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Interview with Patrice Leconte, director of the Bronzés trilogy

Jean-François Staszak
Traduction de Université Bretagne Occidentale
Cet article est une traduction de :
Entretien avec le réalisateur Patrice Leconte, réalisateur des Bronzés [fr]

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1Tourists in films? For the French public, the most famous example has to be the Bronzés trilogy (“French Fried Vacation” in English). Directed by Patrice Leconte with the troupe of the Le Splendid café-théâtre company, the three films (Les Bronzés, 1978, Les Bronzés font du ski, 1979, and Les Bronzés 3 : amis pour la vie, 2006) were major box-office successes when they were released. Today, they still attract over 10 million viewers each time they are shown on television. The first two instalments have even been raised to the status of cult films, with their characters, certain lines and situations today a part of the French collective memory. The spirit of Jean-Claude Dusse, convinced he has “a chance” and hoping to “score”, even if only thanks to“a misunderstanding”, is still very present in Club Med villages and winter sports resorts. These films were big hits, marking their period because they managed to capture something of the spirit of the times. And their timeless nature is due to the fact that the situations and characters they portrayed have hardly changed over the years.

2These films show tourists at work, in situ. They go swimming, they go on excursions, they play sports, they attend shows, they eat, they flirt (the latter being in reality their main activity, at least in the first two films). And all this in Côte d’Ivoire, in Val-d’Isère in France, and in Sardinia. In a holiday village very reminiscent of a Club Med resort and designed for middle-class tourists, in a sports resort with a diverse clientele, and in a luxury hotel. These places represent different microcosms in which the tourists are more or less isolated from the outside world. They serve as a backdrop to the comedy, the main aspects of which include the mediocrity of the characters, reduced to a few stereotypes, and their social interaction, friendships or romantic relationships, all stamped with the seal of pettiness. A potentially very dark vision of humanity if it were not counterbalanced by the real affection we feel for these individuals with whom we cannot help but identify.

3The Bronzés films are neither a social satire nor a criticism of tourism in the sense that they target neither a particular group nor a way of life. Instead, they represent a human comedy, that of a group of characters placed in a configuration that reveals who they are and how they relate to each other. Rather than the subject of the film, tourism is the recurring configuration in which this comedy is set.

4We wanted to interview Patrice Leconte, not so much because of the vision of tourism that he presented in these films (often portrayed as caricatured or critical, but which can in fact be considered quite realistic), but rather for the following two reasons. First, he chose three times to situate his comedies within a tourist configuration, and, from the point of view of tourism studies, it was relevant to ask him why. And second, the success of his films is such and their role in the making of the social consciousness about tourism so important that we cannot be interested in this subject without wanting to know more about the genesis of the films.

5Cadé M. 2009, “Les Bronzés 1, 2, et 3 : une représentation des pratiques touristiques des classes moyennes aisées dans le cinéma populaire français”, in G. Ferréol and A.-M. Mamontoff (dir.), Tourisme et sociétés, Brussels, EME, pp.23-31.

6Lombard Ph., 2016, Le Petit livre des Bronzés, Paris, First Editions.

7Interview conducted at the director’s home in Paris on December 8, 2018. The interview, which lasted two hours, was recorded, transcribed and slightly rewritten to increase consistency and readability. Our sincere thanks to Patrice Leconte, who kindly accepted to answer our questions in a very open and honest manner.

JFS Jean-François Staszak

PL Patrice Leconte

JFS The question of your relationship to tourism and travel extends far beyond the Bronzés trilogy (1978, 1979, 2006). The character of the traveller or tourist is present in almost all your films. Even in Ridicule (P. Leconte, 1996), there is something very similar in the sense that the main character is someone who arrives in a new place and finds himself confronted with an unfamiliar world, somewhere other than where he should be.

PL Yes, that’s very true. The first Bronzés film is very touristy: the whole scenario takes place in a holiday club. And the same is true for the second film, this time in a ski resort. Of all the films I’ve made, those that excited me the most, those that were the most satisfying for me, were those that made me leave the place I know the best, in other words, Paris. Filming elsewhere, in places I don’t know, where my eye isn’t tired of the surroundings, that is what I really enjoy. And nowhere was this more true than on location for my action and adventure film, Les Spécialistes (1985), where we started shooting in the Verdon Gorge in south-eastern France – an intrinsically tourist destination and absolutely magnificent by the way. It was the perfect location to not only make a film, but also just to relax and enjoy the scenery. I travel quite often, and I’ve been practically everywhere. I’ve been to a lot of places, without a camera, without anything at all, not to film, and I love that too. But it’s true that going somewhere to film is an absolute joy for me.

