The Many Faces of Paris: An Interview with Cédric Klapisch (Web Exclusive)
by Cynthia Lucia
Since he was first introduced to American audiences with the 1997 release of When the Cat’s Away, French filmmaker Cédric Klapisch has continued to create nuanced character studies, infusing gentle humor with hints of melancholy. As his typically twenty-something characters attempt to establish themselves in the world, exuberance is tempered by self-doubt and mild disappointment. Chloé (Garance Clavel) in When the Cat’s Away searches for her lost cat in the Bastille neighborhood of Paris while negotiating her life in a city where rents are high, relationships with neighbors and fashion industry colleagues are complicated and, song lyrics aside, love is not waiting around the next Parisian corner.
Like Chloé, Xavier (Roman Duris) in L’auberge espagnole (2002) learns about love, loneliness, and friendship on a student exchange that takes him to Barcelona, where he shares an apartment with other young Europeans living abroad. Rejecting a corporate job within minutes of his first day in the office, he realizes that he cannot quell his lifelong passion for writing. The friendships he forges in the first film will cross national boundaries in Russian Dolls (2005), as Xavier tunnels between Paris and London, where he collaborates on a writing project with his former Barcelona roommate, Wendy (Kelly Reilly), whom he grows to love. The film shows that the two cities, like all of Europe in the age of technology and the European Union, have grown much closer. Whimsical fantasy sequences capture conflicting desires: Xavier loves Wendy but also loves his former girlfriend, Martine (Audrey Tautou), who loves many men that don’t reciprocate; Wendy loves Xavier yet remains locked in a love-hate battle with her ex; Xavier finds himself also attracted to the glamorous fashion model whose shallow autobiography he is hired to ghostwrite. Although things end happily and rather predictably, Klapisch’s bildungsroman tales gain complexity and depth through their vibrancy of pacing, production design, dialog, and composition that fuses an overarching realist esthetic with elements of high stylization. Momentary breaks from conventional structure provocatively blur the lines between the innocently incongruous and the darker, more deliberate deceptions that, while small, do sometimes linger.
His most recent film Paris, like his earlier Un air de famille (1996), explores more mature characters on whom life’s disappointments and deceptions have taken a toll. Based on the play written by Agnés Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, Un air de famille, through its sly dark humor, mines the depths of familial rivalries and ingrained attitudes that shape personality and self-image. The mother has always seen her son-the-businessman as a success (feeding and shaping his insufferable ego) and has pegged her son-the-restaurant-owner as a near failure (nurturing his own self-doubt and anxiety).
Sibling relationships also play a role in Paris. When Pierre (Roman Duris), a dancer in his thirties, is told that he suffers from a fatal heart condition with surgery as the only option that, itself, may kill him, he summons his sister Elise (Juliette Binoche), a social worker who is emotionally drained by the demands of her job, a difficult divorce, and her life as a single mother of two young children. A parallel storyline introduces Sorbonne professor of Parisian history Roland Verneuil (Fabrice Luchini), whose brother Phillipe (François Cluzet) is a successful architect changing the face of the city where the ancient and modern coexist. The vegetable vendor Jean (Albert Dupontel) grapples with feelings of loss on a daily basis at the market where he works with his ex-wife Caroline (Julie Ferrier), observing her flirtatious interactions with various men. When she is tragically killed in a motorcycle accident, he is stunned by the depth of his grief. Death also appears by accident when a boat capsizes as Benoît (Kingsley Kum Abang) and other hopeful immigrants, journey from Cameroon to Paris. Less central but nonetheless important to the narrative fabric are several women in the fashion industry who make their way to shows and parties, and a bakery owner whose haughty demeanor with her employee is instantly transformed to syrupy deferral with her customers. While some corners of these multiple narratives overlap, much as contiguous city neighborhoods may for a block or two, others do not—they exist simply as part of the vibrant, melancholy, and diverse urban landscape.
Roland falls in love with his student Laetitia (Mélanie Laurent) who finds him amusing but prefers a young man in her class; Jean is attracted to Elise with whom he exchanges pleasantries at the market, though both are guarded, given the pain they have suffered. Pierre longs for the life of the city and the intimate touch of a woman as he gazes from his balcony at the streets below that now seem so distant as death hovers so near. While the film’s multiple narrative strands do occasionally become too diffused to sustain the emotional connection many viewers seek, Klapisch admirably avoids the jigsaw puzzle approach to these storylines that has come to characterize American films like Crash and Babel—films smugly inviting viewers to unravel “clever” connections that they inevitably will reveal. Klapisch interweaves—or refuses to interweave—his narrative strands always with a larger thematic purpose in mind: to represent a city paradoxically in flux yet eternal, a man-made landscape that is shaped by the larger rhythms of nature and of history.
