Even before the credits begin on "Romantics Anonymous," Jean-Pierre Améris' comedy wins its audience over with a simple interpretation of "I Have Confidence" from "The Sound of Music," made even more adorable by the way it's sung by Angélique Delange (Isabelle Carré) as she strolls down the street. It's bold, which is something the film's characters Angélique and her soon-to-be boss Jean-Rene (Benoît Poelvoorde) are not, but that's the charm of Ameris' love story where the barrier to romance isn't just getting the other person to let down their guard, but to overcome their own social anxiety. Which is a shame since besides a shared lack of self-assurance, Angélique and Jean-Rene have a love of good chocolate that they'll need to sell if they're to save Jean-Rene's confectionary from bankruptcy.
Fortunately, Ameris didn't let his own confidence issues come in the way of making "Romantics Anonymous," instead drawing inspiration from it to make his first comedy after a career making dramas that have largely dealt with the subject of fear. Here, it is Jean-Rene's fear of sweating through his shirt and Angélique's dread at drawing attention to herself as an exceptionally talented chocolatier that often lead to the film's considerable laughs and naturally, it came as a relief to the French writer/director that the comedy was received as one of this year's Tribeca Film Festival's word-of-mouth sensations.
It was actually a long process. About 10 years ago, I started going to these Emotions Anonymous meetings [that Angélique attends in the film] and it was a stage in my life where I started developing fears of a lot of things, of even leaving my apartment. I refused dinner invitations. I didn't want to go to film festivals anymore. And so I found out about the existence of this group, Emotions Anonymous and I joined them.
When I started attending those meetings, I was really touched to find out that there are so many people affected by this and people that you never would guess have this problem. For example, you'd see an apparently successful businessman or some really pretty women who go there and share that any kind of date is an issue for them. Because of the way I am, everything becomes cinema in my life, so I thought there could be a good movie to come out of that — talking about people whose fear is so deep, and their biggest fear is being looked at by others.
You've almost exclusively directed dramas in the past. How did you know the subject matter lent itself to a comedy?
When I first started writing, it was very clear to me that the subject itself was comedic. When you go to these groups where you share your experiences, at the moment you experienced it, it seemed like catastrophe, but then the simple fact of talking about it makes you realize how funny it can be and people end up laughing. That laughter has a relief component. It really makes you feel that it's fine. I think actually it would been pleonastic to make a drama out of such suffering.
It's actually very difficult, as I found out, to work with comedies — when you write, when you shoot, when you edit. It requires you to be a lot stricter with the way you work and you never know at the outset whether a scene will make people laugh. For example, when we worked with a scene where [Benoit Poelvoorde] comes back with a shirt with ruffles instead of the plain shirt [during a dinner date], my actor didn't believe in it and the people that were around us when we shot weren't laughing that much, so I actually experienced some moments of true solitude as I was doing that.
You never know whether something will be successful until you show it to people and that's something a lot of comedians that are well-known have said, that you always need to wait until you have feedback from the audience. I believe that working with comedy requires a lot of trust and a lot of bravery and a lot of discipline as well. It is a true risk and actually, this goes hand in hand with the type of subject I was dealing with. It's about taking risks because instead of being funny, you can be ridiculous. And that's a great risk, which I find very interesting and beautiful at the same time.
Angélique, played by Isabelle Carré, sings to herself to boost her courage. How did that idea come about?
This idea came from the actress herself. It's my second movie with her and it's somebody I totally trust. She has a lot of points in common with the character herself and with me. When I wrote the script, I wrote it for her and when we were talking about it, she shared with me this bit of information about herself, which is that whenever she has to tackle a difficult situation, she actually sings a song and sometimes they're songs that are on TV or often it's the song from "The Sound of Music." And that's what we chose to put in.
It's also interesting that this film deals with characters reaching middle age, which is a point where one doesn't necessarily meet new people and a certain comfort sets in. Was that an interesting starting point for you to make a romantic comedy?
I hadn't really thought of it that way, but you actually have a very good point. Actually, I wanted to show characters that were closer to my age – that was the initial idea. And this condition is something that starts out when you're young, you're growing up, but it continues. It never really stops. I think it's really painful when we reach age 40, let's say, and we realize we've failed at our love life and at our jobs because we're paralyzed by fear. So I wanted to show people that we're halfway through our lives and I wanted to show that everything was still possible. It was still possible to find love, to find professional success. I really set out to show that positive outcomes were possible.
Has seeing the film connect with audiences in New York been gratifying?
It was a pleasure, of course, to find out that the subject I tackled is truly universal and I'm particularly happy about the success in the United States because the film is nourished by my love for American romantic comedies of the '50s, so it's a little bit like going back to the source.