JFS When we look back to the origins of cinema, between 1895 and 1905, many films were travel films. A cameraman was sent somewhere to bring back pictures. You, Patrice Leconte, you also bring back pictures from other places, but above all you show the people in these places, people who are, in a way, our representatives in these holiday destinations. In other words, we too are the tourists in the holiday club, we too are the tourists in the ski resort.

PL Yes, that’s very true. When cinema was first invented, the Lumière brothers made films outside their factory in La Ciotat. It was a case of just demonstrating this new and amazing process. And then, once the novelty had worn off, it was indeed a matter of sending people out to bring back images from afar. There was photography first, but cinema was photography that moved, ‘motion pictures’. And that was astounding.

JFS However, in Les Bronzés, especially in the first film and also a little bit in the second, there are very few shots or scenes where we see the tourists out and about visiting the area. You don’t really share this aspect. The characters remain closed up in their holiday resort. There is, of course, the expedition into the mountains in the second film, but what you are filming is above all the interrelationships between the tourists, rather than the relationships between the tourists and the country or the region they are visiting.

PL That’s very true. But the fact is, when we’re staying in a holiday club, we get out very, very little. It is not the ideal configuration for visiting a country. We remain within the confines of the club because it offers a perfect setting, because there’s a swimming pool. And because, finally, it’s a place to just lie around and relax, which does not encourage getting out to explore the country. From time to time, there are short excursions: an afternoon canoe trip or coach trip. And then we quickly head back to the club for the buffet. Les Bronzés is a good reflection of what actually goes on in a holiday club, with this somewhat neo-colonialist side to these French tourists who consider they have arrived on “home ground”.

JFS Perhaps there is, among tourists and filmmakers alike, the idea that we have the right to go sightseeing and to take pictures?

PL We have the right to go sightseeing, naturally. There’s no point in travelling if we are no longer allowed to go sightseeing. Making a film is different because everything is organized, staged, written: there are the characters, there are the actors. It’s a reconstructed reality. But when I travel, wherever I go, my little camera in my pocket, taking pictures always corresponds, to a greater or lesser extent, to a kind of theft. It’s petty theft, because the people there didn’t ask for their pictures to be taken. And so it’s like I’m always tiptoeing around. I’m shocked by the number of tourists who, after taking pictures of this site, that place or that face, consider that they can move on to the next one. We have lost all sense of contemplation and have become mere consumers.

JFS Getting back to Les Bronzés, it was when you saw the play that you thought there was enough comic material to make a cinematographic production of it.

PL The troupe of Le Splendid initially had a screenplay in mind. But they couldn’t make it into a film because they didn’t have the prominence. They thought to themselves, “It doesn’t matter, we’re going to do our play on our little stage at Le Splendid,” which was tiny. And the play was hilarious. I saw it I don’t know how many times. It wasn’t me, but rather the producer Yves Rousset-Rouard, who happens to be Christian Clavier’s uncle, who thought, “Of course! This has to be made into a film”. The troupe of Le Splendid was delighted, as it had been their dream from the outset. And that’s when they said, “We would like to do it with Patrice, because we know him well and we trust him. We are roughly the same age, we have the same sense of humour, and it will be harmonious.” So they kind of imposed me on the film.

JFS So would you say that the tourist situation is a good subject for a comedy?

PL It is a fantastic source of comedy. At the same time, what interests me and what I prefer to film is the comedy inherent in social groups: how tourists behave with each other, make life difficult for each other, and quietly scorn each other... Because if, for example, we did a film entitled “The Bronzés on Safari” or “The Bronzés in Tokyo”, we would have to confront the characters with customs, habits and traditions that are not their own, at the risk of creating racist humour. If I film a hilarious scene in Tokyo with Josiane Balasko who doesn’t know how to use chopsticks, isn’t that making fun of the Japanese culture? The proof of this, I believe, is Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation (2003), which is a pretty fantastic film, but also quite awful in that it constantly makes fun of the Japanese. I find that unbearable.
Les Bronzés, I don’t make fun of the native people or their culture. So when the tourists take this short excursion by canoe and Christian Clavier, like a prize idiot, tries to haggle over the price of the statue and the guy just keeps saying “No, no”, well it’s Christian Clavier who is ridiculous. It is this little troop of Le Splendid characters who are made fun of: they are the subjects of this famous self-mockery. The film is never ironic or scornful with regard to tourists. Under no circumstances.