Speaking with Cineaste for the first time in 1997, Klapisch said of When the Cat’s Away that he chose to show a Paris neighborhood that tourists would not normally visit because “the problem with the postcard view of Paris is that it tries to whitewash the landscape and show a false reality.” Even though in Paris he has chosen the postcard view, he never succumbs to “whitewashing” or presenting a “false reality.” Admittedly, Paris may disappoint viewers seeking the kind of romantic allure that Woody Allen, for example, brings to his New York settings. Klapisch, nevertheless, creates a layered and honest portrait of a city where the interplay of intimacy and isolation, desire and loss is etched into the locations as it is into the film’s design. Parallel lives sometimes intersect but more often do not, just as neighborhoods—all with their defining centers—paradoxically touch yet remain apart. Cineaste spoke with Cédric Klapisch just before the film’s New York theatrical release in September.
Cineaste: When I first interviewed you in 1997, we spoke about When the Cat’s Away, a film also very much about Paris. How would you compare the two films?
Cédric Klapisch: In When the Cat’s Away, I didn’t want to show monuments. It was about life in the streets, not the life that tourists would look for in Paris. When I madeParis, I felt, “O.K. tourism is part of the Parisian life, so it was important to deal with locations like the Eiffel Tower and the Place de la Concorde.” The two films are different in that way mainly. When the Cat’s Away was really about three streets in one neighborhood, and in Paris, I really wanted to show different neighborhoods and the fact that, while fancy neighborhoods, working-class neighborhoods, and poor neighborhoods may contrast, they also have connecting geographies. I wanted to show that Paris has many different “centers.”
Cineaste: Paris expresses something of a world-weary resignation to the conditions of life—the good and bad—in its focus on Pierre, a relatively young man who is facing an illness that may be terminal; his sister, Elise, who has been sorely disappointed in love; and Jean who lives with a similar disappointment as he works side-by-side at the vegetable stand with his ex-wife Caroline. When the Cat’s Away examines the beginning of a young woman’s life in Paris—it may not be an easy start, and she has her trepidations and disappointments, but, somehow, it captures a certain energy lacking in the lives of the characters in Paris.
Klapisch: Yes, and that has something to do with the age of the characters. Chloé is twenty-three in When the Cat’s Away. Pierre, in Paris, is over thirty and his sister, Elise, is forty years old. I think it’s just a question of age—it’s less light, less enthusiastic, deeper, and more bluesy, but that’s intentional because the city evolves like that. I also have a sense that my earlier movies were too light. I wanted to add something that was a little deeper and so in this movie I tried to show the opposition between lightness and something more profound.
Cineaste: In When the Cat’s Away, you said you wanted to show the gentrification in certain neighborhoods—and it seemed that there was an underlying political commentary focused on the displacement of the elderly and other groups. In Paris, we get a similar feel for the coexistence of past and present but less in a political sense—more in the context of the natural rhythms and flow of life and death that define the city much as they do human existence.
Klapisch: You’re right; it’s more an observation about something very human rather than a political statement about immigration or gentrification. I think the city does evolve and that’s why I quoted Baudelaire in response to Haussman who was so aggressive about new construction in the nineteenth century: “[T]he form of the city/Changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart.” He was criticizing Haussmann about the new, modern Paris, so it’s funny to see that Haussmann’s Paris has become the “old Paris” now. It’s a fact that there’s always a struggle between the old things and the new things. Even during Roman times, the Romans were the immigrants and conflicted with people already there. When you put it into an historical perspective, you have a feeling that it’s not a political subject—it’s just life; the fact that countries follow a pattern year after year, period after period. I tried to maintain a distance from current problems and put them in perspective, so it’s more a question of poetical problems than of political problems.
Cineaste: I wondered why, in the segments focused on Benoît and his leaving Cameroon to come to Paris, you chose to focus on his journey rather than on some aspect of life in the banlieue or parts of Paris where he would live.
Klapisch: We do see his brother in Paris. It’s true that we don’t see where he lives, but I had to choose how many minutes to spend with every character. It was more interesting, to me, to show the journey he had to take and how Paris is like an El Dorado—a dream city—yet how, for people who live there, Paris is just a hard city to live in. That story was more interesting for me than showing problems of people living in the suburbs or in crummy places—we know about that already. We know where he lives or will live, and we get glimpses of the problems through his brother’s meeting with Elise, who is a social worker. I tried to focus mostly on the poetical—he’s like Ulysses; he embarks on a huge trip and he risks his life. It’s more about that—about how a man can have a dream of going somewhere—than it is about immigration in the usual sense.
