PARIS — A seemingly cozy corner of France in 1809, with a spic-in-span middling chateau and near fairy tale nearby village. Bedecked in his Hussars uniform, in the first scenes of Laurent Tirard’s “Return of the Hero,” the dashing Captain Neuville mounts his white stead and dashes to the local chateau to ask the hand of daughter Pauline. In mid plighting, he is dragged off to the Napoleonic Wars, promising to write every day. When no letters arrive, and Pauline wastes away, prim sis Elizabeth takes to forging missives from Neuville at war, then in India, fighting tigers, standing firm, alone, as 2,000 English troops advance towards him.
So Elizabeth is more than miffed when Neuville, who fled his first battle field and deserted, returns three years later, in all his Hussar finery, and slips all to easily into the hero’s character she’s created. Thus begins a war-of-the-sexes battle of wits that pits Academy Award winner Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”) against nominee Melanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”), between swaggering false hero Captain Neuville and Elizabeth, who attempts to expose him as a bounder and fraud while, in classic comedy structure, suppressing her growing attraction towards him.
Distributed by Studiocanal, which also handles international sales, packing two of France’s biggest stars and the latest from Tirard, one of France’s top 5 comedy directors in box office,“Return of the Hero,” which opens Feb. 14, rates as one of the most-anticipated of French comedies of 2018. Tirard talked to Variety in the run-up to the UniFrance Rendez-Vous, where “Return of the Hero” is one of its big plays.
Your best-known films have been historical fantasy (“Asterix and Obelix: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”), historical (“Molière”), retro (“Little Nicholas”; “Nicholas on Holiday”) and now period comedy. Is there something which attracts you to the past?
I’m very attracted to my films being fairy tales, overtly fictional. I like films that tell you you are in a movie, Wes Anderson’s for instance. When I make movies, even though what I’m talking about are always contemporary problems, I’m always looking for disguise. Period is always a great disguise. I grew up fascinated by period films that would take me to different worlds and spaces. I’m lucky enough that I was of an age to discover “Star Wars” in a movie theater. That was one experience that made me decide to make movies, And Disney collections.
There’s a very clear sense in “Return of the Hero” of being in a self-enclosed world with its own rules.
When I’m making a movie, in a way I’m still that 10 year-old-boy who was in his room with his little characters and a little stage telling stories to himself ,except now they are bigger and more expensive. There is that childlike quality of storytelling that is still there.
You studied at New York U and wrote a book about modern film directors. “Return of the King” looks to drink deep at the well of classic Hollywood screwball comedy. But maybe you see it as having larger French influences.
You’re very right. I’m very cross-cultural. I grew up watching mainly American movies, studied in New York, not by accident. am a big fan of that’40s/‘50s comedy. But something happened when I was there. I went thinking I’d never come back to France. Once I was in America, bit by bit I discovered that I am actually very French, and the stories I had to tell I have to tell in French. So I came back. Yet, a lot of French people, when they see my movies, say they’re very strange because they almost feels like American movies. I think they’re a mix of the two. Beyond that, “Return of the King” is based on two things: A passion for innocence, and a passion for the movies of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Philippe de Broca. If I had to pitch the movie, I’d say it’s a Jean-Paul Belmondo character suddenly arriving in a Jane Austen world.
”We’re in 1812, not the Dark Ages,” Elizabeth berates Neuville. She does indeed seem a remarkably modern young women….
That was very important for me. Once again I go back to Jane Austen. I really love the strong female characters and their IQ and smartness and that they often suffer from being ahead of the times in the 19th century. I really wanted that kind of character. I wanted Elizabeth to be a modern woman. She is from today. Her family is very traditional and her sister only thinks about getting married. Because she is so modern, she is going to be able to confront this man who is a seducer, a liar, a cheat and impostor. Also in a way, Elizabeth in the movie is the character I identify the most with. She is the writer, creator, the one who invents a character – which is then take away from her.
Both roles have considerable challenges: Dujardin plays a man who acts a hero, thinking he’s a coward, but evolves; Laurent plays a woman with a mind of her own who disavows her growing attraction to Neuville, which lends a large ambiguity to her performance, Could you comment?
It’s always important to me that all characters are redeemed. or at least that I like them. I cannot deal with a character who is purely evil. Of course, Neuville appears at first to be a seducer a coward and opportunist. But it was important at some point to understand what happened and how he became that. When he talks about the battle, you think O.K., I would have done the same. Empathy is very important. Elizabeth is very honest but rigid. Little by little, even though she doesn’t want to, she is going to loosen up, become more alive and more. She is going to go more into the grey area. That was very important also.
As in much comedy, the dialogues are important not only for their substance and wit but also rhythm. Did you practice with the actors?
Rhythm is the basis of comedy. You can achieve it in two ways: through editing, the pace of the cutting etc., or leaving the rhythm to the actors. Whenever I have to shoot a scene I ask: “Can I do it in one shot? Because if I can, it’s so much more powerful, the emotion is so much better. I try to do as few shots as possible and leave the rhythm to the actors. We always do readings before the movie, talk about characters and on the set very often my comment after a take will be: “Let’s do one last one but faster.” “Faster flatter,” I think Billy Wilder said. It’s important, certainly in comedy.
Again, as in much comedy, the symmetrical nature of structure is also key. Elizabeth and Neuville begin as opposites: She is also super-ego control, honesty, duty to her family; he is Id: a cad and a bounder, and rapacious devil-may-care philanderer. Could you comment?
Of course you are right. Of course, I never set this out when writing a movie, it’s never completely conscious, the writing process is more intuitive than that. Usually when the movie is finished I look at the characters and see “Oh, that’s what I’ve done: The story is really about that when I thought I was writing about something else.”
If you were to say what the movie is about, I would say it’s about attaining a balance between super ego and id.
I agree entirely.
When directing “Return of the Hero,” what were your main guidelines?
For me there’s an evolution. It starts as theatrical; We’re in a very Jane Austen-ish world. A very established society, where nothing changes. That of course demands a certain type of filmmaking. When Neuville comes back and has changed and is going to start lying and cheating, little by little he completely contaminates that society and shatters the whole theatrical and established order. So the movie, little by little, becomes less and less theatrical. There are scenes at the beginning that look like paintings. But the more you go into the movie, the camera starts to move, it becomes more and more alive until that final battle scene which is like a climax, an explosion in a movie.