When French actor Yvan Attal set about writing and directing his first feature, "My Wife Is an Actress," he chose a subject close to his heart. Attal's wife happens to be French film star Charlotte Gainsbourg. And in the screwball comedy that opened Friday, the two play a married couple named Yvan and Charlotte.
Attal didn't cast himself as an actor, but as a scrappy sportswriter who has a difficult time coping with the fact that nearly the entire French population seems to love his wife as much as he does. Think of it as a Gallic version of the Oscar-winning romantic comedies of yesteryear like "Woman of the Year" and "Designing Woman."
Attal, 37, was heavily influenced by American romantic comedies. "I watched Woody Allen's films to write this," he said during a recent interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. "He was a real influence but others also--Billy Wilder, of course. Billy Wilder was one of the best for comedies. Woody Allen, I think, he reinvented the comedy genre. Comedy is a genre that is very minor--people don't take seriously filmmakers who are making comedies in France."
Gainsbourg, the daughter of British actress Jane Birkin ("Daddy Nostalgia," "Evil Under the Sun") and the late French singer-actor Serge Gainsbourg, says that when her mother started acting in the 1960s, "she only did comedies--she did popular films and she wasn't taken seriously at all. Then she started doing very dramatic films and was taken seriously. She became a recognized actress."
In person, Attal and Gainsbourg come across as charming and playful. Born in Israel but raised in France, Attal is short, dark, talkative. British-born Gainsbourg, who has spent most of her life in France, is tall, beautiful and quite shy. She watches her husband intently as he does most of the talking. When he has trouble with English, she jumps in to help him.
To his surprise, Attal discovered making a comedy was not particularly fun or easy. "You know, some times you arrive on the set and you don't want to laugh," he says. "You don't want to be funny or light. You have things happening in your life and you just want to be serious. It's difficult to make a movie anyway, but there is that thing in the comedy where all the time you have to be very precise."
Besides wanting the film to make people laugh, he wanted "My Wife Is an Actress" to have an elegant style.
"We have seen so many comedies where the lighting is just flat. That's why Woody Allen is so great. You see a film like 'Annie Hall' or 'Manhattan' and the light and the style is so sophisticated."
Attal had to rely on his production designer to give the elegance he desired. "I am colorblind," he says, laughing. "Can you imagine? What I discovered is my director of photography is also colorblind. That's why we got on so well."
Gainsbourg and Attal met 12 years ago while starring together in "Aux yeux du monde" (The Eyes of the World) and became a couple a year later. They have a son, Ben, who is 5. An actor since 1989, Attal made his film debut in "Un Monde sans pitie" (A World Without Pity), for which he won a 1990 best new actor Cesar, the French version of an Oscar.
Gainsbourg, 30, made her film debut 19 years ago as Catherine Deneuve's daughter in "Love Songs." Two years later, she won a Cesar for her performance as a tempestuous teenager in "Charlotte and Lulu." Her first film to be distributed stateside was Claude Miller's 1989 drama, "The Little Thief," which was based on a screenplay by Francois Truffaut.
She essayed the leading role in Franco Zeffirelli's 1996 version of "Jane Eyre," and earlier worked with various members of her family. She starred in her uncle Andrew Birkin's 1993 film, "The Cement Garden," appeared with her mother in 1987's "Kung-Fu Master," and was directed by her father in 1986's "Charlotte Forever." Last year, Gainsbourg appeared in the TNT miniseries "Nuremberg" as a Holocaust survivor.
Attal initially made "My Wife Is an Actress" as a short film. "It was a joke about what it is like to live with an actress," he says.
The short film has a corresponding scene in the feature where a man in a bar asks Yvan if he gets jealous when his wife has love scenes in movies.
"The producer saw that short film and he offered for me to adapt it for a feature. I didn't want to. I said everything in six minutes. I don't know how to make a one hour and a half movie on the same subject. In the end, I accepted to think about it."
Once he started to think about the idea, "I realized there was a real subject--what is real and what is not real. That's why I did it with my own wife. When I kiss Charlotte on the screen, is it a real kiss? Maybe it isn't because there is a crew around."
Acting, he says, is a strange occupation.