Cineaste: In the scene set in the catacombs where Roland is overcome, I kept thinking of Rosssellini’s Voyage in Italy as the characters move through the ruins of Pompeii. Did you have that film in mind?
Klapisch: No, but I may have had Fellini’s Roma in mind when they’re in the ruins of the Roman Empire. In a modern city like Rome or Paris, you have history, but now that you mention it, it is very close also to Rossellini’s film also.
Cineaste: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the Parisian character is perceived as never happy, as always somewhat melancholy, and you went on to quote the character of Roland when he says, “An ancient city does not define itself through the way it contrasts its vestiges and modernity.” You point out that what is important is the association of the two. To what extent does history shape the collective character of the city—and do you perceive it as less a factor in a city like New York, for instance, where history doesn’t span nearly as many centuries?
Klapisch: I really believe that everyone has to deal with his own ghosts. When Obama was elected, for instance, everyone talked about Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. In New York, Harlem has a strong history. Greenwich Village carries with it the sense that something happened there in the Sixties and Seventies. Broadway is a strong part of New Yorkers’ identity with theater and dance. When I was a student at NYU, for example, I felt something was there before. It’s the same thing in Paris but it’s not fifty or a hundred years old, it’s five hundred years old. You also have the different periods—the Roman period, the period of Versailles, the Revolution, and World War II—so everything adds up. The ghosts are in multiples. You do have something on your shoulders, which is both sad and energizing. Baudelaire can capture a sad part of Paris, but it’s also inspiring because it makes you dream. Passion is strong in France, Italy, and Japan because the mixture of history and modernity is especially a factor in those three countries. You need that struggle between modernity and the past. Dior when he makes a dress, for instance, has to deal with how lace was made in the sixteenth century. It’s really a dialog between the periods. It’s not only something sad or heavy to deal with.
Cineaste: How did you choose locations?
Klapisch: The geography was related to the psychology of the people. For example, Pierre has to have a view of the city and of the cemetery, the proximity of life and death. I realized there were three places in Paris where that would be possible, and I finally chose the one that was near
Vosges because it’s the most interesting—it’s very high and the cemetery is really beautiful. That location also gave me the market and the bakery. Everything was related to showing the proximity of the cemetery and dealing with death.
Cineaste: At one point, we find almost every one of the major characters visiting a “high point” in the city, whether the Eiffel Tower or the Montparnasse Tower, each, it seems, with a particular mission—Roland to meet his young student, the student to meet her young boyfriend, his brother Phillippe to visit his construction site, and Jean to scatter Caroline’s ashes. Can you discuss what you had in mind?
Klapisch: Actually, I got that idea when I was in New York about three or four years ago. I was in a hotel near Central Park and I was thinking about the fact that when you’re in a building on the twentieth floor, you feel as if someone on the opposite side of the park at that same level is looking at you. I had the idea of people looking at each other but not seeing each other because they’re too far away, because of the landscape in between.
Cineaste: It’s a kind of turning point for each of the characters.
Klapsich: Also, it was something formally important in the movie because it connects with the idea of being simultaneously close and far away. The city landscape gives you the idea of distance, while on the street you are very close to people. Both for character psychology and perceptions of the city, it was important to go back and forth between the landscape viewed from a high vantage point and locations down on the street. The movie opens like that—moving from an aerial view of Paris to the heart of Pierre on the X-ray. It’s really about how close you can get and how far away you can go and what kind of truth the two visions can give you.
A city is made of contrast, of things that really don’t connect with each other. The main thing that you do in a city is try to connect—from one place to another or with the people you want to connect with. That’s the conflict. A city creates contrast between bright places and dark places or between rich places and poor places. When the fashion people go to the market in the film, for example, they’re rich women wanting to have some interaction with the workers there. There’s a separation but also a desire because of their differences. I really like the scene set in the meat locker, with the carcasses hanging, because it’s both hot and cold, capturing death and life, rich and poor—contrasting elements that don’t fit together.
Cineaste: You capture that visually because the sequence is both documentarylike and at the same time stylized in its composition and use of color. The interplay between documentary realism and stylization occurs throughout much of the film.
Klapisch: That’s right. It’s a conflict inside me and also makes me think of the new film I’m doing. I really have the two tendencies—I like to stylize things and I like documentary shooting. For some reason, I think it’s fake to go in one direction only. I feel I have to combine the two approaches—it’s complicated to combine two styles that don’t necessarily fit together.
Cineaste: I was wondering about the fact that some of your recent films like Russian Dolls were shot in digital, yet Paris was shot in 35mm. Can you discuss that choice?
