I meet Cédric Klapisch not in an auberge espagnole (‘Spanish inn’) but in a Parisian bistro. L’Auberge Espagnole drew 3 million cinemagoers in France alone and publicised the EU’s Erasmus student exchange programme on screens across Europe. Klapisch is now a very bankable director. We have arranged to meet in the trendy Oberkampf area of Paris. While I wait, drumming my fingers on the counter, I take in the surroundings. The almost deserted café, freshly painted in red and yellow, is full of light. The chrome clock tells me that it’s 11.30. Behind me I hear footsteps approaching on the mosaic floor. Here comes the smiling 44-year-old, carrying a motorcycle helmet. He greets me with a friendly handshake.
A true Parisian, Klapisch is tanned, visibly relaxed and has every reason to see life as pretty sweet. His latest opus, Les Poupées Russes (Russian Dolls), the follow-up to L’Auberge Espagnole, has been a big success. He recalls how “In the ‘90s I went to visit my sister in Barcelona [where L’Auberge Espagnole is set] for a week. She was studying there and lived with 6 flat mates from different countries. I thought to myself that this mix of good and bad was pretty crazy - so funny, lively and invigorating”. Many students recognised themselves in the portrait of this enthusiastic emergent euro-generation. Klapisch was in the money. As he underlines, the film is there to prove beyond doubt that “there is a Europe with or without Brussels”.
From the American student…
We sit down at a small round table with our espresso and peppermint tea. Despite his affection for young Europeans, Klapisch never actually took part in the Erasmus programme himself. Having twice failed to pass the competitive entrance exams to study at the IDHEC, a prestigious Parisian film school, he crossed the pond at the age of 23. He describes how “I enrolled at the New York Film Academy. During the ‘80s French cinema was very much a slave to the 1950s ‘New Wave’ – which was really starting to look dated. That period seemed mind-numbing to me. I discovered that there was more to life than [French director] Godard. Travelling and living overseas is really rewarding – including your life outside your studies.” And how about the legendary antagonism between Europe and the United States? With a mischievous twinkle in his eye he answers, “There is the opposition between the new and the old. Americans have a dread of that which is very old and create anti-ageing products for everything whereas in Europe we are much more interested in bringing back that which is old and regarded as sacred. The difference is particularly obvious in France where, politically, we haven’t managed to break away from ancestral divides”.
…to filmmaker of the moment
When the American chapter of his life closed, Klapisch returned to France. After some tough years he eventually established his image as the filmmaker of the moment, creating a light-hearted, subtle but sarcastic world in his feature films. This fan of Spanish director Almodovar, Russia and the word truc (thing) has been increasingly well received both by critics and the public. Now he’s about to set off on an overseas promotional tour for Les Poupées Russes. He comments, “European film is in a bad way. France is the only country in Europe to help domestic filmmaking. Certain film industries such as the Italian or English have almost disappeared.” According to him European film is in difficulty because of “American imperialism, competition from television and overly bureaucratic EU grants”.
A committed European
So what does the future hold for this whole-hearted European? Italy and Spain, apparently, following his two icons, Fellini and Almodovar. He says that “It’s great to see how we are so close geographically but so completely different. I like the Latin spirit, that palpable zest for life”. However, this director also has Polish roots and lived in Russia for a few months as a teenager. He still likes it and regularly goes back there. Screwing up his eyes he explains, “there’s a certain Slavic something that I really like and that you can find in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic as well. It’s a humorous sadness, comedy linked to tragedy.”
A convinced Europhile, Klapisch admits that since May this year he has been very worried about the consequences of the French ‘non’ to the European Constitutional Treaty. He thunders, “It was a strange time. I wonder whether the super-racist creation of the ‘Polish plumber’ overtook social considerations…I can’t figure out whether this is just a slow-down for the EU or the first nail in the project’s coffin.” The jury is thus out on whether the glass is half full or half empty, but the filmmaker does admit that at least “we have witnessed a proper debate about Europe and one held, for the first time, outside of the political sphere. I would like to see the French people make some national sacrifices for something that is bigger than them”. Klapisch is ultimately placated by a political aspiration and exclaims (as he gets up to leave), “One crazy thing that we never remember is that before the European project, a German meeting a French person was like a Palestinian confronting an Israeli today. My grandparents died in Auschwitz. It’s thanks to Europe that 60 years later there is nothing to fuel my hatred. These are political efforts that have brought about a psychological change.” Cut! Klapisch slips out. He’s neither for nor against Europe – au contraire.