19 February 2010


Poelvoorde and Depardieu in L’autre Dumas

The profession of writing wouldn’t seem to lend itself to cinema: it consists mostly of sitting alone and still for very long, tedious hours. Writers can barely find the patience for this; audiences can’t be expected to watch it. This helps to explain the memorable sequence in Becoming Jane, in which Anne Hathaway manages to write the entirety of Pride and Prejudice in three nights.

Ghostwriting, on the other hand, at least introduces another character (out of which, dialogue) and the possibility — indeed, the probability — of dramatic conflict. Even if the person for whom you’re ghosting is a thoroughly lovely person, and gives you an enviable platform, you’re always wrestling with your ego. Because you don’t get the glory you’ve earned. Meanwhile, the person getting ghosted may feel that he’s merely a front, inadequate to tell his own stories. That’s tough, and it can lead to messy resentments and rash behavior on all sides. Trust me on this one.

Hollywood seldom takes much interest in ghostwriters. We like the stars better, and who cares about the little people behind them? In French cinema, however, ghostwriting is a sporadically recurring theme, as two current releases demonstrate.

Brosnan and McGregor

Actually, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, which opens today in the U.S., won’t open in Paris for another two weeks. (Oh, goodie — I’ve got time to decide whether to boycott the director’s work.) We’ve seen the trailer, though, and the gist is that Ewan McGregor is called in to punch up the memoirs of a Tony Blair-type, played by Pierce Brosnan, leading to murderous intrigues.

My own principal experience as a ghostwriter — or, as my former boss might prefer, “uncredited collaborator” — involved a network anchorman. At the time, he enjoyed power substantially less than that of a British prime minister or American president, but greater than that of most political leaders. His was the power of influence, not action: Dan couldn’t declare war, he could only report on it; and he couldn’t assassinate me, though he might make me wish he would. Not much of a thriller in our story.

Much closer to my experience is that depicted in Safy Nebbou’s L’autre Dumas, in which we meet the author of The Three Musketeers — a certain Auguste Maquet, played by Benoît Poelvoorde. The credited author, Alexandre Dumas père, exuberantly played by Gérard Depardieu, revels in the perks of celebrity authorship: a lavish new mansion, fawning admirers, abundance of food and drink, and, above all, sex.

When a beautiful young woman (Mélanie Thierry) mistakes Maquet for Dumas, he’s unable to resist the temptation to live as his friend does. He winds up dragging them all into personal and political turmoil, on the eve of the Revolution of 1848.*

Indulgent: Dominique Blanc (right), a wonderful actress,
pretty much walks off with this picture.
One of these days, I’ll write a Field Guide entry on her.

The Dumas we see is not without talent — superior to Maquet’s, in fact, in certain kinds of description and in plotting the narrative. And we see that Dumas does contribute quite a lot, when he can find a break in his orgies. He seems genuinely to like Maquet and to enjoy their collaboration. If he could control his appetites better, and if people like his secretary/mistress (the sublime Dominique Blanc) and Maquet himself would indulge him less, Dumas would be a thoroughly decent fellow. He’s certainly good company. But he also keeps a private menagerie of exotic birds and animals, and we don’t see much difference between those creatures and Maquet.

Still, Maquet has reason to be contented with his lot. With his income from ghostwriting, he supports his family (ten children!) in comfort, and he’s got a terrific wife (Catherine Mouchet, for once playing a swan and not an ugly duckling). He seems to enjoy Dumas, too, and to admire his friend’s talent and joie de vivre. Poelvoorde does a lovely job of showing this with his bespectacled eyes, widening or crinkling but always observing, analyzing.

Baer in Mensonges…
My desk looks very much like this.

We saw a similar relationship between Edouard Baer (as the ghost) and Clovis Cornillac (as the ghostee) in another movie, Laurent Tirard’s Mensonges et trahisons et si affinités (2004).** There, however, the dramatic arc was toward Baer’s dropping his artistic pretensions (he snubs Cornillac constantly) in order to write better, and thus to become his own man. L’autre Dumas is more about Maquet’s learning to accept who he is, and who Dumas is, in order to continue writing books that the world adores.

The movie concludes with an affectionate tribute to Dumas, a direct quotation from the real-life Maquet’s will. Ghostwriting is a strange kind of symbiosis, in which each partner is always devouring some part of the other, in order that both may survive. But there are worse ways to make a living.

How Poelvoorde watches other actors.
With Catherine Mouchet (left) as Mme Maquet

*NOTE: You do know this one: it’s the backdrop for Hugo’s Les Misérables.

**Bear in mind that Romain Duris’ character in Cédric Klapisch’s Les Poupées russes is also a ghostwriter. So is Jalil Lespert’s in Robert Guédiguian’s Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars. Seriously, the French seem to find this line of work fascinating. (Or maybe they’re just looking for an excuse to use the old-fashioned term for it … which is the equivalent of the English “N-word.”)

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