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It was hard work making the hilarious Dinner Game - and a bit like going back to acting school at 45 for French actor Thierry Lhermitte, as he admits to ANDREW L. URBAN.

He's drinking tea, I've got a scotch; he's just dropped his daughter at school through morning traffic, I've just said goodnight to my daughter on the phone. He's in his office overlooking the Place Republique in Paris, I'm in mine, overlooking our carport in a Sydney suburb. That's where the similarities end.

"We like to work together and we have a great time every time."

Thierry Lhermitte (contrary to his name) is a busy and gregarious film producer when he's not starring in a film like The Dinner Game, and he's kindly put aside some time to have a chat about that film while he's keeping a producer's eye on The Defence, a drama based on a Nabokov novel, starring Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves); more on that later. His acting credits are numerous, and he has worked with his Dinner Game co-star Jacques Villeret on two previous films. "Jacques is a wonderful actor," says Lhermitte, "we like to work together and we have a great time every time."

The Dinner Game, which opens in Australia just before Christmas 1999 - and a load of good cheer it is, too. Not in the ho ho ho sort of way, but in an observant and slightly black sort of way. It's the sort of story that if it happened to you it would be totally unfunny. But to someone else, and it's hilarious.

"It's very much alive for me"

Lhermitte, urbane and engaging, made the film (with his pals) two years ago, "but it's very much alive for me," he says. "It ran for a year in cinemas in France, and was even released on video before it finished its cinema season." The film's success is not surprising, but its origins are: it began as a stage play, and the transfer to screen is not always a happy one.

But Lhermitte says writer/director Francis Veber was an extraordinary adapter of his own play. "He cut the two and a half hour play to a one and a half hour film…" Lhermitte, who had to turn down the role in the stage production and never saw it, found the work far less funny than it appears.

"During rehearsals, I though it would be a piece of cake; but Francis is very demanding, as he should be, of course. He wanted nothing from the outside, there are no double entendres…he was so specific that sometimes it took 30 takes to get a scene. He didn't want any personal input - just what was written. It's all based on situation and character. He was not interested in what you know or what you're good at. It was acting school for me," he says, still stunned by the experience.

"That was a bit strange, finding yourself back at acting school at 45! And then when you see he's right, that's even worse!"

"It's only funny from the outside."

Lhermitte admits he 'giggles' easily on set, but not this time. "There wasn't a smile! It was very hard work. In some scenes, the crew was biting their thumbs to stop laughing, but we were so focused on our own [character's] drama. . . it's the first time in my career this has happened."

Veber, says Lhermitte, didn't want any self consciousness from the actors; it was all for real, so the drama of each character would be real. "It's only funny from the outside."

It's a situation comedy bordering on farce, with woddles of wit. Lhermitte plays Pierre Brochant, a publishing executive who has to find a suitable dinner guest for the weekly party at the home of another obnoxious yuppie, where friends gather with secretly chosen guests who will be riduculed. The guests must be selected on the basis of being nerds, idiots, dummies - laughably so. But then he is alerted to Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret), a man who seems ideal as an 'idiot' guest, an accountant at the finance ministry with a hobby of building with matchsticks. But before he can parade his guest in front of his friends for a spot of ridicule, Pierre puts his back out at golf and things deteriorate from there.

But for all his latent nastiness, Pierre Brochant isn't always entirely loathsome; in fact he can be quite endearing. "If between Pierre's meanness he had no likeable characteristics," says Lhermitte, "it wouldn't work. This way, the empathy goes from one to the other…the audience sides with first one, then the other."

"How can he be replicated?"

The Dinner Game has been so successful and has such broad appeal, it has - inevitably - attracted the interest of Hollywood, with Dreamworks buying the remake rights. But Veber, who is adapting it for the studio, is finding it hard to transfer it all into a US environment. For instance, there is a rather juicy latecomer in the film, a tax inspector, who jumps right out of the French system. How can he be replicated?

In any case, it won't be Lhermitte in the Brochant role; he's tied up producing The Defence, starring Watson and John Turturro, now shooting (December 1999) in Italy. This is to be followed instantly by another film he's producing, The Coconut Trees, a comedy to be shot in the Caribbean, while already in pre-production on Prince of the Pacific, in which he will also star. "So I get to go and enjoy Tahiti," he says with a laugh. If it all sounds very exotic, it's by coincidence: "usually," he says laughing, "we shoot in some Belgian suburb…"

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Thierry Lhermitte
It's the sort of story that if it happened to you it would be totally unfunny. But to someone else, it's hilarious!"

The Dinner Game


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