PARIS — In his first feature since 2010’s “The Clink of Ice,” filmmaker Bertrand Blier returns with a somber, existentialist farce reminiscent of the last century’s most celebrated absurdist theater.
Vladimir and Estragon, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, meet Taupin and Foster (Gérard Depardieu and Christian Clavier). One is homeless, the other well off, though that dynamic eventually flips. As they ramble the streets of Brussels, the two are constantly met by legions of script supervisors, who deliver them the latest pages and revisions that will inform their next steps.
As in “The Truman Show,” an all-seeing showrunner lies behind the scenes; as in “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” our protagonists sometimes bristle at the roles they have been cast into.
Still, the film’s premise is less an existential treatise than a malleable platform for a series of monologues, dialogues and testy exchanges. More than anything else, “Heavy Duty” is a vehicle for stars Clavier and Depardieu’s appealingly antagonistic chemistry – a potent tonic that has proven immensely popular in France.
Produced by Curiosa Films and sold by Orange Studios, “Heavy Duty” will screen at UniFrance’s Rendez-vous with French Cinema on Friday January 18th, before its domestic release in March.
How did you develop this idea?
The idea for the film came linked with the main actors. I already knew I wanted to pair up Gérard Depardieu and Christian Clavier, so then I had to come up with a story. I always liked Clavier. He’s funny with a fearsome side as well. He has an aggressive look, and he’s often in a bad mood. Gérard [Depardieu] too. They’re both grumpy, and so I thought it would be funny to team them up
In writing the dialogue, I invented the story. I like writing dialogue, and it all spilled out. In general, that makes actors quite happy. Actors love reciting dialogue, and if you want a good film you need to attract good actors, so you need good dialogue. I bounced off this idea that we talk less about movies these days and more about television. Series have become so important, and I found that funny, I wanted to poke fun at that a bit. These two guys chased by a showrunner and a writer’s room. One has the script, the other doesn’t.
They’re also chased by death.
I think the subject is death. They’re chased by death, but that’s the case of every movie. That’s the one subject — really the only subject — and you always end up there. It’s the most interesting topic, because it’s the one thing that we don’t understand and can’t understand. We don’t know when, where, or how, but we all know it’s coming. Love is the most boring subject of all. Love stories are hard to do well, difficult to write, and always end up following the exact same patterns. However with death, you can surprise.
How much of the film was an effort to play in the register of Tom Stoppard, Samuel Beckett and Luigi Pirandello?
I wasn’t thinking about any play in particular, but I do love English theater and authors like Pinter and Beckett. I don’t think highly of Pirandello, however. His work is too systematic, you know exactly what to expect. Beckett is more challenging because he doesn’t explain anything. When my daughter saw [my film] “Buffet Froid” she told me it felt like Beckett, and I felt so proud. But for “Heavy Duty” I need to clarify that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m really not sure about the film that I made; sometimes I only know what they’re about a year after finishing them.
The film doesn’t have a classic structure, that’s for sure. I’ll often start a film with nothing to go on but a line or two of dialogue. I started out with that first exchange, between Clavier and Depardieu. They don’t have much warmth for one another, we can see that. Being able to write a scene like that is one of cinema’s great benefits. Strangers don’t interact like that in real life, but in a film you can have a character say anything at all. Writing is often about dumb luck. You begin down a path with no idea what will follow, and you clear the way by sitting and writing and trying to entertain yourself. When you finally end up with a story, it’s by sheer accident.
Does this new film have a lot of personal resonance for you? I know at one point, you have your wife, actress Farida Rahouadj, sing a song from the Henri-Georges Clozout film “Quai des Orfèvres,” a film starring your father.
That was a little wink, that’s all. I must have seen that Clouzot film ten times. My father [character actor Bernard Blier] played piano in that film while [actress] Suzy Delair sang. And my father couldn’t play the piano to save his life! I think that song is just part of my heart.
