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L'HERMITTE, THIERRY: THE CLOSET

HUMOUR IN HUMILIATION
Francis Veber finds humour in homophobia and humiliation, but with great sensitivity and humanity, says one of the film’s stars, Thierry L'hermitte, who talks to Andrew L. Urban.

He’s tall, handsome, charming and French, but his English is remarkably good. Good enough to joke about feeling insecure when seeing himself dubbed into a foreign language in Francis Veber’s hilarious The Closet. "It can be weird, you know, watching yourself speaking in someone else’s voice and in another language. But the film is so good it works the same way – which make you wonder about yourself as an actor! Maybe I’m not needed…." He laughs into his mobile phone, finishing breakfast in Paris. I’m finishing an early evening coffee in Sydney.

L'hermitte is something of a Veber regular now, having played the physically difficult role of a mean publisher Pierre Brochant in The Dinner Game, and now the easier role of a mean company executive in The Closet. In this comedy, Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) is an accountant at a condom factory and about to be fired by the macho head of personnel, Felix Santioni (Gerard Depardieu). Seen as a boring zero by all, including advertising executive Guillaume (Lhermitte), he has been pining for his wife (Alexandra Vandernoot) who left him two years earlier with their son Franck (Stanislas Crevillen). His new neighbour, Belone (Michel Aumont) devises a plan: Pignon will be revealed to be gay, averting the sack for fear of negative customer reaction – for apparent gay discrimination. The plan succeeds, but it has numerous unexpected and unintended consequences.

"it says wonderful things about our differences"

"My character is not evil," says L'hermitte, "but he’s manipulative. He doesn’t really mean any harm. . .he likes to joke at others’ expense."

It’s all very funny, but there are some grounding moments of observation, as L'hermitte points out. "It’s more than just funny, yes. It’s very sensitive in some places, emotional…and it says wonderful things about our differences, about homophobia and about humanity."

There is a scene, for example, in which Belone, Francois Pignon’s middle aged neighbour (Michel Aumont) reflects on the irony that 20 years earlier, homosexuality revealed would have cost him his job. Now it’s saving his friend’s. The film deals with issues like the genesis of rumour and the influence of perception. How other people perceive you is what you are to them, says writer/director Veber. "Other people decide who you are. Or at the very least, other people’s perceptions can push you either to change your behaviour or to be constrained your whole life."

At the film’s beginning, Veber shows us Pignon’s grim reality as he loses everything; his wife, his son and now he faces the loss of his pitiful job. He seriously contemplates suicide. All good comedies spring from tragedy, says Veber. "It’s not as light a genre as one assumes." This is territory well rehearsed by Veber in The Dinner Game, too.

Daniel Auteuil is remarkably effective as the zero who faces a combination of humiliation and personal trauma. He fashines a character with whom we empathise, even as we recognsie his shortcomings. His humiliation is an important part of the film’s comedic structure. L'hermitte loved working with Auteuil; "he’s a legend…"

"He’s an extraordinary man, an extraordinary actor – a great human being." on Depardieu

But it was working with Gerard Depardieu (who recovered from a heart attack to work on The Closet) that was L'hermitte’s personal highlight. "He’s an extraordinary man, an extraordinary actor – a great human being. For me it was a great pleasure to finally work with him. Previously we’d only met to shake hands a few times. Now we’ve become friends."

Published December 20, 2001

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Thierry L'hermitte

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