And now ... a director's sunnier side

Director Claude Lelouch discusses his new film and plans to restore a theater in Afghanistan.

At Chez Jacqueline, a French restaurant located on a busy Greenwich Village intersection, driving rain pounds at the restaurant windows and a violent gust of wind rips off a tree branch.

The setting is appropriate for director Claude Lelouch. He likes rain. Viewers of his film, "A Man and a Woman" (1966), which won Best Foreign Film and Best Screenplay Oscars, as well as the Palme D'or, will remember frequent scenes of Jean-Louis Trintignant as a race-car driver behind the windshield wipers of his car.

Lelouch's new, sunnier film "And Now ... Ladies and Gentlemen," was the closing selection in competition at Cannes last year. In the story, the main character races yachts, not cars.

The romantic odyssey stars Jeremy Irons as Valentin, a gentlemanly diamond thief/yachtsman. After pulling off a number of cunning heists in London and Paris, Valentin sets sail from Fecamp in southern France to ply his trade globally.

As it happens, the film's title is both the name of Valentin's yacht, and the title of a song that melancholy chanteuse Patricia Kass (in her first acting role) sings at a piano bar in Fez, Morocco. The two meet there after Valentin goes off course and is grounded at the Moroccan port of Essaouira.

"The hardest kind of competition is the one you set with yourself, not with others," says Lelouch, who writes, produces, directs, and sometimes shoots his films, and whose career has had its ups and downs.

According to Lelouch, the Valentin character grew out of a real-life episode. Some years ago, a man knocked at the door of Films 13, Lelouch's longtime production company, and handed him an envelope containing 50,000 francs (about $8,600).

The man explained that for many years he had been a professional thief and that 10 years ago the Films 13 safe had been robbed (a fact which Lelouch could confirm) - by him. Subsequently, the man had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He promised himself that if he survived the operation, he would repay all his ill-gotten gains.

Intrigued by the metaphor, Lelouch used this anecdote as a basis for "And Now ... Ladies and Gentlemen," his 38th film.

During the two-hour wait for the main course at Chez Jacqueline, Lelouch recalls earlier filmmaking efforts, such as his first trip to New York in 1957 with a 16-mm camera. He then turns to more recent projects and discusses his forthcoming trilogy, "The Human Race." He has just spent a year working on his biography, "Itinerary of a Very Spoilt Child."

Meanwhile, reports of breaking news - the murder of Uday and Qusay Hussein and of a fire at the Eiffel Tower - infiltrate the table talk, shifting the conversation in other directions.

Lelouch dials his grandson in Paris on his cellphone to make sure he's OK and reassures the mostly French-speaking, on-edge luncheon guests that Paris is intact.

Lelouch is one of 11 international directors contributing to an 11-minute segment for "Eleven on Eleven," a recent film consisting of dramatic or documentary pieces expressing their reactions to 9/11.

Partly as a result of their participation in "Eleven on Eleven," says Lelouch, he and Bosnian director Danis Tanovic (who talk to each other every day) have become involved in a reconstruction project in Afghanistan.

Last December, Lelouch and several French filmmakers who wanted to help rebuild Afghanistan formed a core group called "Un Cinema pour Kaboul" of which Lelouch is president.

In addition to Tanovic, the other filmmaker participants are Danielle Thompson, Patrice Chéreau, and documentarian Jacques Perrin. The project has two components: the reconstruction of the Ariana, the largest movie theater in Kabul, which has been closed for 10 years, and an annual festival which will be geared to Afghan women and/or children.

"We're not only going to rebuild a 600-plus-seat theater," says Lelouch, "but also introduce the Afghans to the history of French and European cinema for the past 100 years." Previously, the cinema screened mostly Indian and US films.

The Ariana is centrally located in Kabul and has suffered extensive damage and looting in 20 years of warfare. Afghan stonemasons, builders, and other craftspeople will be hired to restore the theater. The scheduled opening date is April 2004.

"Nothing works in Afghanistan," says Lelouch, speaking of his visit to Kabul last spring. He opens the window now that the rain has let up. "It's been totally reduced to rubble." In this setting, it's quite moving, he says, that people would ask for a cinema rather than a school or a hospital, recognizing that they still need a place for their dreams.

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