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French comedy master Francis Veber sees himself as the underdog, he tells Andrew L. Urban - which helps him fashion stories around the hapless Francois Pignon, this time in a farce about an improvised love triangle involving a rich businessman, a supermodel, and the valet who parks the cars at a posh restaurant.

Francois Pignon is an underdog who sometimes triumphs despite himself – and he appears in several films made by French filmmaker Francis Veber, always played by different actors and always in different circumstances … but always the same old put-upon Pignon. It’s perhaps Veber’s alter-ago? “Yes, a part of me is like that,” he says in a charming French accent given added texture by the international white noise of the phone call to his Los Angeles home.

Pignon’s latest incarnation (played by Gad Elmaleh), is a humble car valet at a posh Paris restaurant, who is captured on camera by a paparazzo next to supermodel Elena (Alice Taglioni) and her married lover Pierre Levasseur (Daniel Auteuil) during a secret assignation. Pignon is persuaded to pretend it is he who is romancing Elena, not the tycoon whose wife Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is the major shareholder in Pierre’s business empire. The plan is to save Pierre’s marriage for good financial reasons, but it interrupts a possible romance between Pignon and his long time friend, Emilie (Virginie Ledoyen), who assumes that the supermodel has stolen Pignon’s heart. Christine is not so easily tricked and she launches a plan to reveal the truth.

In Veber’s previous Pignon film, The Closet, Auteuil played the Pignon character opposite Gerard Depardieu. When Veber sent Atueil the script for The Valet, Auteuil automatically started reading the Pignon role – and was still getting his wires crossed at time on set. In The Valet, he was too old to play Pignon, says Veber.

“I always wanted to be the man playing opposite Pignon … the strong man, but ….” And you can almost hear Vebr shrug. Not that Veber feels sorry for himself, one of the most successful French filmmakers who was invited to Hollywood by Jeffrey Katzenberg some years ago. “What will I do there,” Veber asked Katzenberg. “He told me, don’t worry, I like what you’re doing and we’ll find you something.” What Veber was doing was writing hit comedies in France.

"Wilder said the writer caresses the film but it’s the director who gets to sleep with her"

When he got tired of watching his ‘babies’ being deformed by other directors, he started directing himself. He quotes Billy Wilder on the subject: “Wilder said the writer caresses the film but it’s the director who gets to sleep with her.”

Speaking of which, Veber admits he was stumped for a while about one aspect of The Valet story: “When Elena the supermodel moves in with Pignon, I had to find a way to make it clean … you know, to make it credible that he wouldn’t want to touch her or something. But if he was in love with this other girl, someone in his own social range …”

The other major challenge was how to treat Elena herself. Why would she as a supermodel agree to the masquerade of a romance with this inconsequential car park attendant. “I asked myself, what can convince her to accept something so absurd? When I started to describe the premise to my American assistant, that was his first question. When I said it was for a couple of million dollars, he understood. Ah, it’s the money. But in France, my friends’ reaction to this was, ‘Ah, so she is a whore!’ So I was stuck…squeezed. It took me three weeks to find the solution …”

And the solution is that Elena uses the situation to her own advantage, as a lever to try and force Pierre to leave his wife, Christine – if he does, he gets his money back.

As for Christine, Veber wanted someone who had a fiery inside but an icy exterior. “She had to be English,” he says. He thought of Kristin Scott-Thomas who is bilingual – “and she loved the idea.”

Another casting coup was getting Karl Lagerfeld to play himself. “He’s an old friend … I used to swim in the pool where he’d bring his models – and I would crawl after the girls - and we got to know each other but than drifted apart. So when I rang him, he was delighted to be part of it.”

Published December 14, 2006

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Francis Veber onset with Daniel Auteuil


...onset with Karl Lagerfeld

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