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De Caunes, a life after Eurotrash

Actor, presenter and director Antoine de Caunes' jokey Eurotrash persona is just a small part of his career, as Oliver Rowland found out, as they discussed the Breeteesh sense of 'umour, academy awards and Monsieur Pingouin

You recently presented the Césars for the second time running… 

Yes, and the sixth in all - I did it for the first time for Canal+ in 1995. I had just left (humorous talk and music show) Nulle Part Ailleurs and they had got the Césars, which were being shown on France 3 before. 

They asked me to present them to spice them up a bit. Presenting at a prize-giving event is an interesting technical exercise, it's different from anything else - there's a certain style of humour and also it's interesting too in that you are controlling the whole evening, apart from the thankyous - you don't know what they're going to say when they get up there and we're not allowed to give them a time-limit as they do in America. Often after about 40 seconds or so I feel like saying "thanks very much… no need to thank your granny," but that's not the way it's done here. 

Apart from that, being able to control everything - the set, the people appearing and what they are going to say - little clips, whether they are funny ones or tributes to people who have died - you've got to make all of it hang together and be entertaining. It is a lot of work. We plan it all out and write everything down, from the first to the last line. 

There was a moment when (actor/director) Dany Boon turned up in a dinner jacket and orange tracksuit bottoms - at the last minute, rather unexpectedly…

We pretended it was unexpected. I had been amazed that Bienvenu chez les Ch'tis, which 21 million people went to see, got nothing. I thought up a little clip with people who were not happy about it, but talking (the northern dialect) ch'ti so you couldn't understand what they were saying - and from that we had the idea of Dany, watching TV at his place would decide, "oh go on then, I'll make a gesture," and would come along after all.

It's not really true then that he was sulking and wasn't going to bother… 
At first he was sulking about it and really didn't want to go, but we convinced him that we must stop quarrelling - in this country we are always having quarrels and everyone has to fit into certain boxes - either popular or arthouse cinema (cinéma d'auteur), everyone has to be pigeon-holed. I must say though, as the Césars are supposed to be a celebration of French cinema is strange such a popular film would be excluded. 

Is it mainly the arthouse films that get prizes? 
Yes certainly, the people who vote for the Césars are mainly people who work in the industry - technicians, actors, producers, and they are very schizophrenic - they live from popular cinema and they defend arthouse cinema. 

They want to feel they are serious artists… 
Yes, people take cinema very seriously in France. It's not at all just entertainment - it's also "the medium and the message." I think it's good to take cinema seriously, but you also have to remember that for the public it's about entertainment and it's not necessary for every film to reinvent the rules of cinema.

Some are meant to be fun, others are very serious or very intelligent - but to me they're all part of the same job and you shouldn't say one is good and the other is not. I watch everything at the cinema - from silly comedies to (high-brow) ones which I can't understand. We had some great guests at the Césars - Dustin Hoffman, who was there to receive a lifetime award (César d'honneur), Sean Penn, who had received the Best Actor Oscar a week before, Emma Thompson - people who take their work very seriously and are very committed to what they do, but who have fun at the same time. They really added to the humour of the show. Their relaxed attitude rubbed off on the others. 

Were you a bit disappointed your film about (much-loved French comedian) Coluche, l'histoire d'un mec did not win anything? 
It was nominated for Best Actor, but I thought it might have had nominations too for the lighting, sound and sets because a huge amount of work went into it. Yes, it wasn't fair, but that's how it goes and it's just a ceremony. 

You knew Coluche?

We did a few TV programmes together and I went to his house when he was famous for his wild parties. I was very much a fan. He was, as I tried to show him in the film, not as nice as people imagine but at the same time a fantastic guy, full of paradoxes and contradictions, a normal human being in fact, not this Abbé Pierre [leading campaigner against homelessness who died in 2007] that people now think of him as because of the Restos du Coeur [which Coluche founded] nor just a clown who told jokes on the stage - much more complex.

