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Things I’ve Learned: Claude Lelouch, Cinematic Preacher

Things I’ve Learned: Claude Lelouch, Cinematic Preacher

Things Learned

In the mid-1960s, Claude Lelouch’s film A Man and a Woman  achieved international success. Openly disliked by the pioneers of the French New Wave, however, the French director never tied himself to any movement over his 40 film-strong career. During his recent master class at L.A.’s City of Lights, City of Angels (COLCOA) festival, he preached the gospel of cinema and the power of chance: Everything is more beautiful when it is out of our control.

The Beginning of a Passion

Everything started during the war. My mother hid me in a movie theater during the war. The Gestapo was looking for us, and the only place that was safe, where we couldn’t get arrested yet, was the cinema. When I was four or five, my mother would give me to an usher and they would put me in the first row. She would leave me there all afternoon. I would see the same film four times, and I loved it. It was fantastic; it was the happiest time of my life. I fell in love with the people I saw on the big screen. I figured they were the same that the ones I would see on the street, but better. They were always more beautiful, more courageous, better dressed, and they seemed to have a lot of guts. I fell in love with cinema because I preferred this life instead of real life.

On Learning His Own Way

When the war ended, I went back to school like everybody, but it was a disaster because I wanted to keep going to the movies every day. My father, who understood my passion for cinema, offered me my first camera. He told me, ‘Now you are on your own, go for it.’ I started as a cameraman, I went all over the world taking pictures and making images. I went to Russia and even came to the United States, and I was selling my images to whoever wanted to buy them and to the first television channels.

In 1957 I left for Russia. Canadian television at the time had launched a contest offering $10,000 to the first person that successfully brought back pictures of Lenin and Stalin together in the mausoleum. So, I applied to the communist party so I could get inside Russia, they would only let communists in. I arrived in Moscow, and I had trained myself to film without looking. I had pulled my camera apart and then I would put it inside of my chest under a raincoat with only the lens coming out. Like that, I could go around filming without anybody noticing.

I filmed for 13 days in streets of Moscow. At some point I finally succeeded to get inside the mausoleum where it was forbidden to film. Of course I was not even allowed to film in the streets either. I went inside the mausoleum and I went along with my communist comrade. There was very little light, so when I was next to Lenin and Stalin, which rested next to one another, I would scratch my head and my comrades would cough to cover up the sound of the camera. I succeeded to film the both tombs together and I won the contest. With that $10,000 I started my production company, which is the one that has allowed me to make all the films I’ve made.

The question I was asking myself at the time was, “Who is truly the main actor? Is it the actor? Or is it the camera?” At that moment I understood it was the camera. The camera is the main actor of all films. You have the camera in every shot, in all films in all the history of cinema. I realize that if I wanted to do this job I had to learn how to direct this actor, the actor that is the camera. I understood that the camera would be at the heart of my work, and that it would be the main actor of all my films. I was very lucky not to go to film school, because they would have probably taught me something very different.

claude lelouch

On Learning From Past Mistakes

My first film was Le Propre de l’homme and it was as much a professional film as it was an amateur film at the time. We couldn’t pay everybody, but it was proof that you could make a film with a very small amount of money. The most expensive thing in a film is the enthusiasm that you have to have to make it. The film was a disaster. The critics killed me, and the public didn’t come to see it. The critics from Cahiers du Cinema, a very important film review magazine at the time, wrote, “Claude Lelouch, remember this name well, because you’ll never hear it again.” It was a nightmare. It made me question whether I was meant to make movies. They presented to the French Cinematheque, and people whistled and booed it. I nearly gave up cinema after this experience. But the passion I have for film was stronger. I was thinking about it all the time, it was the only thing that interested me.

