April 7, 2005
Once Upon a Time in a Midlife Crisis
Yvan Attal huddles on a velvet couch in a corner of the cavernous Chateau Marmont lobby, a study in nervous energy. The Israeli-born French actor-director, who is charming if energetic, furrows his brow and runs his fingers through his tousled black hair. It's not hard to believe that one of his film idols is Woody Allen ("I identify with his neuroses") or that he makes films that serve as personal therapy.
Consider his new dark comedy, the frenetically paced "Happily Ever After," which explores his midlife crisis. He got the idea in 2003 when he dropped his son off at preschool and noticed most of the other parents were divorced.
"I began thinking about my own life and the choices I have made, and they felt enormous and scary," he said.
Not that anything was amiss in his own household. Since the 1990s, Attal has lived with the French movie star, Charlotte Gainsbourgh, daughter of the late Jewish pop icon, Serge Gainsbourgh. They have two children, ages 7 and 2, and thriving careers. Gainsbourgh, 33, is a popular actress who has appeared in approximately two dozen films, including Franco Zeffirelli's "Jane Eyre." Attal, 40, is less renowned as an actor, but he has won the Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar, for 1989's "Un Monde Sans Pitie," and since 2002 he has made a name for himself as the director of romantic comedies starring himself and Gainsbourgh.
Despite his own domestic harmony, those single parents spooked the director at preschool.
"The love was still there," he said of his relationship. "But you realize you can meet somebody else; that maybe it can be difficult to stay together. Then you realize that you are not free, and not only with other women; you cannot make a [snap] decision because it engages other people. So I got really frightened and I just started writing."
"Happily Ever After," follows three male friends and the women in their lives as they navigate midlife crises and ponder the pros and cons of commitment. Attal portrays Vincent, a car salesman who takes a mistress when his marital routine becomes blasé, while his wife, played by Gainsbourgh, fantasizes about a stranger. The narrative shifts from everyday scenes to dream sequences and poses the question: Can a relationship survive infidelity? Is it unrealistic to remain faithful? As one character puts it, "I can choose my wife, or all other women."
If "Happily Ever After," according to The New York Times, suggests a Parisian answer to Mike Binder's short-lived HBO series, "The Mind of the Married Man," Attal's 2002 debut film, "My Wife Is an Actress," is more reminiscent of the jealousy comedies of Allen. The film stars Attal as a sportswriter married to a sexy actress (Gainsbourgh) who is desired by every man in France.
The movie wasn't only prompted by Attal's amusement (and annoyance) at his own wife's star treatment: the restaurant tables that suddenly became available for Gainsbourgh and not for Attal, for example, or the nightclub bouncers who rejected him until she showed up.
As a performer, Attal had become obsessed with the realization that an onscreen kiss perhaps isn't just a kiss, and a nude scene isn't simply another day at the office. "Actors like to say, 'Oh, we're just doing a job, but when you spend all day in bed with an attractive person there is bound to be some desire," he says. "Look at all the romances that begin on the set. And if you're doing that job and your wife is doing that job ... it's a risk every time."
In a "Wife" subplot, the protagonist's pregnant sister is married to a Catholic who cannot understand her preoccupation with circumcising their son; her shrill obsession evokes the pressure Attal feels being Jewish in the hostile French body politic. "Since 9/11 the anti-Semitism has increased, and for the first time in my life I don't feel like the other French," says the director, whose next film will excoriate French anti-Semitism.
"Happily Ever After" focuses on more personal than societal concerns, although the prickly subject matter initially caused tension on his home front.
"When Yvan [first] spoke to me about ... some scenes, I was very uneasy with the subject," Gainsbourgh said. "The idea obviously came from something in his life, and I'm part of that. I had a right to be worried. A couple falling apart -- that scared me and I was trying to find the reality in it."
The resolution of the onscreen couple helped to assuage her fears -- as did discussions with the director.
So is Attal's midlife crisis over? Is he still worried about his relationship falling apart?
"I don't know," he says. "But maybe I feel more free. It's like I realize we don't have to be frightened of what happens in our lives because we can't escape. If your wife meets somebody and she falls in love, what can you do? Also you can't be scared by what could happen to yourself either."
And then there is always cinema as therapy. One of Attal's next films will be based on a short story, "Les Sabines," about a woman "who has the gift of ubiquity," he says. "She can be in many places at the same time."
Does that mean she could tryst with her lover at the same time as with her husband?
"Exactly," he says.
The film opens this month in Los Angeles.