Since his worldwide success in 1990 with “Cyrano De Bergerac” — which broke out of the foreign-language category to receive four other Oscar nominations (including one for star Gerard Depardieu) — Jean-Paul Rappeneau had directed only eight feature films, with 2003’s WWII drama, “Bon Voyage,” seeming to be his swan song. But at 83, the French helmer doesn’t seem to mind presumptuous rumors of his retirement.
In fact, after the Sept. 19 premiere of his latest film, “Families,” at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, the director made no bones about it: “This film is really my comeback,” he smiled.
The gap between films, he said, can be traced to a familiar tale: the byproduct of development hell. “There was another movie I was supposed to make after ‘Bon Voyage,’ ” he noted, “but it fell through. I couldn’t finance it, which depressed me quite a lot, and for a while I was thinking of giving up altogether. Then I decided to go back to filmmaking, and find maybe a story that was easier to finance, something closer to my heart and more personal than my previous films.”
The result is certainly the director’s most intimate project to date, the story of a French banker based in Shanghai (Mathieu Amalric), who returns home to find that his family situation is more complex than he’d ever realized. Of the premise, Rappeneau said: “Maybe it’s linked with age — you know, the need to come back to your roots. But cinema said goodbye to me 12 years ago, so I felt, coming back to cinema, that I should also come back to what’s close to me, which is the town where I come from.”
Rappeneau is known to be a perfectionist. The word evokes levels of egomaniacal control, but the director takes the label with good humor. “The work is really in the writing,” he said. “I write again and again and again. I edit, I design each shot, and so by the time I arrive on set, I’m completely precise and prepared. But in my direction with actors? They have a little room. The precision is in the writing and preparation.”
The film’s star, Almaric, is a huge admirer of Rappeneau’s technique. “Jean-Paul doesn’t work by scenes, he works by set-ups,” the actor said. “He can imagine his film. When he’s shooting it, he’s like a kid who’s already at the cinema. He wants to see something that makes him dream.”