Klapisch: Paris was shot in [Cinema]Scope. I really loved to shoot with digital cameras in L’auberge espagnole and Russian Dolls for the ease of working, but in this movie I wanted to emphasize the beauty of the city and the fact that it is a special city. Using the CinemaScope format and 35mm means that the landscape was very sharp, the skin of characters in close-up was very sharp too, and the colors are right. Digital technology, right now, is not as good as 35mm, and I needed the best technology. But digital technology will improve. Digital projectors are better than 35mm projectors. When it’s better, it’s good to change.
Cineaste: But what I sense, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that in 35mm you get a greater sense of texture, of depth, and that movement across the plane of the frame takes on a different character than in digital, where it feels just a little too quick, just a little unnatural.
Klapisch: You’re right. It’s a different way of looking at things, so we have to get used to that. I know that today’s digital cameras are completely different technically compared to what I used when I made L’auberge espagnole about eight years ago. I can believe that in five years, it will be better than 35mm.
Cineaste: How closely did you work with the cinematographer when making Paris? Do you often look through the camera?
Klapisch: Yes I do, because, first of all, I began in photography, so I have a strong relationship with the image. It’s really a dialog between the director of photography and me. Every shot is made as a consequence of that dialog—whether in terms of light or composition.
Cineaste: Do you ever do your own shooting?
Klapisch: It’s too much for me, because I feel that if I frame the shot, I don’t look at the actor with the same sensitivity. I know Claude Lelouch and Patrice Leconte do that, but I don’t know how they do it. For me, it’s two different worlds.
Cineaste: You are a writer—you’ve written a number of your own screenplays, most of which revolve around multiple characters whose lives intersect, yet Paris is the first film, as far as I know, in which you’ve adopted what is sometimes called the multinarrative approach to storytelling—with parallel storylines, some of which cross directly, but others only tangentially. This approach has become very popular in American film with movies like Crash and Babel. The American approach to this story structure seems aimed at creating a kind of puzzle or guessing game for the audience and is crassly manipulative—almost as if the filmmaker is saying to viewers, “Let’s see who will be quickest at sorting it all out.” Your approach in Paris, however, strikes me as more genuine; there is a thematic reason for the structure and very little “game-playing” with the audience, and I admire that.
Klapisch: I’m really glad you’re saying that because I agree with you, especially in regard to Crash where, for me, it’s too well-written; it’s too self-conscious about the writing, like a script-game. I want people to forget the writing; I don’t want to expose it to them. For me, Crash was an impressive film, clever and wise, but at the same time it’s too much a scriptwriter’s movie and that makes it less interesting, in a sense.
For me, the master is Robert Altman. His approach in Short Cuts is very different from the approach in Crash, even though the two films are about Los Angeles. When you write, you’re always dealing with the audience, with how an audience perceives a story. You don’t want them to be lost; if you have too many characters or too many stories it’s easy to lose them. What Altman did—and he’s really the inventor of it—was to take an approach to adapting the Raymond Carver stories, which are very well-written, that’s very much like what jazz people call “feeling.” It’s the feeling that gives you the pace of the movie rather than the rules of good script writing. I think it’s important to follow the feeling—it’s something that gives you the beat of the movie. In Paris, when I was concentrating on the African characters, for instance, I knew I couldn’t allow myself to spend fifteen seconds more in that sequence because otherwise I’d lost the Sorbonne professor and I’d lose the love story, and so forth. It’s really a question of not losing the audience, so you’re working with the holes that you create.
For instance, you’re with Roland in the University dealing with the young students, then you lose them and go with Benoît in Cameroon, and then with Pierre and his sister in the apartment, and when you come back to the professor, there’s a hole that you have to fill in. And so, it’s more about dealing with holes than with continuities. It’s a strange thing, but I do think that in Crash the continuities are more important—it plays with the fact that the audience can almost predict that, for instance, because the cop was so obnoxious he’s going to be nice in the end. There’s a kind of logic behind that, but I’m not looking for logic. I’m trusting more in what is illogical in life. I think it’s true in life, in stories, and in music, also, that logic is not very often what you should follow.
Cineaste: You mention jazz, and a big part of jazz is improvisation, which applies, to some extent, to the way that Altman worked with his ensemble casts. To what extent do you work in an improvisational manner with your actors?
Klapisch: Sometimes, but not very often. A movie like Paris is not very improvised because of the need to juggle all of the stories. In L’auberge espagnole I did more improvisation, although the language problem—with people speaking several different languages—did not allow me to play very often with that. An actor might have to learn a line of dialog in Spanish so he couldn’t improvise since it wasn’t his language.
