Choices of the art
French director Yann Samuell embarked on his Hollywood adventure four years ago with a remake of the hit Korean movie My Sassy Girl. It was a big step up for Samuell: then 41, he had only made one feature.
But the thrill of his US move soon faded as he found himself stuck in post-production hell in Los Angeles a year later. 'I was so frustrated and lonely because I was away from my family,' he says. 'I really enjoyed shooting My Sassy Girl in New York because [the city] was very cultural ... but LA is about business. Even though I have friends and people who care about me there, it feels like work for work - and it doesn't justify life.'
To reconnect with his 'true self', Samuell experimented with a script based on the idea of letters written to an older self as a reminder of youthful ideals. He completed the treatment in Los Angeles and started on the project as soon as he returned to France. My Sassy Girl's failure (it went straight to video) only made Samuell more determined to realise his ideas about failed adults on film.
With Love... From the Age of Reason, which hits local screens today, is the result. The comedy revolves around a high-flying executive, Margaret (played by Sophie Marceau), who will do almost anything to succeed at work. Discussing the choice of dress for a meeting in Shanghai, she instructs her aide to ensure 'full cleavage for the Chinese'. And differences over a business deal drive her into a persistent row with her British colleague (played by Marton Csokas), who is her partner.
But Margaret's hard shell begins to crack when she receives a series of letters she had written at the age of seven. Speaking from 'the age of reason', her childhood scribblings remind her of earlier dreams and painful experiences that turned her into an unfeeling, self-centred adult.
'This movie is about finding the link between the things you had in your hands when you started your life and what you did with what was given to you,' says Samuell.
'A lot of people might think they didn't have a choice in life and they were hammered by decisions that didn't belong to them. But that's wrong: any decision you make is your choice.' Samuell's own life took several twists and turns before he made Age of Reason, and he spent considerable time reflecting on this theme.
Hailing from a family of actors, Samuell studied film at the Conservatoire Libre du Cinema Francais in Paris but drifted into other work after completing his graduate film in 1986.
He had done well at film school, he says, but wasn't ready to fight for a career in cinema. Instead, he found ways around it: 'I became a painter, doing posters and covers because I'm gifted in drawing. And then I turned to [drawing] storyboards but I wasn't really into it; and then I did a lot of short movies rather than making one long feature.'
It was his actress wife who jolted him into action about 10 years ago.
'I was making a lot of money by drawing and painting, and I was very successful at it,' he says. 'But one day she said, 'When I met you three or four years ago, you told me you were a director; but I've never even see you on set. So are you a director or a painter?' It was like being electrocuted.'
Deciding he had to do something, he says, 'I put all my precious paintings in a bag and threw it into the garbage. And from that day I had nothing to lean on, and I had to find a way to become a director.'
His connections with the industry brought him to the attention of producer Christophe Rossignon, and from this partnership came Samuell's directorial debut, Love Me If You Dare. Released in 2003, the film - about two childhood friends who grew up masking their mutual affection by daring each other to perform audacious stunts - propelled Samuell to fame and provided a springboard to mainstream success for Guilluame Canet and Marion Cotillard.
Samuell says his interest in making films about childhood dreams and child-like characters (such as the loopy protagonist of My Sassy Girl ) is therapeutic for the pain that he and his parents felt over the death of an elder brother around the time Samuell was born.
'My childhood was happy, but it was built on a terrible tragedy - I lost a brother and that was a drama. My parents decide to bury it and build something by giving me the happiest childhood ever and they succeeded,' he says.
True to form, the director's next film is an adaptation of The Great Ghost Rescue, a novel about a schoolboy's efforts to save a dysfunctional family of ghosts from a paranormal-hating official.
However, Samuell is now ready for a change of pace and says he's planning a few thrillers and a political film. The move is prompted partly by the scriptwriting duties he undertook for Formosa Betrayed, a film by Adam Kane about an FBI agent investigating the assassination of a Taiwanese academic in the US.
'My input into the script was in the storytelling rather than in historical truth,' he says. 'Basically, the first draft was almost like a documentary, and it was pretty boring. So I just brought life to the characters and action and thrills to the plot - even though I had to learn a lot about Taiwan in the process.
'But I don't want to be jailed in rom-coms and children's movies. I'm going to turn a page and do something else.'
With Love... From the Age of Reason opens today