JEAN-JACQUES Annaud is, hands down, one of the most charming and irresistible men in the world of film. To talk to him is to like him a lot.
At the moment, though, charm is difficult, to put it mildly. He is discussing a fact which clearly galls him -- that his erotic and deceptively carnal adaptation of Margaret Duras' autobiographical memoir "The Lover" has fallen into an ancient hole of movie mythology and hype, the one that contends that his two principal actors, Jane March and Tony Leung, actually made love during the film's undeniably steamy scenes.
Annaud's film is an artfully rendered adaptation of Duras' international best-selling memoir of a teen-age affair she had in Indochina with an older Chinese man.
All sorts of films come with such fleshly myths -- director Roger Vadim discreetly leaving the set during the filming of "And God Created Woman" so that his then-wife, Brigitte Bardot, and Jean-Louis Trintingiant could consummate their affections; Bruce Dern telling everyone who'd listen that his love scenes with model Maud Adams during "Tattoo" were the real thing; the publicity campaign for "Wild Orchid," which "hinted" with a sledgehammer that what happened between Mickey Rourke and future wife Carre Otis was real; the widespread belief that the opening scene between Beatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade in "Betty Blue" wasn't playacting.
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It's a mythology composed partly of middle-class hopes that moviemaking is a far more passionate matter than it really is and partly of the hope that acceptable mainstream filmmaking can contain elements of unacceptable and passionless porn (people instinctively know that the very real sex in porn films is followed by the principals leaving the set to arrange for cocaine deals or to pore matter-of-factly over want ads looking for a Jeep 4 X 4).
It isn't that consummations haven't been made on movie sets or love affairs kindled. It's just that only a fool would try to find, say, the scenes in "Bugsy" that led to the relationship and then marriage of Warren Beatty and Annette Benning.
That reputation has been following "The Lover" around since its European exhibition, and Annaud isn't happy about it. In fact, as far as he's concerned, it's time to reinstate the Napoleonic wars.
It all started, he says in an interview at the Toronto Film Festival, in England. "It says more about the English press than anything else. I was worried whether those scenes would be believable. When I saw that (story in the English tabloids) I didn't say anything. But it became so embarrassing for the girl, for Jane (March). The press was coming to France. They would open her door at 3 o'clock in the morning to get pictures of her in her bed. It was becoming so embarrassing that we sent her to a remote island in the Indian Ocean with someone in the production company. We hid her for 15 days over there.
"She couldn't walk in the street. There were too many journalists just hunting scandal, and scandal has nothing to do with my movies. It has to do with selling papers. They were even chasing someone they believed was her boyfriend, so this poor guy was going to work with a motorbike helmet on his head."
In a separate conversation, March confirmed it. It was even worse than that. During the time of its release, her whole family was bedeviled by the English tabloid press in search of whatever it could find.
"I was not thinking," said Annaud. "I'd forgotten about the English press. It never happened in any other country. This movie has played everywhere else but America and Australia. And nowhere else did we have this kind of problem. It's something very typical. The English tabloids are like that about their queen, about their duchesses. They have to find trash to say.
"It's just the magic. It's very clear. Our main concern was to make you believe. I would never believe that I would be asked this kind of question, because it's so hard to achieve. On 'The Bear' I had a similar problem. People said, 'You put a little bear in with a puma.' The reality is that the puma was afraid and it was a split screen. They never were together.
"Or they said, 'You killed the mother bear.' No. It was a mime in a (bear) suit. I was so worried that people would see that. Then it works for the screen.
"People have this naive attitude of thinking if it is what you see then it is what happened. This is a fiction movie! I don't kill my actors! Why haven't people asked me after 'The Name of the Rose' if my actors were still alive? They die on screen, after all. But I didn't kill them.
"In fact, if things are actually happening on a set you can't record them properly. We are into setting up lights and shots. That's how things work.
"I myself am flattered that people would believe it. But after a while it became embarrassing. I stopped doing press in England. It was a no-win situation."
The paradox, he says, is: "If you start explaining to people how you make those scenes, then people won't believe it and they won't want to go see it. I could not explain, for instance, that for 'The Bear' I used 18 different live bears."
The themes in Annaud's remarkable body of work are so apparent that even a high school sophomore could find them. The way he looks at "The Lover," "this is almost a continuation of my search for instincts, for human nature. I'm often asked, 'Why are you making films which are so different?' When in fact, I'm following my own personal little flings through 'Black and White in Color' and 'Quest for Fire,' which is the continuation for me of 'Black and White in Color' and then 'Name of the Rose,' which is quite the opposite. Instead of the world of nature, it's the world of culture. And then 'The Bear' is, for me, the direct consequence of 'Quest for Fire.'
"I had several very strong reasons for doing 'The Lover.' The first one is that I was very ashamed that I had not ever directed a film with a female lead. And that was upsetting me a lot, especially because I have two daughters of that age. When I was shooting 'The Bear' they were 14 and 16. Now they are 17 and 19. I decided to do a film for them.
"What fascinated me in the story is that it's a conflict between body and reason, between instincts and the decisions you try to make. It's the old nature/culture story. This is a woman who has become -- who has succeeded in becoming -- a very intellectual writer Precisely because she wants to intellectualize and she cannot succeed, is what I like about it. Still to this day, Marguerite pretends that she's in control. She's not. None of us is. In this country, in America, people have a difficult time with the dictates of their bodies. They want to ignore their bodies. That's very often why they are so uneasy about things. They just don't say, 'Hey, we are not so different from a bear.'
"What our body feels is honest and genuine. People here tend to hope that they are sheer spirit, that they have no biology, that they have no blood in their veins. . . . I see the world in a different way."
Nothing could illustrate international variances about his subject more than the film's rating. After its final recut, Annaud says, the motion picture ratings board gave it an NC-17. He made an eloquent appeal and got an R.
"I'd be quite happy with an NC-17 as long as you could advertise or go to a proper cinema. But if you get an NC-17 rating it's like having plague.
"In my country, this is a G, not a PG, not a PG-13, not an R. It's a G. Not only a G but a movie that teachers are taking pupils to because they can discuss sex afterward without a reference to rape, violence and murder. It's sex with love, with passion."
Annaud discussed the film before its American release. Somewhat presciently, he said: "I know for a fact that the controversy is not going to help. It's not just that you have publicity. This is not what the movie is about. Controversy is something we are trying to avoid, but it's what people are picking on."
"The Lover" has, indeed, run into some distribution narrows despite the on-set sex mythology that keeps on being retold in film magazines.
Such is the nature of the film that its true nature really isn't revealed until its final minutes, when you hear Duras' words spoken by Jeanne Moreau with a voice baked by tobacco and life itself. It's too long for many people -- including critics -- to wait.
It has not, then, been either a resounding critical or box office success, which, despite several announced openings, may yet prevent the film, worthy as it is, from coming to Buffalo.
It is an artful adaptation of a memoir by a septuagenarian writer who has become something of the kind of French literary monument that Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir once were.
It was no easy task.
Duras herself was intimately involved in the movie until "we got into a territorial fight."
"We had a very passionate relationship -- lots of kisses and lots of desire to strangle."
They went their separate ways while Annaud made the film and Duras made scowling noises to whomever would listen.
After the premiere, says Annaud, he went to dinner at a Paris cafe with American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. When they left the cafe, they saw Duras outside.
Annaud and Duras kissed, says Annaud, despite their public "feud," and she said, "Where are the photographers?"
She asked him if he was happy with the film. He said, "Yes."
He asked her, "Are you happy?"
She said, "Why is my name so small in the credits?"