Cineaste: Both that film and Russian Dolls are very much about globalization and the European Union, and in Paris, we’re made aware of the E.U. also, although it’s a subject in many of your films that resides on the margins.
Klapisch: Yes, because it’s new thing. Ten or fifteen years ago we didn’t have a sense of it. There are three subjects that bring out issues of globalization—climate change, immigration, and the outsourcing of manufacturing to other countries, forcing you to deal with the fact that the plant isn’t in your country any more. These three subjects mean that you have to deal with the rest of the world, which is a very new thing—especially for Americans. The Internet is actually a fourth factor—you know that the rest of the planet exists, and you can speak instantly with a Chinese or African person; it changes our whole perspective. Everyone in the world was more compassionate when the tsunami hit Thailand—even though it happened miles away from your home in Paris, for instance, it was on the Internet, on TV, and in the newspapers constantly. Twenty years ago we didn’t have that sense of compassion with the rest of the planet. That’s very new.
Cineaste: As a filmmaker, how do you deal with or react to it?
Klapisch: Before, you said that it’s now a fashionable thing to make a multinarrative film—that’s one result of our new environment. We live in a multiple story world. I’m talking to you as someone just called on my iPhone; we are interrupted constantly in our lives with things from the outside—the outside is in our way of life. The fact that we can be constantly interrupted is also our way of life; it’s like when you change the channel. You know that you can go from one subject to another and life is like that. If there are movies like Paris, it’s because we have the feeling of wanting to talk about an African, then about a love story, then about someone getting old. Our days are like that. A hundred years ago if you lived in a village in France you never knew about what happened outside your village.
Cineaste: The visual tropes you tend to use also seem a response to that—techniques like fast-motion or the fast-forwarding of action and cutting the frame into fragments while playing multiple images against each other. This isn’t so much true of Paris as it is of Russian Dolls and L’auberge espagnole. These techniques create a sense of simultaneity.
Klapisch: Yes, definitely. Speeding up one shot is very different from quick cutting, for example. Sometimes the shots are five minutes long and you reduce those five minutes into twenty seconds. The vision is quite different because it’s continuous—quick but continuous.
Cineaste: You’ve worked on six films with Romain Duris—to what extent is he to you what Jean-Pierre Léaud was to Truffaut or Marcello Mastroianni was to Fellini—an actor who is in some ways an alter ego, someone who captures something of yourself that you wish to express?
Klapisch: He’s not an alter ego. It’s just a very strong collaboration with a great actor. Well, maybe the older we get the more we resemble each other. But I don’t think of him as an alter ego. That’s not why I chose him at the beginning or why I kept working with him. He’s just someone I can relate to very easily in the process of working.
Cineaste: As Xavier in L’auberge espagnole and Russian Dolls, he’s an interesting mixture of experience and innocence, intelligence and naiveté, confidence and uncertainty. Somehow, cynicism never creeps in to his performances, even in situations where we might expect a kind of wink and nod from an actor. There’s a restraint in his work that seems compatible with your approach.
Klapisch: That’s why I chose him in the first movie, Le péril jeune (Good Old Daze ). He’s very reserved and yet he had to play a character that was rebellious and bold. I didn’t want someone bold. That’s strange because he was playing a leader in the high school who wasn’t authoritarian and didn’t give orders—just a strong personality, and yet he was reserved. And I really liked that in him. His way of not expressing himself was very expressive. That is his strength.
Cineaste: Perhaps, we can talk a bit about your own work as an actor. While brief, your appearances in most of your films are a little more involved than the cameo appearances of, say, Hitchcock in his films. Why do you want to be there?
Klapisch: Actually, I started acting in short films when I was in film school at NYU and I found that I enjoyed it. I don’t appear because of Hitchcock. I just think it’s a nice game and it’s a good way to sign the film, like a painter signs his work.
Cineaste: What are you currently working on?
Klapisch: I’ve started to work on two projects—one is more expensive and I may do it in America. I’m going to see if it’s possible to use American actors; it’s a story set in the United States—an adaptation of a French novel (translated, the title is something like Let’s Kill All the Uglies). It’s a comedy about beauty with some science-fiction elements. And the other project is a movie, which I’ll probably do first, about the financial crisis, focusing on a trader and a woman who works with him.
Cineaste: It’s been about twelve years since When the Cat’s Away opened in New York—and, of course, you had successful films before that one in France. Are you happy with the way things have gone in your career?
Klapisch: Yes, right now. It’s a strange period, because I do feel it’s a transitional moment for me, but it’s also a happy moment.
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Cynthia Lucia is an Editor at Cineaste, associate professor of English at Rider University,and the author of Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film.
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 1