On the Essence of Cinema as the Reinvention of Life

Cinema is a natural art.  Your eyes are the most beautiful camera in the world, and your ears the most beautiful microphones. Your brain is the most amazing editing machine. You are filming me and I’m filming you. Today you have 7 billion people that all have a camera in their pockets, we are now all filmmakers. As soon as a child comes out of his mom’s tummy, he films, that’s why it is an extraordinary art. It is an art form that is available to everyone, from the ones that have no culture to the ones that are extremely erudite. What I’m trying to tell you is that there are a thousand and one ways to make films, all ways are good.

On the French New Wave and Being Independent

I owe a lot to the New Wave, they show me everything you should not do [Laughs]. I think that the New Wave is Godard, he invented and killed it all by himself. The New Wave is Godard, the others made classic or traditional cinema. That’s why I had a hard time with the critics, because they never came out of “the Wave.” When I made A Man and a Woman – and the film received worldwide success – Francois Truffaut came to see me and told me, ‘We have to do a fantastic issue of Cahiers du Cinema because your film is the first film of the New Wave that is going worldwide.’ I was delighted to hear that, but I said, ‘Yes, but my film is not a film of the New Wave, it’s a film that talks to the heart, it doesn’t talk to the intellect, it’s a film that is musical, a film that goes towards the audience and tries to make their heart beat. It’s different. This film is everything except part of the New Wave. I want to thank you because you showed me everything I don’t want to do.’ Truffaut was very upset with me. He thought I had a really big ego, and on the next issue of Cahiers du Cinema they really destroyed my film.

In cinema you have New Waves all the time, every time you invent something new you have a New Wave. When cinema started, films could only last one minute, that was all the time we had with the film that was available. Then we invented editing and you could put two pieces of film together, so you had a New Wave of directors that would edit their films. Then we invented the talkies, so you had a New Wave of people doing films with dialogue. Then color, Cinemascope, and the Steadicam, every new invention brings a New Wave. Of course now with the new digital formats this is definitely a New Wave again, we are not shooting in the same way anymore. These are the real New Waves in cinema, they happen on and on.

claude lelouch a man and a woman

On His Most Successful Film, A Man and a Woman

When I started writing A Man and a Woman, everything was going wrong in my life. I had just done a film called The Great Moments and I couldn’t find distribution, nobody liked it. Once again I was at the edge of bankruptcy. One night in Paris after projecting this film, I was at the edge of wanting to kill myself. I took my car – every time I feel terrible I take my car and I drive very fast. I left Paris and I drove. I drove not knowing where I was going. But I think I was looking to have accident, I was just devastated. I had done six films that did not work.

I drove all night and I arrived at Deauville in the early morning hours, and I stop at the edge of the beach – I couldn’t keep on driving. I was exhausted, so I fell asleep in my car. Then the sun woke me up at 6 a.m., and what I saw was beautiful. The light was magnificent and there was low tide, then I understood the power of nature. At that point, beauty was the best of all medicines.

I came out of the car, I took a deep breath, and very far away, near the ocean, there was a woman walking with a child and a dog. It was gorgeous! The lighting on them was beautiful, her silhouette was also beautiful, and I wanted to see her face but she was far away. So I walked toward her, I was attracted by this very simple image. As I walked towards her, that’s when the idea for A Man and a Woman came to me. Every time a good idea comes, we are not really sure where it comes from. You feel like turning back to see who whispered it to you. I think all artists should have the humility to admit that we don’t really know where good ideas come from.

On Life, Pain, and Happiness

One cannot explain miracles. I don’t even feel like getting an explanation. I’m embarrassed to talk to you about this, because we are not wise enough or knowledgeable enough to answer these questions. All I know is that life is stronger than everything. It is always at the point when you feel like you want to die that you start living. Every time I experienced the worst failure, that’s when I became the most creative. All my biggest successes happened after flagrant failures. The one thing I’m certain of is that the best school of all is suffering. If you hang on eventually life gives you back, I have been much more successful thanks to my failures. You cannot go from one happy moment to another without going through a lot of trouble. MM

This article was transcribed from a masterclass session delivered by Lelouch at the COLCOA Film Festival in May, 2014.

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