy manse not far from the Arc de Triomphe.

“Connoisseurs don’t need prizes to point them in the right direction, but the general public often does. So prizes matter.”

Lelouch says he makes no distinction between his personal and professional life, which is just as well since he writes, directs, produces and shoots his films, making a mockery of Gaul’s 35-hour work week.

Friends and family get Lelouch’s variation on their Miranda rights: “They know that anything they say or do may be used by me in a film.”

The self-described “story magnet” always has a miniature tape recorder within reach to verbally jot down inspirations. “I sleep with it — sometimes I have great ideas in the middle of the night.”

Lelouch’s wife, Alessandra Martines, acts in his latest opus, as she has in his previous five features. “And Now” was snapped up by Paramount Classics for all English-speaking territories prior to its Cannes bow.

“My great good fortune was to approach three lousy producers in a row when I was starting out,” says Lelouch, who has been his own producer since 1960. “Maybe if I’d encountered a good producer right off the bat, I never would have started my own company.”

In May 1968, when student demonstrations in Paris evolved into a nationwide strike, it fell to Lelouch to tell Cannes topper Robert Favre Le Bret that the show must not go on.

“All flights and trains had already been cancelled, so I drove from Paris to Cannes the day after I finished ’13 Days in France’ (a documentary about the Grenoble Olympics),” says Lelouch.

“I ran into Truffaut and Godard, et al., who said we couldn’t in good conscience go on making merry on the Riviera when the nation was on the brink of civil war.

“Le Bret swung his arms wide and said ‘Bravo, your film is wonderful.’ And I said, ‘Too bad nobody’s going to see it because we’re putting a halt to the festival.’ ”

“And Now” will presumably provide a more congenial conclusion to this year’s fest. The film draws on two of the director’s real-life encounters: one with a disillusioned lounge singer he met at a hotel in Africa (played by songbird Patricia Kaas) and one with a dapper gent (played by Jeremy Irons) who arrived unexpectedly in Lelouch’s office and handed him an envelope containing 50,000 francs.

The sum — roughly $10,000 — had been stolen by the visitor from Lelouch’s company safe a decade earlier. The accomplished lifelong thief had resolved to reimburse every victim he’d fleeced in his long profitable career. Lelouch handed the money back and said, “Keep it — but I reserve the right to tell your story some day.”

That day is here.

Coming up, producer Jacques Perrin tapped Lelouch as one of 11 directors, each of whom will shoot an 11-minute film about Sept. 11. The finished collection, with segments by Sean Penn, Mira Nair, Danis Tanovic and Ken Loach, will open worldwide Sept. 11, with all proceeds benefiting terrorism victims.