For Jean-Paul Rappeneau, the Los Angeles-based Colcoa film festival offers a sort of reverse homecoming — one in which the French director, best known for directing Gerard Depardieu in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” brings his childhood home to California audiences.
With “Families,” Rappeneau reconstructs the impressive mansion in Auxerre, Burgundy, where he spent the first 17 years of his life. “Oddly enough, it didn’t belong to us” the director explains over a cup of coffee in Paris. “That house was sort of my mother’s dream. She dreamed of a life that she hadn’t led, in Paris or in the films of Jacques Demy, and my father, who was a man from the country who had become an engineer, rented it to satisfy her.”
Rappeneau has just returned from Moscow, where audiences made the connection between “Families” — in which a businessman (Mathieu Amalric) revisits the family estate, tied up in litigation after the patriarch’s death, only to be smitten by the beautiful stranger (Marine Vacth) who lived there in his absence — and Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”
“At the end of the play, everyone leaves, and the house will be purchased by nouveaux riches, who will cut down all the trees,” he says. “In the same way, when my father died, the owner took back the property, he razed the park and destroyed the house. Today, it exists only in my head.”
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Although Rappeneau turned 84 earlier this month, “Families” is only his eighth feature, following a full dozen years after 2003’s “Bon Voyage” — not that he had been idle during that time. Rappeneau spent the intervening years planning his most ambitious film yet, a contemporary spy movie entitled “Affaires etrangeres,” about a naive young cultural attachée stationed in central Asia who is manipulated by an outsider engaged in industrial espionage, sparking adventures around the world.
|“For me, each film is like a mini-life. I invest myself so heavily, moving ever so slowly toward the film I’m dreaming of with each new draft, that I can’t possibly think of another.”|
“We were going to shoot in Kyrgyzstan, which we visited several times to scout locations,” he says. But at the last minute, he realized it would have been too expensive to shoot abroad. “For me, each film is like a mini-life. I invest myself so heavily, moving ever so slowly toward the film I’m dreaming of with each new draft, that I can’t possibly think of another.”
After deciding to pull the plug on “Affaires etrangeres,” he became seriously depressed, Rappeneau recalls. And then he decided to heed the advice of an old friend, director Alain Cavalier. “His theory is ‘toujours moins’ (always less), and he jokes that mine is ‘toujour plus’ (always more),” says Rappeneau, who had overreached with this story set in an imaginary French province at the end of the world. “His suggestion was to come back to the land of my childhood, where I had been formed.”
Rappeneau is delighted that Colcoa plans to screen “Families” the same day it premieres a fresh restoration of his 1966 feature debut, “A Matter of Resistance.”
“The two films reflect each other. They are both stories of a house” — as was his first 16mm short, “La maison sur la place,” he points out.
Made two years after Rappeneau was Oscar nominated for co-writing “That Man From Rio” (a globe-trotting adventure film that later inspired Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), “A Matter of Resistance” stars Catherine Deneuve at the peak of her beauty, between “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “Belle de jour,” cast here as an impetuous housewife in Normandy. But what a house!
“The original idea for the film was, it’s spring in the country, the weather is beautiful, there’s a girl on a bicycle and cows in the fields. It goes on like that for 20 minutes, like a scene from a novel by the countess of Segur. Then, all of a sudden, a tank rolls through the field and disrupts the calm,” explains Rappeneau, who was a young man during World War II and wanted to capture what it had looked like through a young man’s eyes. So he wrote the script around the house where he imagined France’s American liberators first setting foot on D-Day. As the resistance fighters tell Deneuve, “At midnight, the paratroopers will land here, right in your own front yard” — literally, the war at home.
Half a century later, having returned to his own childhood home (albeit an imaginary composite, cobbled together from different buildings throughout the Loire valley) helped Rappeneau beat his depression. And now he’s ready to focus on his next “mini-life,” even if it takes another 12 years to get made.