Patrice Leconte on ‘Do Not Disturb,’ Christian Clavier, the Self-Centeredness of Modern Life

Esteemed French vet (“The Hairdresser’s Wife,” “Ridicule,”) talks about Thursday's UniFrance Rendez-vous opening gala film

Patrice Leconte on ‘Do Not Disturb,’ Christian Clavier, the Self-Centeredness of Modern Life

Bowing Dec. 31 in France, the Wild Bunch-sold “Do Not Disturb,” re-twinning Patrice Leconte and Christian Clavier, the latter hot off “Bad (Serial) Weddings,” looks set to Leconte his best box office in a near-decade, a first-two-weekends 680,897 tix sold – broadly €4.4 million ($5.3 million), for Wild Bunch Distribution. That might be expected. Produced by Olivier Delbosc and Marc Missonnier at Fidelite Films, adapting Florian Zeller’s French stage play, itself inspired by Simon Gray’s “Otherwise Engaged,” first directed by Harold Pinter, “Do Not Disturb” features a strong ensemble – Carole Bouquet (“That Obscure Object of Desire,” ”Wasabi”), Valerie Bonneton (“Eyjafjallajökull”) and Rossy de Palma (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), for instance. In it, Clavier plays Michel, a well-heeled dentist and jazz buff, who stumbles on a rare find, the original L.P. of a New Orleans jazz session in 1958, called, not coincidentally, “Me, Myself and I.” He settles down in his lavish living room, fending off or channeling to his advantage with ineffable invention all interruptions: His mistress wants to discuss their relationship? Could it wait for an hour? His wife declares she’s cheated on him? These things happen. His son is not his son? He needs time alone to digest this fact. Rapidly, a portrait of modern-day frustration takes on further depth as that of a man who has lost contact with his true feelings. Variety talked to a spirited Patrice Leconte just before “Do Not Disturb” opens 2015’s UniFrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema on Jan. 15:

What attracted you about the French theatre play, from which the film is adapted?

When I went to see the play – and I did so because the producers of the film told me ‘You should go see that play, there’s a film there’ – when I saw the play, I did so not as a normal theatre-goer but as a filmmaker wondering: “Is there a film here?” And what I really liked was the theme behind it: Us human beings, leading such frantic lives, so caught up in the awful whirlwind of life that we no longer have the time just for a little bit of calm, to take one’s foot off the accelerator as it were, to find that famous “hour of quiet.” I am myself a very hyperactive type, and that really got home to me, and I said to myself: “There’s definitely material for a comedy there.”

The film starts as a situation comedy but from about minute ten onwards, it gradually develops into a portrait of a man of ineffable egocentricity. To what extent would you say that your film is an addition to that great French tradition of the work’ which critique the bourgeoisie’s self-absorption and capacity for disavowal, seen in the French films of Luis Buñuel, for example?

That’s very true what you say. I think, honestly, that there’s no such thing as kind humor. Humor, comedy, must be portrayed with irony, with calculated malice, and calculated caricature. And Christian Clavier absolutely adored that – playing a very selfish person. He was thrilled, because there’s nothing more pleasant than playing someone full of characters flaws. Providing, of course, that it’s not just totally black… That’s why the film’s ending offers some redemption. You find yourself easily putting yourself in his place. “Bloody hell, leave the bugger in peace. He just wants to listen to his record and can’t”. And that’s also what attracted me about the film: it’s often because life runs so fast, that it forces us, unconsciously, to become selfish. I’ll give a simple example: In the underground, you often in such a hurry that you push the button and don’t strep back to see if there’s anyone leaving the train: You’re in too great a rush. Life forces us to be in too great a hurry. So that type of selfishness, which is awful – opening a door and not even bothering to look to see whether there’s anyone coming in behind you to hold the door open for them – it’s the fault of society. And it is true that it is a quite a French tradition, not solely French though, which goes all the way back to Moliere, to go to town on the faults and defects of those around us.

From a director’s point of view, you are careful create elements – doors, stairs, bedrooms, landings, lifts – via which other characters can interrupt, invade Michel’s physical space, so his peace…

I didn’t wish to make the original theatre play simply be repeated on the big screen. Being faithful to the original concept, I chose to go for restraint, restricting things to just one apartment/flat. There was no need to go out into the street and try to do clever things. That would have been absurd. But at the same time, it’s also true that this poor guy, in that apartment, is boxed in all the time, everywhere. People come in from outside – there are others from the flat opposite, below him, above him, the repair works, you name it. He is like a beast being stalked during a massive hunting expedition, where you have all these hounds, barking at him, and he is cornered, can’t move an inch. And I think there’s something almost pathetic, and therefore appealing, about this character. Because, in spite of ourselves, we can easily place ourselves in his shoes, and instead of condemning him, we say: “What would I have done if that were me in such a situation? I’d probably have done the same.” In any event though, characters with so many shortcomings are very useful lightening rods. We always say: “It’s only the others who do things like that”. We are never willing to recognize that we are selfish. It’s always others who are selfish.” So when you’ve got a character like Michel, in this film, who represents a good type of selfishness, we say, “that’s great, it’s him, not me”.

The film was shot with a hand-held camera, is cut quickly, shifts from varied two-shots to establishing set-ups… Why that choice of style?

I frame my films: I’m the person holding the camera, doing the filming. And my films are very different, from film to film, I’m sure you’ve noticed that. So every time I face a new project I ask myself a crucial question: How shall I go about the mise-en-scène? And one can’t have the same mise-en-scène for “Do Not Disturb,” “Ridicule” or “Girl on the Bridge.” They are completely different artistic projects. And for this film I decided to do it with a completely hand-held camera, so that the camera could be like another character in any scene. So that there couldn’t be any complicated technical material. There was never any moving of furniture or anything of the sort. I was there, I had the camera in my hand, and I was like another actor among actors. So when things were happening in the corridor, I simply rushed into the corridor with them. So it was, in short, to protect and maintain a form of energy, urgency, fragility, and to make sure that there was no bourgeois mise-en-scene – you know that calm, sedately positioned shooting style. I didn’t want that. It all had to further underline the tone of urgency that had to go with the shoot. And by the way, thanks to that, it was a very quick shoot. I really liked that pace. The film was shot in five weeks, which is nothing. A film like that should take eight weeks. But that made us shoot at breakneck speed and it was great that I also had actors who loved working at that pace.

This was your first time you’ve worked with Christian Clavier since the latest “Les Bronzes”: 2006’s “Friends Forever.” How has he changed and developed since then?

He’s had big hit after big hit and become a very well known actor. And all that success could easily have made him unbearable, arrogant. But what really thrilled me was that I again found, completely intact, the same pleasure in work, that love for acting, that joy he gets doing it. When you say “camera, roll, next shot, cut,” etc,… well, that joy for acting, playing roles, is still the same. Today in so many fields of life one meets so many people who are just so blasé, unconcerned, don’t care, who do things just out of habit. But with Christian, I always felt that he was like an old young man, fresh, having great fun doing comedy. That thrilled me.

Can you say anything about any new project?

There are several things in the pipeline. I’m at present writing an original screenplay with my friend Jerome Tonnerre, but we’re really just at the beginning. It’s not that I wish to sound mysterious, but I can’t tell you here and now that my next film is going to be this or that. There’s nothing really clearly defined yet.