Andrew Litvak & his leading ladies recount a cinematic romp in gay Paris
Dianne Wiest, Jane Birkin, Vanessa Redgrave, Jerry Hall, Simon Callow. Could this be the latest batch of misfits in that VH-1 reality show, “The Surreal Life”?
It’s actually the hapless cast of “Merci Docteur Rey,” a frothy farce by novice writer-director Andrew Litvak. With a convoluted plot involving a young gay phone-sex addict named Thomas (Stanislas Merhar), his opera-diva mother, voyeurism, mistaken identities and a murder, Litvak proves once and for all that fiction is indeed stranger than truth. Think Agatha Christie meets Pedro Almodóvar—on a six-pack of Red Bull.
Set in and around Paris, the film sparkles with the lush cinematography we’ve come to expect from producers Merchant and Ivory, minus any whiff of the usual historical pretension.
The 40-year old director and his two leading ladies, Wiest and Birkin, sat down recently with Gay City News to chat about this campy pastiche of a film.
Wiest plays Elizabeth Beaumont, Thomas’ ditzy mother, a role that rivals that of the larger-than-life actress who immortalized the throaty phrase “Don’t speak,” in Woody Allen’s “Bullets over Broadway.”
“The role of Elizabeth was irresistible,” said Wiest. “To play this diva who can’t distinguish between her work life and her real life. She makes everything a huge opera, at the expense of her poor son.”
Birkin plays Penelope, the delusional voice-over actor (dubbing Vanessa Redgrave flicks is her specialty) who becomes unhinged after the death of her psychiatrist, Dr. Rey. Although an acting and singing sensation in England and France for decades, Birkin is not widely known in America.
“All the actors wanted to play my part,” Birkin said. “Though the role was written for me, it was quite daunting. I had scant experience with psychoanalysis—I knew my children went—and I wasn’t sure what attitude to take. Andy knew just how to direct me.”
Litvak knows a lot about movies—and psychotherapy. For years he made a living writing subtitles, translating foreign films (many by Jean-Luc Godard) into English. He freely admitted to having done hard time on a therapist’s couch.
Both actors agreed that the film is tricky to pin down. “Madcap is as near as I can come to a description,” Wiest explained. “If you insist on a story line that starts here, has a middle and an end, and you won’t give over to the spirit of it, then you’ll be disappointed. Which is a shame, because it’s not pretending to be anything but crazy.”
“You have to go in with no preconceived idea and then you’ll have fun,” said Birkin. “Like when Penelope arrives wearing a dress with the same pattern as the wallpaper. Either you fall in love with the charm or you don’t.”
“This is like those films that happen in hotel hallways where people pop through doors and whiz by each other,” said Birkin. “There are so many lives running parallel, you don’t know when paths will cross again.”
Birkin continued, “Andy is a dangerous boy to have dreamed up a story where someone is spying on a male couple making love, and ends up witnessing a murder. What an enormous amount of imagination. It’s probably quite Freudian.”
At the suggestion that she has a loyal gay following, Wiest was surprised. “Am I a gay icon? That’s just wonderful.”
“I am attracted to unconventional roles,” said Wiest. “I’m not sure I’d call it a gay sensibility. I just love Tim Burton, who showed such a generosity and sensitivity in ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ It’s an outsider film and I’m a bit of an outsider myself. I don’t quite fit in Hollywood, with all the glitz and glamour.”
Wiest currently lives in on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her daughter.
Birkin had nothing but praise for Litvak’s instincts. “In comedy, you have to feel really free and the director has to really love you, because if he said anything cruel, then you’d hold back. In comedy you have to dare like mad. Andy always egged us on to do more.”
Even Litvak himself had difficulty labeling the film, which he asserted is inspired by the American screwball comedies from the 1930’s.
“I’ve never known whether this film is more French or American.” Litvak admitted. “When Dianne first read it, she said ‘This film is great, it’s so French.’ Then Jane said ‘Andy it’s great, it’s so American!’” It’s safe to say the film mirrors Litvak himself, who was raised in New York but moved to Paris 17 years ago.
“It’s not belly-laughing, knee-slapping funny,” Litvak said. ”It’s a weird thing that could happen in the age of the Internet and phone sex. In some way [Thomas] is acting out a fantasy of sleeping with his father (Simon Callow)—a little riff on psychoanalysis and the Oedipus thing. It’s a Greek tragedy but it’s a Greek comedy as well.”
To the director’s chagrin, “Merci Docteur Rey” has played at about 40 film festivals to reviews as mixed as the tones in his movie. “Some critics implied that I couldn’t decide if the film is a thriller or a comedy,” Litvak said. ”Actually, it’s intended to be both.”
Despite the large measure of gay content in “Merci Docteur Rey,” Litvak refused to pigeonhole it as gay film.
“I hate the expression ‘gay movie,’ declared Litvak. “My favorite ‘gay movie’ (makes quote signs with his hands) is Almodóvar’s ‘Law of Desire.’ Back then  two guys taking off shirts, getting into bed and screwing was so sexy. But today it’s become vulgarized with TV shows like ‘Queer as Folk.’ We are saturated with images like that.”
In his film, Litvak forgoes depicting a full-on sex scene. “It was more a question of elegance than modesty,” he explained.
The director insisted his movie is about narcissism, not homosexuality. “There is nothing more annoying than the coming-out drama. It served its purpose in the 70’s and 80’s, but now it’s a relic. Like those disease-of-the-week movies.”
I couldn’t resist asking Litvak how much of Thomas is based on himself.
“As much as Penelope and Elizabeth are based on me,” he replied, with a devilish grin. ”Thomas is a gay boy and a voyeur and so am I. All directors are voyeurs. I’m also capable of being a total diva like Elizabeth. And often I’m totally frazzled like Penelope.”
Litvak is currently working on a new script about a theatrical family comprised of all women, another screwball psychodrama.
“When people tell me ‘Docteur Rey’ is original, I find it scary,” Litvak said. “I wish the film would fit neatly into a category. It would make things a little easier if you could just say it’s a comedy, so let’s rate it on a Richter scale of comedies. Maybe people will accept my style more the second or third time around. When Almodóvar first hit the States, it took a few of his films before they caught on.”