For a director with more than two dozen films under his belt, along with a fistful of Césars and other awards, it is surprisingly difficult to categorize Patrice Leconte. His oeuvre, at least that part of it which has made its way to the United States, is unusual for its restlessness—its unquenchable desire to try out new genres, styles and forms. Leconte’s improbable output has ranged from the existential masterpiece Man on the Train to the costume drama Ridicule to the noir thriller Monsieur Hire to the moody drama The Girl on the Bridge.
The Paris-born auteur’s latest, My Best Friend, is yet another departure—a slapstick comedy with a soul. In it, beloved French actor Daniel Auteuil plays François Coste, a successful art dealer with a slight problem: He has no friends. Challenged by his business partner to produce a best friend within 10 days or lose possession of an antique “friendship vase” he has just purchased at staggering cost at an auction, François is amazed to discover the paucity of companions in his life. During his peripatetic search through his little black book, which is crammed full of business associates and one-night stands but bereft of any genuine friends, François establishes a tentative alliance with a taxi driver, Bruno (Dany Boon). Bruno, his brain crammed full of useless trivia, desperately desires to compete as a contestant on the French version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” but finds himself freezing every time he appears in front of the show’s judges.
François and Bruno stumble toward creating that rarest and most delicate of human relationships: True, deep friendship. The film ends in winning fashion, with a lengthy scene taking place during the filming of an episode of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” with trivia whiz Bruno reluctantly needing François’ assistance after a cruel betrayal. The vase that is the subject of so much discussion becomes a perfect symbol of friendship, for its simultaneous beauty and infinite fragility. Lovely in part because the slightest mishap can damage it irrevocably, friendship—rarely depicted truthfully on-screen—is embodied here by François, Bruno and the vase that both brings them together and tears them apart.
MM spoke with Leconte, who politely explained (in English) that he preferred speaking in French in order to be surer of his words.
Saul Austerlitz (MM): You’ve developed a reputation for yourself in the U.S. as the director of melodramas like The Girl on the Bridge and costume dramas like Ridicule. What prompted the turn toward the broader comedy of My Best Friend?
Patrice Leconte (PL): It’s not a big change because I have always had a taste for comedy. I thought it would be a breath of fresh air to choose a film that deals with friendship. Superficially, the film appears as a nice comedy, but it actually deals with very important subject matter—heavier subject matter.
MM: In using an actor as immediately familiar as Daniel Auteuil, were you thinking of his prior performances as awkward souls, like in Un Coeur en Hiver, or comic antiheroes, like in The Closet?
PL: I know Daniel very well—he’s a dear friend of mine—and I’ve always understood that there’s a great comic dimension to him. There are very few actors, whether in the United States or in France, who are able to dive into such opposing styles. On the one hand you have drama, and on the other, something much lighter, like comedy. When I shot this specific film, he completely, irresistibly reminded me of Robert De Niro. You guys have Robert De Niro; we have Daniel Auteuil. It is the third film that I’m doing with Auteuil, and I wanted to take him to a genre we had never done together, which is comedy.
MM: Unlike love, friendship can be an awkward subject for a film. Did you find yourself struggling to maintain the proper tone during the making of the film?
PL: A comedy is much more difficult to make. It’s really not very easy to maintain a comic tone—you’re walking on a tightrope. You’re trying to maintain comedy and at the same time project a tone that matters to people. But all the better if it’s difficult—I like to be walking on a tightrope, because it’s more challenging.
MM: The scenes near the end of the film that take place on the set of the French “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” are hilarious. Was it a challenge to get the show to take part in your movie, considering that you are, in some ways, parodying the excessive hoopla of TV game shows?
PL: It would have been a catastrophe if we didn’t have their authorization, because without it the screenwriter [Jérôme Tonnerre] and I would have had to invent the game. We submitted the screenplay to them and they [thought it was] good. I don’t think it’s a parody—we’re not making fun of the game—so they played along!
There’s a very funny effect to this whole operation, because you’re dealing with a real game, a real MC, real music, real lights. Suddenly, a fictitious character becomes real, taking part in reality. It creates a really funny effect. The spectators realize that these actors are no longer fictitious characters; they’re real people and they’re participating in “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”
MM: Where did the idea for this film come from?
PL: The idea came from the story of a guy who goes to a funeral and wonders “Who is going to come to my funeral?” and realizes that he has no friends. I thought that was an absolutely terrific idea—that’s something that really moves me deeply. I think that everyone asks that question at least once in their lives. It’s not much, but that’s how the story took off.
MM: How did you and Jérôme Tonnerre split the duties in writing the script?
PL: We have a very classical method of working. We see each other for a whole afternoon or day, we talk at length and Jérôme takes notes. After that, he’s the only one who writes the screenplay. He writes a first draft, second draft, third draft—but he’s the only one who actually writes the script.
MM: The visual look of the film is quite unusual for a comedy, with a twitchy camera that occasionally jerks left or right in the middle of a scene or refocuses. What inspired you to shoot the film like this?
PL: I have never thought that a comedy should be directed like a comedy, with accessories that belong to the genre of comedy or lighting that belongs to the genre of comedy—that doesn’t mean anything at all to me.
There’s this idea that a comedy should appeal to as many people as possible, that it should be popular, and as a result you light it very bright. I’ve never thought that it should be done that way. The most important [elements] to me are mood and rhythm. As long as you maintain mood and rhythm, you can film it any way you like.
MM: Daniel Auteuil and Dany Boon work up a rapport that is very enjoyable to watch, alternating between genuine closeness and horrific awkwardness. How did you coach them about approaching their roles, and their relationship to each other?
PL: They never met before the shoot. They did not know each other and were not friends, but they had great admiration for each other. Dany Boon was a little scared, saying “Daniel is such a great actor, I’ll never be able to work up to his standards.” Daniel was saying, “Dany is such a funny guy, how am I going to be next to him?” So they admired and respected each other, but were intimidated by each other at the same time. The central part of my work was to respect the shyness they had toward one another. I tried to shoot chronologically as much as possible.
Thanks to the film, they became the best friends in the world, so I helped create that friendship. Auteuil became a godfather to Dany Boon’s baby and Dany Boon was best man at Daniel Auteuil’s wedding last summer. From the film, a true, genuine friendship developed. mm
IFC Films released My Best Friend on July 13, 2007.