JFS You have used the word “ridiculous” to describe the tourists. Is tourism an interesting subject for you as a filmmaker because of this? Ridicule is very important in all your films.

PL We are always the source of ridicule for someone. I try to point out some of the shortcomings of our contemporaries, certainly. But without ever – at least I hope – adopting a superior attitude. I am no better than the people I mock. And if I were them, I would probably behave in the same way. What is rather despicable, what constitutes a real lack of generosity, is to scorn the people you film and portray. It may be wishful thinking, but I try never to fall into that trap.

JFS That’s what I thought when I watched your film Ridicule again. It gave the impression of being an autobiographical film. It’s like you recognized yourself very much in the main character.

PL This was the first film I made where I hadn’t written the screenplay myself. It was written by Rémi Waterhouse, and it was exemplary. When I read it, I told myself that not only did I want to make this film, because it stirred up a lot of things that touched me personally, but also that Ponceludon de Malavoy, since that’s his name..., well, he was me. He moved to Paris from provincial France, just like I did. He went to the court of Versailles; I was trying to make a place for myself in the world of cinema. I was hoping to obtain something, just like Charles Berling in the film... It was easy for me to identify with this scenario.

JFS And when you filmed Les Bronzés and Les Bronzés font du ski, you didn’t have much experience as a tourist. You say you had never been to Club Med before, so the scenes weren’t actually inspired by your own experience?

PL When I filmed Les Bronzés, my friends from Le Splendid had already frequented the Club as guests to organize evenings the “forums”. The troupe had been invited to play at the Club by Guy Laporte, a real Club Med resort director, who plays a role very similar to his own in Les Bronzés. They perfected their show there. They knew the Club well, but I had never been there before. And I didn’t have the courage to tell them that! I pretended I knew the Club. And I actually went there afterwards, several times – and with great pleasure, by the way. It’s a fantastic place for children. The first time, I felt like I was an actor in the film. I finally understood what I had spent two months filming!

JFS You had never been to a Club Med resort, you had never been to Côte d’Ivoire. Had you been to Val d’Isère or skiing? How were the two destinations chosen?

PL For Les Bronzés, we were looking for a heaven-on-earth type of place. We banked on the fact that Club Med sets up resorts in the most enchanting places in the countries. But we very quickly knew that we wouldn’t be able to film in a real Club Med resort. Lydie Trigano, Gilbert Trigano’s daughter, was in charge of relations with the artists, the actors who came to do shows at the club. She knew Amour, coquillages et crustacés, the play on which Les Bronzés is based. We asked her if we could shoot the film in a Club Med resort, and she replied that we would do well to forget that idea.
So, because the producer had contacts there, we first went to the Dominican Republic. But the location scouting didn’t turn up any suitable venue. There was no real holiday club in place; we would have had to build everything ourselves. Then we learned that in Côte d’Ivoire, just four kilometres from the Assinie Club, there was an Italian holiday club
the Galaswinda Club in Assouindé, the subject of the theme song of the film. We decided to go and see what it was like. All of the infrastructures were already in place. But the holiday club in question had all bungalow accommodation. We wanted a village with huts, like at the beginnings of Club Med. And so we built huts, which is not very complicated to do with a little bamboo.

JFS So it wasn’t your decision to make the film in Africa, it was more of an opportunity.

PL Exactly. The Le Splendid team had never been to Côte d’Ivoire before and neither had I. But Africa did offer a major advantage with respect to the weather. We were able to shoot there in November and December. The weather had to be really good on this film. We never thought about the racial issue. We were very thoughtless in this respect. I don’t know when the film got the title Les Bronzés. It was the producer’s idea. Amour, coquillages et crustacés (“Love, Seashells and Shellfish”), wasn’t a good title for a film: too complicated to remember. We didn’t consider the implications of shooting a film called Les Bronzés [suntanned people] in Africa and how that could be interpreted.
We asked this holiday club if we could film there. They welcomed us with open arms. We stayed in some great bungalows. When we got up in the morning, the film set was only a few steps away. And on Sundays, we were just regular tourists at the club. There was no question of visiting the country. Weeks of filming are always very stressful and tiring. So on Sundays, I would relax, think about what I had done during the week, and what still had to be done. We slept in and then we made the most of the club: swimming in the sea or the pool, eating at the buffet. We were guests of the club.

