The French (Still) Do It Better: A Roundtable with Audrey Tautou and the Foenkinos Brothers

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Perhaps the directors of Audrey Tautou’s new film are closeted cultural theorists. Perhaps they read a bit of Derrida or Foucault while working on the script. Or maybe David and Stéphane Foenkinos—whose first feature film, Delicacy, premieres this Friday— are from the place where film itself began. And maybe, the French (still) do it better.

Nathalie: I don’t know what came over me … but we work together, and I must say that it was completely inappropriate.
Markus: You sound like an American. That’s never a good sign.

—Audrey Tautou and Françoise Damiens in Delicacy

At The Empire Hotel, in the cozy living room of Suite 1124, a small group of freelance writers hangs on to Stéphane Foenkinos’s every word. “She would never admit it,” he says of the woman who brought us Amelie and Coco Before Chanel, “but she’s an icon in Russia.” He laughs—and we laugh, and he goes on to say that he’d never seen anything like it. Stéphane—whose idea it had been to turn David’s bestselling novel into a film—tells us that when they arrived in Moscow to promote Delicacy, people were screaming and crying for the actress who was humbled (even pleasantly embarrassed) by her rock-star status.

Fame is indeed culturally specific, even for an international “star.” In New York, many of us would gladly throw ourselves at Audrey Tautou’s feet, but perhaps not as they did in Moscow. A similar question of culture arises later in the roundtable discussion when one of the writers notes that in America, Delicacy will be categorized as a romantic comedy, although its actual plot and overall tone resists that label. “This is an English term,” Stéphane says of the “rom-com” genre. He prefers that Delicacy—which he stresses is absolutely not a rom-com—be understood as a dramedy. Tautou’s character Nathalie, experiences the loss of her husband and soul mate, and David’s novel is as much about her grief as it is her new romance, which unfolds slowly, painfully and then beautifully. The film follows this movement, with some variation. “We didn’t want to leave out the mourning,” Stéphane explains.

When asked about what drew her to the film, Audrey first speaks about being attracted to the role of Nathalie and the “tone” with which her story was told. I ask how she “became” Nathalie. Had she channeled any of her own experiences or even prior roles in her performance, especially in the scenes of mourning? “I don’t really have any personal experience … thank God,” she answers, looking up and waving her hands, gratefully. She goes on to say that she knows many people who have experienced such loss, and that she tried to present a woman who called on her own, personal dignity. “I really wanted to show that—how she was always standing up.”

In describing what she considers the tone of the film, Ms. Tautou points to the predilection towards “fantasy” and “poetry” (even amidst grief). This is interesting to hear alongside Stéphane’s notion of the dramedy (which, he adds, almost always assumes the existence of romance, at least for the French). Both artists suggest there is a mixing of various genres to create one, complete (French) film.

Our roundtable discussion is, however, far more informal than I’ve perhaps let on. To my surprise there was no round table and the face of Chanel was but a few inches away from mine. Audrey Tautou had entered the suite shortly after the Foenkinos brothers. She was statuesque (wearing the highest of black heels and carrying a candy-red purse I literally wanted to devour), but sat comfortably between David and Stéphane on a chocolate-brown suede couch. Amidst questions of genre and culture—expressed and implied—there lies a lighter sense of friendship and overall exhilaration.

The brothers had great things to say about working with each other. “We never thought about [working as brothers],” David says, describing the relationship as completely “complimentary.” He talks about their preparation, telling us how they had worked every day for four months before filming even started. For her part, Audrey had been very impressed with the directorial duo: “It was very important for them to have done this preparation,” she says, “so they could come [to the set] with one voice.”

The brothers do admit to feeling some serious pressure. Delicacy was, after all, their first film and having Audrey as the lead was a dream—one that added its own pressures. Audrey is quick to tell us that it was the Foenkinos brothers, rather, who put the pressure on her. At this, we all laugh, though none like Mademoiselle Tautou, who throws back her head and lets out one of those big, mouth-wide-open laughs usually reserved for friends and family. The chemistry among the three is palpable and reminiscent of a certain comedic intimacy conveyed by their film.

One could even compare David Foenkinos’ fondness for Audrey and Stéphane to his feelings about Nathalie, and the novel itself. He speaks candidly about the transition from writer to director, and the novel’s adaptation. He smiles broadly, explaining that the project allowed him to rediscover his book, and it was nothing short of a dream come true: “I got to live with the characters I created.”

The comedy of the piece comes from the character of Markus (played by comedian François Damien) and the improbability of his relationship with Nathalie. When asked about this choice for Nathalie’s lover, David shrugs at the notion of improbability: “Everything is improbable [in the story]. He’s Swedish, and he says things like, ‘I want to take a vacation in your hair’!”

As a fan of the novel, I ask about certain changes made to Nathalie’s character. (She seems warmer in the film and less accessible in the book.) David explains that they made changes to Nathalie, and that Audrey’s delivery helped create that on-screen warmth. One of the first things they did was give Nathalie a best friend. Nonexistent in the book, the character is a necessary part of the viewer’s relationship with Nathalie in the film. Audrey and Stéphane agree that this particular version of Nathalie is easier to connect with and embodies that rare, delicacy they had hoped to convey.

The roundtable discussion lasts a short, albeit glorious, twenty minutes. As a result, I am unable to ask the question that is probably—in retrospect—the one I most wanted to ask. After accusing Nathalie of sounding like an American, Markus leaves work, goes home and happens to watch pre-presidential Barack Obama giving a speech about making the impossible possible and becoming president of the United States. “Yes, we can,” is the refrain Markus hears, and he is inspired to approach Nathalie the next day and to kiss her with the confidence and vigor of, well, an American.

Although I understood the scene to be funny (even ridiculous), I still wanted to hear their thoughts on the cultural exchange of ideas in film. How did they see French and American filmmakers (and artists) inspiring each other in the past and in the future?

And perhaps my question was answered. As we all sat in the room talking about the film—speaking, interpreting, understanding and mis-understanding each other’s French, English and accented English—and as we all laughed at Stéphane’s Russian press impersonation, and as we all tried to figure out how we ended up in a room with Audrey Tautou, I got the sense that, theorists or not, the creators of Delicacy know something about the beauty and humor of cultural, artistic exchange. And while that something does not overwhelm their art, it does contribute to a great film that is so French, it’s universal.

Delicacy opens Friday, March 16.