Patrice Chéreau exits the stage

  • One of the great names of French cinema died on Monday.
  • He was also a brilliant director.
  • His works explored sex and the human soul.

Many in the theater and film worlds are in mourning today, because Patrice Chéreau passed away from cancer at the age of 68. This great man of the theater, opera and film has left the stage, vanishing into the shadows. He loved the performing arts, especially comedy, and comedy was good to him. At the Theatre des Amandiers, he shook up the world of the stage and developed new talent, including Dominique Blanc and Daniel Auteuil. He gave new life to old talent, including Michel Piccoli and Jeanne Moreau.

A few days ago at the Namur Festival, not knowing that his death was imminent, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, attending with Un château en Italie (A Castle in Italy), spoke to us about Chéreau, explaining that he had been more than a mentor. He offered the actress her first real role in Hôtel de France, filmed with students from the Amandiers School in 1987. He chose her for La reine Margot (Queen Margot) and Ceux qui m’aiment prendront le train (Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train). Three years ago, she played in John Fosse’s Rêve d’automne (Autumn Dream), directed by Chéreau. “He played a key role in my life. He really started my career, and I followed his school of acting. It’s still a cornerstone for me: his mind, his way of working, his vision of life and work, his energy, his intelligence. Everything in him enriched me, fed me. Chéreau was like a father to me. When I work, I always wonder what he would think.”

There were two major influences on Chéreau’s films: Orson Welles and German expressionism. He attempted a production of a stylized thriller, La chair de l’orchidée (The Flesh of the Orchid) with Charlotte Rampling, in 1975, but it was not until 1984 that he came into his own. L’homme blessé (The Wounded Man), in which Jean-Hugues Anglade played a tormented young homosexual, is still shocking. It’s a portrait of a time of disenchantment and of a sexual identity crisis, and won a César award for best original screenplay. The film stemmed from a deep personal sorrow, Bernard-Marie Koltès’ illness. It is as striking as Koltès’ writing for the stage, which Chéreau produced, and explores questions of loneliness, anguish and despair. Beyond that, what drove Patrice Chéreau to tell stories and put them on stage was his need to explore the heart, soul and sexuality of human beings. He staged them in order to make sense of them in the storms of daily life and to rail against heartbreak in the bodies of men and women. His last films, including Persécution, Gabrielle and Son frère (His Brother), continued the same themes.

Chéreau was a director, but also an actor, a job with which he would have been content had it not been for his inner turmoil. With the passage of time, his young, leading-man physique transformed into a mass of energy. He played Napoleon for Youssef Chahine (Adieu Bonaparte), Desmoulins for Andrzej Wajda (Danton) and Jean Moulin for Claude Berri (Lucie Aubrac). He also starred in the films of Raul Ruiz, Tonie Marshall and Michael Haneke. His acting was intellectual and carnal, but spiritual and physical at the same time, and rooted in the real world.

But the actor always came back to what he loved most – directing other actors. He did that with the tools of the cinema. He delivered a Shakespearean spectacle in 1994, full of blood and suffering, in which Isabelle Adjani wore a white robe stained with death. The film was a spectacular success. La reine Margot won the Cannes Jury Prize, the award for best actress for Virna Lisi as Catherine de Medici and walked off with five Césars. The scale of his success brought him back to the theater, but film was never far away, especially ensemble pieces. He would use fifteen characters to express intimate and familial conflicts. Charles Berling, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Vincent Perez, Pascal Gregory and Olivier Gourmet became Ceux qui m’aiment prendront le train. The film, depicting a group of friends traveling to a funeral by train, won three Césars. Of the films that followed, Chéreau said, “Intimité (Intimacy) was about two people who didn’t know each other, but discovered each other through sex. As soon as they talked about things, it became very complicated. It was a relationship as powerful as it was false, because it was only physical. Gabrielle was something different: there was no love. It was like an empty marriage that kept going only because of social conventions. And L’homme blessé was a much more adolescent film, about a completely romantic love.”

In Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, there is this wonderful reflection: “What’s better: cheap happiness or expensive suffering?” Chéreau was completely enthralled by this kind of question, from which there is no escape. He would have been 69 on November 2. Those who love him can take the train…


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