JFS And the hotel staff were there? Do they appear in the film?

PL Some of the hotel staff appear in the film. In particular, when Gérard Jugnot goes to the hammam and massage parlour to be massaged by this burly black guy... He was actually a materials manager, not remotely a masseur! But for the scenario, it had to be a very burly guy, and he thought it was great fun to play this role. The club’s guests and staff were delighted to get involved in the film. All of the tourists we see in the film as extras were real tourists on holiday in the club. Except for those who had a small role or had to have a great figure. We had thus selected five or six young women for the bare breasts body painting contest, or for the moment when Michel Blanc takes a self-timing photo of a topless young woman in the sea. But otherwise, they were just guests, volunteers. They weren’t paid, but they enjoyed working as extras.

JFS And what about Val-d’Isère?

PL We set our sights on Val-d’Isère because Christian Clavier’s brother, Stéphane Clavier, an excellent skier and second assistant on the film (it’s good to have assistants who know how to ski for this kind of film!) had spent several years as a ski instructor in Val-d’Isère. He thus knew the resort very well and strongly recommended that we shoot there. Of course, we filmed in agreement with the resort. But while it is complicated to find a holiday club to shoot a film due to the inconvenience caused to the holidaymakers, for example, this problem does not arise in a ski resort because of the size of the area. We really weren’t in anyone’s way. For Popeye’s ski store, we simply found a ski store that let us film there on the days it was closed.

JFS The image you gave of Club Med was not really very positive, so we could imagine that Val d’Isère would not have been too enthusiastic about the project.

PL That was absolutely not the case. Les Bronzés had been a very successful film. It had a good image, a good reputation. Val-d’Isère was more than happy to welcome the Le Splendid troupe to shoot the sequel there.
As for Gilbert Trigano, he was aware of the existence of the café-théâtre play. When it became a film, he was a little put out. He wanted to rid Club Med of its nefarious reputation: a place to meet people for one-night stands or holiday romances, as if the whole club were just one giant love shack – a reputation that was not totally usurped. The advertisements for the Club featured very beautiful, bright and stunning photos. It was Jean-François Jonvelle, I think, who was behind the publicity campaign. Large 4x3 posters with these sublime images and the words “dream”, “rest”, “imagine”, etc. And, with the film, it was like we added “get laid” at the top of the list.
However, long after that, Trigano entrusted me with a campaign of commercials for Club Med, which I went to shoot in a Club Med resort in the Bahamas. There was a series of eight films, if I remember correctly. The actor who was the main subject of these films was an American with a really strong accent, and I got Thierry Lhermitte to dub him. We had come full circle. When I showed the films to Gilbert Trigano, it was the first time in my life that I met him. Long after
Les Bronzés, certainly, but hey, I’m the guy who did Les Bronzés. Trigano was great: he came up to me with an outstretched hand and said, “You see, I don’t hold a grudge”. He saw the films, and he loved them. And the hatchet was buried.

JFS And after Les Bronzés, it was obvious that a sequel needed to be made. Out of all the possible options, how did you decide that the next episode would be in a ski resort? I read somewhere that the producer of the second film, Les Bronzés font du ski, had surveyed some 1,500 people beforehand to find out where the characters should go the second time around.

PL Once again, the idea came from the producer, Yves Rousset-Rouard. During the shooting of Les Bronzés, when we didn’t even know if the film was going to be a success, he believed in it very much. He told us, “We’ll do a sequel! We have to do ‘The Bronzés go skiing’”.
The survey was broader than that, I think. It was quite significant and informed the producer about the French people’s favourite destinations and those in which they would enjoy seeing the characters next. And after
Les Bronzés font du ski, there was a Bronzés 3 project which was, like Louis de Funès and the Le Gendarme series of films, “The Bronzés in New York”. We wanted to film in the United States. I think that Clavier, Jugnot and Lhermitte went there, all expenses paid, to have a look around and take notes. And then they came home, and the project never happened.

JFS Whether for Les Bronzés or Les Bronzés font du ski, you’re not talking about the poorer classes. These are people from the middle classes. And rather wealthy, rather privileged middle classes at that. Because not many people were going to Club Med at that time. And skiing holidays were also quite expensive.

