Screenwriter, sometime actor, and stage, opera, and film director Patrice Chéreau, whose clinically cool — some might say sterile — films were arthouse favorites in some quarters, has died of lung cancer in Paris. Chéreau was 68.
Born on November 2, 1944, in Lézigné, in France’s Maine-et-Loire department, and raised in Paris, Patrice Chéreau began directing plays in his late teens. In the mid-’60s, he became the director of a theater in Sartrouville, northwest of Paris, where he staged plays with a strong left-wing bent.
Later on he moved to Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, and in the ’80s became the director of the Théâtre des Amandiers in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre. His 1976 staging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth was considered revolutionary.
Patrice Chéreau movies
Patrice Chéreau’s first movie was the 1975 release Flesh of the Orchid / La chair de l’orchidée. Adapted by Chéreau himself and Jean-Claude Carrière (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) from James Hadley Chase’s novel, Flesh of the Orchid starred Charlotte Rampling as an emotionally unbalanced heiress who escapes from the clutches of her greedy aunt (Edwige Feuillère) with the assistance of a man (Bruno Cremer), himself on the run from a couple of killers. Also in the prestigious Flesh of the Orchid supporting cast: Alida Valli and Oscar winner Simone Signoret (Room at the Top).
According to the IMDb, Chéreau would direct only 13 other films in the next three and a half decades, four of which made for television, in addition to an unspecified segment from the 1991 omnibus feature Lest We Forget / Contre l’oubli. Along the way, he collaborated with the likes of Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Isabelle Adjani, Roland Bertin, Claude Berri, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Perez, Daniel Auteuil, Vittorio Mezzogiorno, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Guillaume Canet, Charles Berling, and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi.
With mixed results, Patrice Chéreau tackled Anton Chekhov in Hotel de France (1987); a TV version of Georg Büchner’s opera Wozzeck (1994); and dysfunctional gay relationships in the Best Original Screenplay César Award winner The Wounded Man / L’homme blessé (1983), a story (written by Chéreau and Hervé Guibert) about a recently out gay man (Jean-Hugues Anglade) who becomes involved with a hustler.
AIDS, however obliquely, was a key plot point in both the star-studded Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train / Ceux qui m’aiment prendront le train (1998) and in the unemotional Son frère (literally, "His Brother"), in which heterosexual Bruno Todeschini contracts a fatal blood disease, forcing him to become closer to his (healthy) gay brother Éric Caravaca.
Operatic grandeur in ’Queen Margot’
Regarding his work in films, on the stage, and at the opera, Patrice Chéreau told The Guardian in 2011, “For me they are exactly the same — telling stories with actors.” Indeed, he seemed to have combined all three (minus the opera singing) in his most famous movie, Queen Margot / La reine Margot (1995), starring Isabelle Adjani in the title role. Adapted by Chéreau and Danièle Thompson from Alexandre Dumas père’s novel, Queen Margot, however over the top, is possibly Chéreau’s most accessible film. Unsurprisingly, it became his biggest — perhaps only — box office hit.
Besides its two Cannes Film Festival wins — the Jury Prize and the (well-deserved) Best Actress Award for veteran Virna Lisi — Queen Margot was nominated for 12 César Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Isabelle Adjani), Best Supporting Actress (Virna Lisi, Dominique Blanc), Best Supporting Actor (Jean-Hugues Anglade), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Queen Margot ultimately took home five Césars, including those for Adjani and Lisi, but Patrice Chéreau — the film’s producer, director, and co-screenwriter — went home empty-handed.
A restored "and enriched" version of Queen Margot was screened at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and will be released on DVD in early 2014. The restored & enriched film features 20 minutes cut by U.S. distributor Miramax for its "international" release (it’s unclear if only in the U.S.), in addition to new edits by Patrice Chéreau himself.
Patrice Chéreau films in the early 21st century: Explicit sex in ’Intimacy’
Patrice Chéreau caused quite a bit of a stir in some quarters as a result of explicit sex scenes in the 2001 drama Intimacy, based on Hanif Kureishi’s work, and starring Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox. Intimacy eventually took home the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and earned Fox the Best Actress Silver Bear. Additionally, it earned Chéreau a Best Director César nomination, and Best Film and Best Cinematography (Eric Gautier) nods for the European Film Awards.
Patrice Chéreau’s last two movies were the period drama Gabrielle (2005), featuring plenty of distressed closeups of Isabelle Huppert and Chéreau’s real-life companion Pascal Greggory, and Persécution (2009), about a dysfunctional triangle composed of Roman Duris, Jean-Hugues Anglade, and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
A movie project to star Al Pacino as Napoleon, The Monster of Longwood, never came to fruition. Also of note, Patrice Chéreau presided the Cannes Film Festival jury in 2003; that year’s Palme d’Or winner was Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.
Patrice Chéreau and Isabelle Adjani in Queen Margot photo: Cannes Film Festival.