I focused on the moment when he presented himself as a presidential candidate, which changed him profoundly. At first he just did it as a laugh, but he was very popular and people decided they would vote for him. He found himself charged with a mission - a moral and political responsibility - he had not asked for. Putting his toes into these political waters - and finding out how violent they could be, to what lengths some people would go to prevent him getting ahead, gave him the strength to create something as significant as the Restos du Coeur

Do you think his style of humour was typically French? 
Yes, he was rebellious, irreverent… didn't submit to authority. If he was speaking to a minister or a plumber, he was just the same. Also it's a form of humour which plays on words a lot and which relies a lot on the character of the little Frenchman who doesn't let people make a fool of him, a bit like Astérix. In France, we like to tell funny stories, with a start, middle and end. In Britain there is a tradition of nonsense and the absurd - you can start telling a story which might not be very funny in itself, but it's the way it's told that is funny, it's the associations - there's not necessarily a punchline. I'm good friends with Eddie Izzard who is the perfect example of that. It's the way he talks and his point of view on the world that is entertaining. I like it a lot. 

Can we talk about Eurotrash
Sure, but it's finished now - we did it for more than 10 years, which is a long time, and it felt long towards the end. When we, making the programme, no longer felt surprised by it and felt we were inviting the same people, reporting on the same things - it was time to stop. 

We must have met most of the crackpots in circulation at the time - maybe there is a new generation now. We had a team of researchers looking for the weirdest stories as well as local correspondents in different countries. It was great fun. With my business partner Peter Stewart we continued a bit in the same vein recently with programmes for Canal+ reporting on trends in London and then Los Angeles.

People are always seeking the same faces on television, talking about the same thing. In London we were there because everyone was saying it was becoming the capital of the 21st Century, in Los Angeles it was about the run-up to the elections and in Berlin we will be looking at the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall. 

What were some of the funniest moments from Eurotrash? 
We always had guests who were… a bit eccentric. I was very fond of Monsieur Pingouin, a Belgian who was passionate about penguins and believed he could speak Penguin, and dresses like one. His wife left him because their house was like a penguin museum. We used to feed him like a penguin, with raw sardines. 

Then there was a Flemish singer, Eddy Wally, who sang very, very, badly and never stopped singing. We would do a sort of world tour with him - Eddy Wally in Tokyo, Argentina… each time he went to sing in a club with old people we brought out from hospices to applaud. It was awful, but very funny. There were the Romeo Cleaners, two Germans who we send to do the housework for mature single Germans, naked apart from Gstrings. They were completely out of shape.

There was Lolo Ferrari of course - they were all part of our little Eurotrash family. If you did that programme in France it would be seen as an attack on people's dignity, a mockery but that wasn't the aim - we were on the same side as all these nutty people, having fun together.

French people can be terribly serious and although we like to think we have a very progressive mentality, actually we are very conservative. A show like Little Britain would be impossible to do in France, you would get wheelbarrows full of letters saying you don't have the right to make fun of the disabled, or minorities or gays. 

Yet at the same time Britain can be quite politically correct, I think
There are two televisions in Britain - during the day it is often extremely serious and a bit boring but in the evening, after about eight or nine o'clock, you have things like Little Britain or Julian Clary. 

British television goes to extremes, there are no limits. I think the way Emma Thompson behaved at the Césars was typically British. She didn't want to rehearse her text too much, she was well-prepared, she didn't just improvise everything, but she wanted to keep a feel of spontaneity. She came across as sincere, funny, full of life. In France, we try too much to watch what other people are doing and do things in the right way. I loved working in Britain, there was a part of me that expressed itself better there. 

Were you surprised Eurotrash was so popular? 

Yes, when I was in London everyone used to talk about it - taxi drivers, shop assistants. It wasn't just a trendy cult show. At first we thought it would be quite a niche, avant garde show, we didn't know what people would make of it, if it would work or not. Peter and I had been thinking for a long time about a show that would be "joyful trash" - the best of bad taste - with the mission of trying to persuade the British that Europe was not some desolate post-nuclear wasteland. I think we succeeded. I commuted to London for Rapido and some other shows I did in Britain, but Eurotrash was made in Paris. 

Did you know Jean-Paul Gaultier before? 
He is a mate of mine and we liked the idea of being a duo - me, the TV professional, and then someone who brought a fresh point of view. He was well-known as a designer and famous for being very imaginative and unconventional, so it suited him. He did it very well and enjoyed it.