PL Yes. You’re probably right. But this is not the case in Les Bronzés 3, made twenty years later, and it is undoubtedly one of the film’s limitations. Each character had become gentrified, made a fortune: the Jugnot-Balasko couple had opened a chain of optician’s stores, Michel Blanc had made a fortune with his wigs, etc. The only one who was really endearing was Christian Clavier because he was always at rock bottom, at the end of his rope. But in the days of the first two films, the characters had not yet experienced any social success. One was a secretary, another a beautician. Jugnot and Balasko had only one optician’s store. And as regards Michel Blanc, we didn’t know what he did. They were not wealthy people at all.
If you were to go to Cancun today, or wherever, a week in Club Med would cost you an arm and a leg. But there are clubs with one or two stars, or rather one, two or three tridents. At the time, the so-called “clubs of huts”– and that’s why we wanted it to be a club with huts and not a top-of-the-range club – were not extremely expensive. There were charters. Low-income people could holiday there.

JFS And why Sardinia for Les Bronzés 3?

PL A location scout was asked to find a very high-end hotel complex in a beautiful country. We wanted the setting to be really upscale. She went out and started taking pictures. She came back from Sardinia with photos of this incredible hotel, where all the top models, etc., were staying, namely Cala di Volpe in Porto Cervo. We decided it was perfect. I went there, and saw that we could film everything we had written in the screenplay. The hotel also very willingly accepted. We just had to choose an off-season period, before all the guests arrived.
They were, in a way, quite flattered that we were shooting there because the film really shows off the hotel. I do not believe, especially some twenty or twenty-two years later, that the management of Cala di Volpe knew the
Les Bronzés films. These films were only really known in France, they are ‘French-fried’ holiday films after all! Even though they probably had a little success in Geneva and Brussels.

JFS Can we say that you invented a genre: the tourist comedy? A genre that has since flourished, especially with the Camping series of films, which owes a lot, I think, to Les Bronzés.

PL There’s also a film by Olivier Baroux and starring Kad Merad all about a slightly screwed-up safari agency (Safari, 2009). I don’t know if tourist comedy is a genre. If that is the case and we unconsciously gave rise to it, it’s very flattering. But I don’t feel like I own anything, and I don’t feel dispossessed of anything we possibly invented.

JFS And Voir la mer (P. Leconte, 2011), a road movie that ends up in a tourist destination. It is also an understanding of the journey.

PL The idea was really to cross France diagonally, to end up at the sea. And picking up along the way, almost inadvertently, this young woman who had never seen the sea. There’s an almost childlike quality to the film: as a child, you haven’t seen the sea. Well, no, there are many people who have never seen the sea.
I wanted to have this kind of geographical movement that makes it possible to travel through regions, but without being tourists for all that. And with one objective: to see the sea. This is not the region I know because my family is from Normandy, and so for me the beaches of the summer holidays were the famous Normandy landing beaches. But the idea of finishing the film by the sea in Saint-Jean-de-Luz [in south-western France] was for me like following an arrow, having a goal. I couldn’t make a film in which the people would be wandering without purpose or a project.

JFS In The Man on the Train (P. Leconte, 2009), we don’t really know why the man is there. For people who see him coming, he’s just the man on the train.

PL Yes. He’s Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock (J. Sturges, 1955). It is not a very tourist example because Annonay [in southern France] is not the most touristy town in the world. When I decided to shoot the film there, after having done some location scouting in other small towns, a friend who knew Annonay well said, “You’re not filming in Annonay surely? I’ll give you one week and you’ll be back home.” Actually, I loved shooting there. Moving to a new place for two months and making a film there, respecting the inhabitants who tolerate us and are interested in the set, well, that’s a situation I love.
In contrast, I shot a film with Dany Boon and Daniel Auteuil called
My Best Friend (2006), which took place entirely in Paris. Some scenes were filmed in streets not very far from here. I don’t mind, of course; but it’s not like shooting elsewhere. I think that filming elsewhere, whether abroad or in the rest of France, brings me a lot of pleasure, and the excitement of seeing things to which my eye is not yet too accustomed. It’s also the fact of not going home in the evening, of getting away from the routine of everyday life here in Paris.

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Jean-François Staszak

Professeur de géographie, Université de Genève.

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