Guillaume Canet, 46, may be one of France’s biggest stars, but he remains as affable as when I first met him many years ago for films including Joyeux Noel (alongside his then wife Diane Kruger), Love Me If You Dare (alongside his future and now current wife Marion Cotillard), and The Beach where he co-starred with his still good friend Leonardo DiCaprio.
Indeed, Canet has powerful friends who also include some of France’s biggest stars, most prominently Jean Dujardin and Gilles Lellouche, who together with Cotillard appeared in his third directing effort Little While Lies and its follow-up We’ll End up Together. The films, which focus on a group of friends meeting for a seaside vacation, were smash hits in France and the latter will screen as part of this year’s Alliance Francais French Film Festival [AFFFF].
“We’re a group of friends who are making films and playing in each other’s movies and sharing things,” Canet says. “I think that’s very, very nice. Sometimes critics ask me if I’m bored making films with the same people. But I’m not.”
We were talking at last year’s Cannes Film Festival where Canet was promoting La Belle Epoque, one of the best French films of 2019 and probably the most commercial. The second film directed by another Canet alumnus, Nicolas Bedos, the film is also screening at AFFFF where Canet will in fact have a trifecta as he also stars in Edouard Bergeon’s In the Name of the Land, the real life story of a farmer struggling to make ends meet. The son of horse breeders and an accomplished equestrian and showjumper, Canet grew up in the countryside outside of Paris and often pursues rural themes in his movies.
In La Belle Epoque he plays Antoine, a director who has set up a company allowing clients to venture back to the favourite time in their life. Daniel Auteuil shines in the leading role of Victor who returns to the moment when he met Marianne (Fanny Ardant), the woman he would love and marry, but from whom he is now estranged. Instead of rekindling his love for his wife through Antoine’s recreation, he becomes infatuated with the actress playing her, Margot (Doria Tillier).
“It was exciting for me to play the part of a director because you don’t usually see the energy you expend,” Canet says. “You focus on the other people. So, to be looking at myself, at my energy, my passion, was wonderful and the writing was absolutely brilliant. I realised I share many of Antoine’s traits of not leaving anything to chance and focusing on the details.
“What touched me were the love stories. One was very passionate, and one had sort of run out of steam. But the idea was to reignite the passion in the first relationship. Antoine has an interesting relationship with Victor who is a sort of a mentor. What I find beautiful is that Antoine has a mission to ensure that people find happiness again. Nothing is abnormal and something inhabits him, which I found very important. A whole period is being reconstituted but everything sprang from a passion, a deep-seated love.”
When was Canet’s belle époque? “Maybe my childhood. I love the lack of anxiety you have as a kid. I miss that period a lot. But I lived through some difficult things as well.”
He admits that his tendency to work too much stems from his father’s sickness and the trauma related to it.
“When I was ten, my father was leaving my mother and before he reached the door I said, ‘You step through that door and you are no longer my father’. He passed through the door and had a heart attack. So, imagine the culpability you can have, the guilt about this. He’s still living nowadays but with a lot of health problems, so I grew up with this anxiety about death. When you have that anxiety, you don’t want to have the time passing too fast. So, I always try to keep my days totally full. Each time I have a day off I’m freaking out. I feel guilty not doing things, so I’m always doing something. When I’m acting in a movie, I’m writing a script at the same time and when I’m directing a movie, I’m still doing competition in show jumping.”
At school he wasn’t a good student. “I hated school because I didn’t think it was for me. I thought it was to make my parents happy. It was only a long time later that I realised it was important for me to know a lot of things. But I grew up watching movies and I had a feeling I was learning a lot of things about life, about love, about conflicts and about relationships through films. After watching so many different kinds of films, I’m now unafraid to mix different genres in my work, from slapstick, to great American and European traditions – a bit of Truffaut here a bit of Zemeckis there.”
Certainly, you can expect the unexpected with the films Canet directs, like his little seen 2017 comedy Rock’n Roll where he co-starred with Cotillard and hilariously lampooned their celebrity. “It’s always a bit frustrating not to have your film seen that much,” he admits of Rock’n Roll failing to find an international audience – after it was not accepted into Cannes. His next production is also a comedy though, on a far grander scale.
In January, Variety reported that Canet will direct and star in a hugely ambitious project, Asterix & Obelix: The Silk Road budgeted at US$72.4 million. The movie follows French comic book characters portrayed in previous movies by Gerard Depardieu and Christian Clavier. The story will revolve around the only daughter of the Chinese Emperor Han Xuandi, who escapes from the grips of a rogue prince and runs off to Gaul, seeking help from two valiant warriors, Asterix (Canet) and Obelix (Lellouche) who have gained superpowers thanks to a magic potion.
Variety notes how Canet and producer Alain Attal made several trips to China, including an official trip with French President Emmanuel Macron, in order to present the project to Chinese authorities and be allowed to shoot in China, co-produce the film with a Chinese company, and release it widely there. One might imagine production could be delayed given the Coronavirus epidemic. No further reports as yet.