François Cluzet is the Dustin Hoffman of France, though at 61 is considerably younger. Self-contained and compact in size, Cluzet is as adept at humour as drama, and as with Hoffman, has a facility with facial expressions that can swing a character’s mood in the blink of an eye.
He can easily play a grouch as he did when he portrayed a paraplegic aristocrat who hires the streetwise Omar Sy as his caregiver in The Intouchables, the most successful foreign-language film ever and one of the funniest films ever made. Yet unlike Sy, who used the chance to venture to Hollywood, Cluzet works almost exclusively in France. A major star at home he has starred in a string of home grown hits directed by Guillaume Canet, Tell No One (2006) and Little White Lies (2010), also starring Canet’s wife Marion Cotillard.
Now Cluzet stars in The Country Doctor where he again plays a curmudgeon who we come to love and appreciate. Dr. Jean-Pierre Werner is old-fashioned in his ways, taking time to care for his patients and going out of his way when he is needed. A sudden serious illness means he must find a stand-in or even a replacement, and the fact that the doctor is a woman (Marianne Denicourt) and worst still, from Paris, rankles him. Essentially the movie, directed by doctor-turned-filmmaker Thomas Lilti, is another odd couple dramedy like The Intouchables.
In a recent article in the French magazine Psychologies, the usually reserved and very private actor revealed his struggles to achieve happiness in his life. He explained how he was an unhappy child living under the shadow of his father, who suffered from depression after his mother left him. Acting provided young François’s escape and allowed him to create his own personality, while love, he says, has enabled him to achieve happiness.
Watch 'The Country Doctor' trailer:
HB: At the age of 61 you’re working more than ever. Why?
FC: (chuckles) I don't know, maybe it’s because success came late and it changed things. My wish was always to stay in this profession and not be shut out. I had a little ambition to do well and it grew. The success really means that I can keep going.
HB: Were you surprised that The Intouchables became the most successful foreign film ever at the international box office as well as overtaking Amélie in France (where it actually rates third behind Welcome to the Sticks with Titanic at the top)?
FC: No, it’s impossible to imagine that. But it was a great script that told a universal story and during the shoot we could feel there was a humour and other things that were very reassuring.
HB: You’re known for playing the everyman and do so here. As with The Intouchables, your country doctor is a bit of a curmudgeon we well.
FC: I’ve often played Mr Tout-le-Monde and I like it. It’s a bit because of my build and I’ve been doing it since I started in television 40 years ago. If you’re too handsome, you will just have roles for handsome people. If you’re too ugly you will just play nasty people. It’s good to be adaptable.
HB: But you are handsome!
FC: (smiles, changes the subject) I think my country doctor has a lot of empathy with his patients. Yes he is the everyman and like my more recent character in La Mécanique de L'ombre, he’s damaged by life. You need a lot of resources, a lot of adaptability, to be able to play these antihero/hero roles.
HB: You’ve had a difficult life yourself.
FC: Yes, yes, yes.
HB: Was it hard to talk about this in Psychologies magazine?
FC: No, because I am transparent. I’m like that, I’ve no problem saying what I think. Acting completely opened me up. I always say that an actor should be like a Francis Bacon painting, completely open. In an interview in this type of magazine, it isn’t about talking about your film. People buy it to know, and for me it’s useful to explain my resilience. It was difficult, but if I can do it everyone can do it. That’s what I wanted to say.
HB: That’s good, we need to hear that. But in France it’s rare.
FC: Yes, it’s just this magazine that does that.
HB: You are well preserved, you look young in the face. There are not too many lines.
FC: (chuckles) It’s make-up! My mother was like that she never showed her age.
(His son rings and he is effusive and affectionate while organising their afternoon rendez-vous.)
HB: In the article you say how you have changed your (romantic) relationships to stay happy and that it’s something you learned from your mother.
FC: I think so, I think so. She taught me love must exist and that a life without love is not a life. Many couples no longer love each other yet stay together because they have children. They make a sacrifice because of the children and that's bad. They come to resent it. I was lucky that my mother said that. I have five children and it’s become the philosophy of my life. I think the best education you can give your children is love because it’s what they will go looking for, and if you show them that it exists then you give them a good perspective on a beautiful life. If you just tell them to work, work, work to be happy or just to make money that’s not good.
HB: Why is your country doctor unhappy?
FC: His family are his patients. He looks after them like they’re his children because he’s known them for years. He knows the parents, the children, the grandparents; he knows everyone. And if someone comes to renew their prescription he asks them about their family. Apart from being a doctor he’s a confidante. His patients are the loves of his life; he loves his job. When this woman doctor arrives, he knows she can’t take his place because he loves the patients, and there’s no reason for her to love them. He thinks she’s incompetent and it’s for that reason that he sacks her. Eventually he sees that he needs her and that she is competent. He also comes to like her and his desires start to come.
HB: Can you separate your life and work?
FC: I like to work a lot because if I don't I feel useless. And that's difficult to endure. I could shoot all year but I pick what I want to do and take my time with the preparation. The most interesting for me is the work before the shoot, the creation.
HB: Will you work with Guillaume Canet again?
FC: Yes next year. We’re doing a sequel to Little White Lies. I love that character. It’s fun to do.
HB: You have a good relationship with him.
FC: Of course.
HB: You seem to have similar personalities and takes on life and fame.
FC: Probably, yes, yes, yes.
HB: You’re not so pretentious and buying into being a star like him. (Canet recently directed the comedy Rock’n Roll, a send-up of stardom starring himself and Cotillard as ridiculous versions of themselves.)
FC: Yes, yes, yes. I think it’s finished this star thing of star. It’s too artificial. Now everyone’s a star, the TV presenters, the journalists. The Hollywood system of stars when they put people under contract and told their lives in newspapers, that still exists today but those people who play that card don't go far.
HB: Omar Sy put himself in that situation.
FC: It’s true, he’s in that situation. But he’s a little exceptional; he can cope.
HB: Why don't you want to work in America? Is it because you’re too French and you have success in France?
FC: I like feeling part of an ensemble as I do here. I can’t speak the English slang so it would be hard to enjoy myself. You have to speak the slang or you feel left out, a bit at a distance and that’s frustrating. I like to meet people and there I can’t. Also I’m attached to my country. I’m French, I’m part of this culture and I know how it works. There’s more modesty, it’s a little country, it’s not the same. It’s the French people who interest me.
'The Country Doctor' is currently screening at the Alliance Française French Film Festival.
Watch a François Cluzet movie at SBS On Demand:
The Art of Love
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