A Revolutionary Departure for a Director of Romantic Intrigue

Kevin Thomas is a Times staff writer

'Ridicule," France's official entry in the Oscar race, evokes the glittering, treacherous court of Louis XVI several years before the French Revolution. It marks a departure for its esteemed director, Patrice Leconte, who's known in America for two intimate, distinctive accounts of obsessive love, "Monsieur Hire" (1989) and "The Hairdresser's Husband" (1992).

With "Ridicule," opening Friday, Leconte brings his skill playing droll humor against darkly serious matters and emotions to a larger canvas, principally Versailles, where the obsession with the bon mot has become so lethal that failure at repartee can mean banishment and disgrace. (Despite Leconte's international acclaim, "Ridicule" is only the third of his 14 films to receive a U.S. release.)

For Leconte, a slight, boyish-looking man of 49, "Ridicule" freed him from the responsibility of directing his own script. "It came to me completely unexpectedly," Leconte says through an interpreter in an interview in a West Hollywood hotel suite. "Up until now, I had always written the scripts for my films myself. Epithet Films offered me this script by Remi Waterhouse, whom I had never heard of. I loved it and said, 'I want to shoot this and never change a word.'

"It was a like a fairy tale to make this film. It was wonderful for me to shoot a film I had not written. I didn't take to the shooting my doubts as a writer. For the first time I could say, 'This script is great.' I could never say that about a script I've written myself."

Leconte says "Ridicule" represents the first major picture Waterhouse, 40, has written. Waterhouse asked Leconte if he might come to the set during shooting and became thrilled with what was unfolding. "He said, 'It's such a joy to see my story come alive.' It was if he was auditing the shoot and became a very comforting presence."

The film follows a young country engineer (Charles Berling, a noted stage actor new to films) to Versailles to petition Louis XVI to enable him to drain mosquito-infested swamps in his region in order to protect the health of the inhabitants. Instantly, he's caught up in the courtiers' battle of wits. "Death must have been stalking that court," Leconte says of a decadent world so increasingly cut off from reality that revolution seems an absolute inevitability.

"The big challenge was not to be just another filmmaker doing an 18th century film. Even if the era is new to you as a filmmaker, it is not new to the audience. I was a bad student of history because I was not respectful enough of it. If you're too respectful, you wind up with a museum guard's film. For example, in the 18th century, ladies and gentlemen wore white-powdered wigs, especially the men. But I decided it would be less distracting to do the wigs in the color of the actors' hair. It's historically inaccurate, but this way we forget about the wigs. I wanted to be more impressionistic than hyper-realistic. The idea was to bring these people toward us and make them seem everyday.

"The women's gowns were very feminine, very decollete, and during the shooting, between August and November last year, we shot in various chateaux. It grew very cold, and I began to wonder how the women back then ever managed to keep warm."

The temperature may have dropped, but the climate between Leconte and his cast remained warm. "I personally love actors, and I hope they enjoy working with me. There must be a collaboration between us, there must be some sort of love between the director and the actor. If you love people, they give you the best of themselves." In addition to Berling, the film's other key actors are the veteran Jean Rochefort, who plays Berling's mentor at court; Judith Godreche as his beautiful and scientific-minded daughter; and Fanny Ardant as one of the king's gorgeous but conniving mistresses.

"Fanny Ardant is the only actress I know who never speaks of herself," Leconte says in frank adoration. "She's interested in other people. This is extremely rare."

Born in Tours, Leconte became interested in film at an early age when his father would let him use his home movie camera. Although a graduate of IDHEC, France's most prestigious film school, he says, "You can't really learn how to make movies. You see other people's films, you shoot a lot of shorts." France's New Wave had a major impact upon Leconte, as it did on so many filmmakers. "For people of my generation to see a picture like '400 Blows' was like taking a giant tube of vitamin C."

Leconte lives in Paris and has been married for 25 years to a film publicist. "We never work together! Quelle horreur! That's a recipe for divorce!" Leconte says humorously. His older daughter, Marie, 22, is an apprentice script supervisor who worked on "Ridicule," while his 12-year-old daughter, Alice, "forbids any talk of movies at home."

His belief that it's 40 times easier to work with an actor who's famous will be put to the ultimate test next spring when he will direct Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon in an as yet unnamed script he just finished writing. The only other time Delon and Belmondo worked together was in the 1970 gangster picture "Borsalino."

"Once again it will be different for me," Leconte says. "It's an action film, and they play men who've retired from business"--what business he won't say--"living normal lives, but circumstances, totally unexpected, oblige them to go back to work. It will be a lesson about the passage of time. Belmondo and Delon are both fascinating actors, and beyond that, they're living myths."

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