French filmmaker Patrice Leconte is as notable for his refusal to be easily categorized as he is for his long and productive career. Since making his major directorial debut in 1975 with Les Vécés Étaient Fermés de L'Intérieur, Leconte has established himself as one of France's most respected directors, at ease tackling subjects ranging from mental illness to sexuality to canny deconstructions of wit and society. He received particular acclaim for his 1996 film Ridicule, winning the admiration of an international audience while furthering his reputation as one of the French cinema's most treasured figures.
A native Parisian, Leconte was born on November 12, 1947. He decided to be a filmmaker at a very young age, and went on to attend France's most prestigious film school, I.D.H.E.C. During his education, constant visits to the Paris Cinémathèque aided in his understanding of cinematography culture. After graduating from I.D.H.E.C. in 1969, Leconte went against the cinematic grain, becoming a cartoonist for the French magazine Pilote. He made his living from cartooning until 1975, all the while shooting comic-fantasy shorts. The brand of humor he developed while making these shorts would later become the trademark of his most personal comedies.
In 1975, Leconte collaborated with Pilote colleague Marcel Gotlib to write Les Vécés Étaient Fermés de L'Intérieur (The Toilets Were Locked From the Inside). His first major directorial effort, the film was inspired by films like The Mystery of the Yellow Room and the French whodunits of the 1950s. Unfortunately, despite the presence of the well-known Jean Rochefort (with whom Leconte was to collaborate on a number of projects), the film flopped, its bizarre and sometimes surreal brand of comedy failing to find favor with the French public.
However, Leconte found greater success with his next feature, Les Bronzés (or French Fried Vacation). The 1978 film was the result of his involvement with the famed theater company, Le Splendid, where he wrote comedy and worked with actors like Michel Blanc, Josiane Balasko, and Thierry Lhermitte (who would all go on to star in his films). A blissful satire of Club Med holidays, the film, which featured Serge Gainsbourg's singing "Sea, Sex and Sun," proved to be enormously popular; a sequel featuring the same Splendid actors duly followed with the 1979 Les Bronzés Font du Ski (The Bronzés Go Skiing).
Leconte's next project, an adaptation of the play Viens Chez Moi, J'habite Chez Une Copine (Come to My Place, I'm Staying at My Girlfriend's), marked the beginning of his long collaboration with Michel Blanc, who wrote and starred in the film. The comedy gave Leconte another smash hit; his next two comedies, the 1981 Ma Femme S'Appelle Reviens (My Wife's Name is "Come Back") and 1983's Circulez Y'a Rien a Voir (Move Along, There's Nothing to See) -- both of which starred Blanc -- were not as successful, although they did produce strong ticket sales.
Now established as a director of a certain kind of comedy, Leconte felt the urge to shift gears. So he directed an action comedy, 1985's Les Specialistes. Although the film was not Leconte's most impressive, it proved to be his biggest hit, selling more than four million tickets. Its commercial success freed Leconte to do the type of film he had long wanted to do, a road movie about two quarreling friends. The result, 1987's Tandem, was a study of male friendship (a popular theme in Leconte's films) whose comedic overtones were shadowed by an increasingly nightmarish quality; the madness exhibited by one of the film's protagonists was something that Leconte would explore time and again in his future films.
His next two films, in fact, proved to be compelling explorations of different types of madness, whether this madness assumed the form of murder and obsession or was irrevocably linked to sexual desire. The first of these films, 1989's Monsieur Hire, was a complex examination of the relationship between its titular protagonist (played by Michel Blanc) and the attractive young neighbor (Sandrine Bonnaire) he watches night after night. Leconte used the backdrop of a murder as a context for his examination and the result was a dark study in obsession, desire, and deviant sexuality. It was widely hailed by the critics and was shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Leconte's subsequent effort, Le Mari de la Coiffeuse (The Hairdresser's Husband) (1990), was also a critical success. The story of a man, Jean Rochefort, whose childhood dreams are fulfilled when he marries hairdresser Anna Galiena, it was, like Monsieur Hire, another study of the link between desire and mental illness, albeit one with a lighter tone.
Leconte's next major project was 1993's Tango, a black comedy about a man who thinks life would be a lot happier if he could just off his wife. Like the director's previous films, it addressed themes of madness, sexuality, and male bonding, and featured jarring performances from Thierry Lhermitte, Richard Bohringer, and Philippe Noiret. The film was a considerable success, unlike Leconte's next two major features, Le Parfum d'Yvonne (1994) and Les Grands Ducs (1996). The relative critical and commercial disappointments of these films, however, were to be more than made up for by his 1996 Ridicule, which was filmed while Les Grands Ducs was being edited.
A comedic dissection of the symbiotic relationship between power and social appearances, Ridicule takes place in the 18th century court of Versailles. However, the social games and acerbic verbal wars it portrays made more than one observer note it was similar in content to a Western, where, as Jean Rochefort remarked, "witticisms have replaced six-shooters." The film was tremendously popular, chosen as the opening film at the 1996 Cannes Festival. It went on to win four Césars, including Best Film and Best Director.
Leconte then switched gears again, helming 1 Chance sur 2 (Half a Chance) (1998), a humorous action film starring Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Vanessa Paradis. In 1999, he worked with Paradis again in La fille sur le pont (The Girl on the Bridge) (1999), which also starred Daniel Auteuil. Another road movie/love story/look at mental imbalance, the film was a sensual, light-hearted affair, demonstrating again that Leconte was a director who knew his element, regardless of the period, style, or content of the films he made.