Helmer bets the house

Featured player: Claude Lelouch

VILLERS SUR MER, FRANCE — It’s another sweltering day in heat-wave stricken France, but Claude Lelouch is cool in a clifftop hideaway at his 16th century manor a few miles from Deauville — where he shot some of his 1966 classic “A Man and a Woman.”

The mock lighthouse with stunning sea views served as decor in his 1998 film “Chance and Coincidence,” but it has since become the helmer’s favorite workplace. The lighthouse’s single room is decorated like a ship’s cabin, down to the telescope the helmer uses for star gazing.

But on his writing desk is something far more important: the finished scripts to “Le Genre Humain” (Humankind), a $34 million trio of comedies on which Lelouch is about to gamble his career — and fortune.

The first episode, entitled “Les Parisiens,” goes into production at the end of the year, and the second, “Theatre de Boulevard,” in early summer.

Lelouch says he has been working on this series of interrelated films for 35 years.

“The idea first came to me after “A Man and a Woman,” and I’ve been making notes since then,” he says. Lelouch is so determined to have total artistic freedom he is financing the trilogy himself, putting up his company, les Films 13, and his entire 38-film oeuvre — which he dismisses as “rough notes” for the coming magnum opus — as a guarantee against a bank loan. The only outside coin comes from Canal Plus, which has taken pay TV rights to the first film.Some might see the gesture as a folie de grandeur, but Lelouch calls it “a gift to myself for 40 years’ loyal service.” If it doesn’t succeed, he says, “I’ll quit the cinema and go back to being the amateur filmmaker I was when I started out.”

Detractors feel Lelouch’s last few films have leaned heavily on the themes of “A Man and a Woman,” breaking little new ground. His most recent film, English-lingo pic “And Now Ladies and Gentlemen,” starring Jeremy Irons and Gallic singer Patricia Kaas, wasn’t a hit in France, but he hopes it goes down better with Anglo audiences.

The filmmaker reckons a third of his movies have been big successes and a third broke even.

A father of seven, aged 34 down to 4, the 65-year-old filmmaker is married to actress Alessandra Martines, who has appeared in half a dozen of his most recent films.

The three movies of “Le Genre Humain” will be resolutely comic, and explore a favorite Lelouch theme — the foibles of human nature, particularly as concerns the battle of the sexes.

“Nothing’s more cruel than men and women: It’s a fight to the death, and it’s better to laugh than cry about it,” Lelouch says. “It’s an excellent pretext for comedy.”

The first episode is set in Paris at the recent turn of the millennium. The second takes place in 2004. The third covers the span from pre-history to the present day, “showing the five thousand years it takes to create a bastard or a good guy.”

“People who’ve seen one film will have fun picking up on all sorts of references in another,” he says.

Lelouch is equally discreet about the cast, which he says will include “some stars I haven’t worked with before and some unknowns.”

He plans to announce the complete cast in October.