I knew Clouzot well, and it’s thanks to him that I became a director. When I was 16 years old I went on vacation with my parents, and Clouzot was there, staying at the same hotel. Every night my father and Clouzot would smoke their pipes while playing chess, and my father let me watch. At the time, Clouzot was prepping “Les Espions,” which was one of his very worst films. But it was very funny because he hadn’t found a lead actor, and he kept on throwing out names. My father would explain why each one was a bad fit for the role. Then when we’d go back to our room, my father would turn to me and say, “that old fool, I’m the best actor for the part!” [Laughs] And he was right, but he didn’t get it.
Clouzot invited my father to an early screening of “The Mystery of Picasso,” and he told him to bring me along. So we watched a rough cut, just the three of us. It was a masterpiece, and it blew me away. I walked out of the screening and I knew what I wanted to do in life.
In terms of directing, is it a challenge to get back into the groove after not shooting anything for several years?
No, I found it easy. Some shoots are more difficult than others, but my last few films have been easy. I think that’s the problem that comes by way of experience. Once you’re experienced, you find it easy. When I get to set I know right away where to put the camera, whereas when I was 30, things were a lot tougher. But filmmaking is the easiest job in the world – it’s all about pleasure. Plus in France, our films aren’t that difficult to shoot; we don’t make “Titanic!” Writing is easier than shooting, though. On set you must lead a whole team, while when writing you can sit, smoke, have a drink and get on with your work.
Now that you’ve finished “Heavy Duty” are you back to writing?
Of course! I’m working on two scripts right now. One with Christian Clavier again, and another one a bit closer to “Going Places.” I want to make something with young, beautiful characters, male and female. I want to make another film that’s bathed in sunlight.
Speaking of “Going Places,” how do you feel about John Turturro’s upcoming remake?
I’ve seen it. Turturro screened it for me and I found it very good. I really liked it. It’s very different from mine, of course and I was quite scared before watching it, but John is a good guy and he made an interesting film. It was a moving experience, and we hugged after it ended. It’s different from mine, but not that different, because he used some of the same shots.
That happens a lot. American film directors take inspiration from French movies. Sometimes I’ll watch an American film and say “Hey, the director swiped that from me!” Of course, we do the same. We take from the Americans all the time. For instance, I needed to set up a shot on “The Clink of Ice” and I had no idea what to do. I said to myself, “where would David Lynch put the camera?” So I went and shot the sequence that way.
You and the Americans briefly intersected when you won the Academy Award for 1978’s “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs.”
I had a lot of luck to win the Oscar. I’ve often brought this up with Americans — I wanted to know why I won over Bergman. Bergman made a masterpiece that year, “Autumn Sonata.” In any normal situation he should have won! He won at the Golden Globes, for instance. It made perfect sense; he was best the director in the world. So I asked the question often, and no one could tell me. Eventually I got an explanation: Bergman had all kinds of tax issues in Sweden, and he was not happy about it. He was furious actually, and he pulled his film from the Oscars to punish Sweden.
It was a wild experience overall. To be in that room as a Frenchman, it was stupefying. That was the year of “Coming Home,” the Hal Ashby film. I was already seated and I saw Jon Voight come in through a side entrance. He got stuck in the door and couldn’t budge. His wife had to come massage his stomach to calm him down. Then finally he got through. And he won Best Actor later that night.
You didn’t want to kick around Hollywood for a bit?
When I was at Governor’s Ball, I was out, having a glass of champagne, and I felt a hand rest on my shoulder. Someone said, “don’t you want to work together in San Francisco?” I turned around and it was Coppola. I didn’t take him up on his offer, because I knew I had to get back to France. I had another film already lined up, and that was “Buffet Froid.” I didn’t need to shoot in America, I was happy to make films in France. I never wanted to shoot there, though nobody ever offered again. I just didn’t think it was useful. We make our films and they make theirs.
French films are smaller scale. It’s auteur cinema. Back in the day, you had Sweden, Italy and France. The others declined a bit, but we’re still holding out. We continue to make films, and sometimes they’re even good.