Interview: Danièle Thompson Spills on Her Bittersweet Trip to Learn What “Happened in Saint-Tropez”

It’s safe to assume Daniele Thompson is a firm believer in the equation made famous by Carol Burnett, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”

In co-writing the script for her latest bittersweet comedy “It Happened in Saint-Tropez” with her son Christopher, the Oscar-nominated director of “Avenue Montaigne” was reminded of the funeral of her father-in-law in Tel Aviv when the dearly departed became the least of her concerns.

“My husband always wears T-shirts,” Thompson recalls. “So as we were all going to the funeral, I rushed to one of the best stores in Paris and I bought a beautiful, very expensive shirt. But then we were at the funeral and I saw the rabbi bring out this pair of scissors…”

That was how Thompson learned the hard way about the Jewish ritual of kriah and while she mourned twice that day, it was a moment that delightfully finds its way into her latest film, a story of two estranged brothers who are brought together by a funeral, a wedding and the need to reconcile their differences for the sake of the family’s future generations. Eric Elmosino and Kad Merad play the diametrically opposed siblings Zef and Roni, respectively, the former a working class Orthodox Jewish musician who recently lost his significant other and the latter an agnostic Emerald Dust baron with a trophy wife (Monica Bellucci) and a fondness for belting out Sinatra, despite not having the voice for it. What the two do have in common, besides a crotchety father, are daughters (Lou de Laâge and Clara Ponsot) that take after them and yet actually like each other, though a man (Max Boublil) set to be married to one of them threatens to upset the only sturdy branch of the family tree.

As in her previous crowdpleasers “Change of Plans” and “Jet Lag,” the filmmaker’s sly wit is on full display as she heads from Roni’s palatial mansion for the nuptials to a yacht on the shore of Saint Tropez looking for trouble, all the while unfurling a touching tale of a family that needs to fall apart before it can be pieced together. Thompson’s latest travels brought her to Los Angeles for the City of Lights City of Angels Film Festival, where the film made its North American premiere Monday evening as the opening night of the fun weeklong fete of contemporary French cinema. During her stay in town, Thompson dished on the film’s inspiration, her unique working relationship with her son and the inspiration of some of her past hits as one of France’s most famed screenwriters in her new work as a director.

How did this come about?

It came about as a mixture of anecdotes and a theme. I’ve actually been through this experience of having a coffin arrive from America and it’s too big for the French grave. These things are happening obviously at a moment when you’re very vulnerable and very upset and very sad, but you want to laugh because when they call you and they say, “Oh we have a problem, it’s too big, you think oh my God, is this really happening?” So this was very much the key to the beginning.

I thought this was a good idea even though this happened years ago under very sad circumstances, but then another time in my family, there actually was a wedding and someone dying two days before. You’re upset with what to do with the body because it’s very unpleasant for everyone to have a party and yet you know, the girl and the boy getting married have done nothing wrong. Why should we cancel it? So again, there’s this mixture of sadness and comedy I like as a filmmaker and I thought this was fun to start.

The other part of it is in France now, especially with the Jews and the Muslims, when somebody [comes from] a very religious family or somebody suddenly escapes and decides not to be religious or in an unreligious family, somebody suddenly becomes very religious, it creates unbelievable problems. Why? It should be okay. Let people live. But these differences inside the family [create] intolerance. It’s in details, so I thought this was an interesting way of talking about how inside a family you accept the others, even if they betray, even if they’re different, even if suddenly a situation that should not happen but happens and could blow up the family, but in fact if there is a generous aspect inside, it can save everything.

I couldn’t help but notice that this shares a plot point with one of your most famous films as a screenwriter “Cousine, Cousine” where two people who suddenly find themselves as in-laws share a potentially romantic connection before they know that fact. Is it coincidence or is there something about that relationship that’s particularly intriguing to you?

That’s funny because the thing it has with “Cousine, Cousine” is that not only is it again a family story, but it’s against the rules. [Family members] do things that they shouldn’t do. That actually is what saves the situation because if you follow the [traditional] path, nothing will be resolved. Not admitting that somebody is suddenly sleeping with your husband or you don’t accept the fact that somebody’s religion which is not what you have chosen the way to live, or if somebody marries a beautiful, stupid woman that everybody thinks is stupid, but he loves her and she loves him and she’s okay, even though every time there’s a stupid thing to say, she says it — [these things] actually happen. It’s the same thing in “Cousine, Cousine” that in fact, everybody’s surprised that they dare not to follow the way everybody handles these situations. Nobody actually has said this to me. But it’s true, it’s very much similar. People do not behave well. And that’s what’s nice. [laughs]

As a director, you’ve cowritten all your films with your son Christopher. Is that an interesting process when you’re writing films together about families?

We’ve not only written films about families, but what’s interesting is I used to work with my father [Gérard Oury] on many films. My father’s a French director who made these legendary comedies in France and I knew when I started working with my son on my first film now almost 14 years ago – it was actually a very valuable and very rich thing to do to work with a man as a woman, to work with someone of another generation. In my case, with my father, I was the young one and now I’m the old one. You have a different point of view on things and suddenly ideas that come up that would not have come up that the other has because he has another way of looking at things.

It’s true also that it’s very unusual to sit every day for like 18 months with a member of your family and talk about life, so this has been very nice for both of us to create this extra mother-son relationship. Writing the script, it’s a very intimate procedure because you obviously come up with things you have in mind and there’s a freedom which has to be there, so it’s been absolutely wonderful.

There have been rumors a musical might be next for you?

Yes. I wrote a film a long time ago that was a big success called “La Boum” with Sophie Marceau. She was 12 and it was very successful all over – in Germany and Italy and Japan, so we’ve been thinking for a long time to do this. Now, we’re really to work very seriously on it and make it a musical in Paris and do it next. But it’s going to take two or three years.

Have your interests as a filmmaker changed at all since you started directing?

Maybe it’s time now to do something very different because my five movies have been always a mixture of comedy and something a little sad too. I’m always going from one to the other. As a screenwriter, I did such different things. I really went from one director to another and one period to another. It was very diversified. Now, I think maybe I should go to something very different and try to think in terms of doing a period film. We’ll see.

“It Happened in Saint-Tropez” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play once more at the City of Lights City of Angels Film Festival in Los Angeles at 2:30 p.m. on April 20th at the DGA Theater.

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