He did it for two years and then he started doing haute couture and didn't have time. His English is really crap, I speak Oxford English compared to him - it's a disaster. 

To start with I tried really hard to speak English as you imagine the English speak it - in fact there are 50 ways of speaking English, depending on your class, the town you come from, if you are from the centre or the suburbs. You try to do something like Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility - "would you like a cup of tea Mrs Petticoat?" - then no one understands you, no one understands why you're talking like that, but if you talk without making an effort, with a French accent, even exaggerating a bit - "I am verry 'appy" - then everyone understands, the British, French people who don't speak English… and the Brits find it funny too. 

We have a reputation in France for speaking foreign languages badly - have you heard Sarkozy speaking English? He's hopeless. I don't think we have the ear for it. French was for so long the international language of diplomacy we still expect everyone to speak it and we've not got used to the fact those days are over. 

I like to explore the differences between the French and British. We are cousins, so close to each other and at the same time so far apart - the British are more different from the French than the Japanese; in another mental galaxy. I did a film (Monsieur N, 2003) about Napoleon on Saint Helena and the conflict between him and Hudson Lowe, the governor, and the impossibility for them to speak to each other and understand each other; two contradictory visions of the world.

I also did a film with Charlotte Rampling and Jean Rochefort (Désaccord Parfait, 2006), a love story about a French director and a British actress, with a lot of misunderstandings. It fascinates me. I think that a sense of seriousness is much less developed in England and there is a sort of ironic way of looking at things, slightly detached. I do like it.

There's a joke I adore about Watson and Holmes sitting in a field at night and Holmes says: "When you see all that, what do you deduce Watson?" and he says "Sherlock, I see millions of galaxies, planets where there might be life, I ask myself what is the force that animates all of this, is there a meaning to it all?" and Sherlock says "I deduce someone has nicked our tent." I think the British are more like Sherlock Holmes. 

What about differences in the working styles in your business? 
British actors have less-developed egos than the French ones and they see acting as more of a trade than an art. If you film with a French actor - these are generalisations - you've got to wait for the actor to give you something, which you've got to capture as the moment arrives.

With a British actor - for example I filmed with Richard E Grant who is wonderful - you could do the scene 25 times in 25 ways and he will do what you ask, without saying "it's becoming too mechanical, I have already given everything" - because he sees it as a job. It doesn't mean you can't be inspired, carried away, but I have always been struck by this discipline and rigour, and humility, that English actors have - and then they know how to do everything: act, sing, dance, ride a horse.

A lot of French actors are only actors. You ask them to knit a jumper and they have to do a course with a coach for two years. Also with a British actor, when work's over, it's over, afterwards you live your life, you go to a party, you have fun - French actors often keep going over what they've done when the filming's over - should we have done it like that…? I find it a pleasure to work with British actors. 

Do you prefer acting or directing? 
I like to alternate. Acting is much lighter work, you are one of the instruments in the orchestra - the director has to conduct the whole orchestra; but I love directing, I think it's the most extraordinary thing in the world, to transform a script, a sheaf of 100 pages or so, into a spectacle which will be shown on a 15m screen with light and colours and music and actors - you are inventing a world each time; but it is a lot of work and it is a lot of weight on your shoulders.

When you've finished a film it is good to be an actor again. It's lighter, and it's important to me to rediscover what it is like to be in front of the camera. Then when I direct again it changes my relationship with the actors and the way I speak to them and the way in which they listen to what I have to say. 

Your latest project is an adaptation of Le Montespan, a novel about the husband of Louis XIV's mistress? 
I've abandoned it - it wasn't the right moment for a costume drama, the financial crisis is affecting the cinema and it would have been too expensive. Also it's not really the public's favourite thing. It's not worth spending a year trying to get the money together, failing, getting depressed. I have written a little contemporary comedy which I will direct. I’ve just acted in La Folle Histoire d'Amour de Simon Eskanazy, a sequel to L’Homme est Une Femme Comme les Autres (1998). It comes out in September. I have written a draft of a series for Canal+ and this summer I’m acting in a mix of detective drama and black comedy.  

Photo: X Lahache/Canal+

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