Volume 19 Issue 49 | April 20 - 26, 2007

The Valet
Opens April 20
Angelika Film Center
18 W. Houston St.

Photo by Dominique Le Strat, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

A humble parking attendant (Gad Elmaleh) reluctantly woos a supermodel (Alice Taglioni) in Francis Veber’s “The Valet.”

Veber’s ‘Valet’ a funny nut to crack

By Rania Richardson

French writer/director Francis Veber found inspiration in the tiny pignoli, the nut used in classic pesto, when he conjured the name François Pignon. Veber regularly uses the name for the hopeless lead character in his films, including the side-splitting “The Dinner Game” (1998), “The Closet” (2001), and his hilarious new farce, “The Valet.”

In “The Valet,” Pignon (Gad Elmaleh) is a humble parking attendant who inadvertently becomes the center of a scheme by a billionaire (Daniel Auteuil) trying to hide an affair with a supermodel from his wife (Kristen Scott Thomas). A paparazzi snapshot of the trysting lovers captures Pignon as well, as he happens to walk by. A ruse ensues to convince the wife that it is actually Pignon who is involved with the supermodel. Despite the opportunity to escort the jaw-dropping model, Pignon continues to pine for a bookstore owner who has no romantic feelings for him.

“My father and mother were writers, but they didn’t succeed at all,” Veber said recently at Bette in the Meatpacking District, where I spoke with the tanned, energetic filmmaker, who turns 70 in July. “They told me, ‘Never write. Have a real job.’ My mother was writing novels for women. The kind you buy in train stations. My father was a screenwriter who didn’t work, so they were poor,” said Veber. A misguided early pursuit of medicine was followed by a stint as a reporter. “One day I was fired from my magazine because I was a very bad journalist. I wrote my first stage play at that time,” he said on the start of his career.

Veber’s style is snappy and concise, and he strives to make films around 90 minutes long. “I think it’s more polite to make a short film, but it’s more difficult to make it lean, take off the fat,” he said. He found early success co-writing “The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe” (1972) but made his name with “La Cage aux Folles” (1978). Both films had Hollywood remakes, as did several of his others, with mixed success. “I never write in English. That’s why it’s difficult for the writers that I work with in my remakes. The translation is not very easy. But I think in French and I write in French,” he explained.

Nonetheless, DreamWorks has bought the rights to “The Valet” to be directed by the Farrelly brothers. A comic actor like Steve Carell from “Little Miss Sunshine” would make a perfect Pignon, according to Veber, since he’s been successful playing anti-heroes, a type that Hollywood tends to resist.

Veber added a feminist spin to the film through Scott Thomas’ character. “She’s the one who has the keys of the story. She’s a strong character,” he said. She is aware of her husband’s infidelity and tidily outwits him in his own game. Scott Thomas was married to a French obstetrician and living in France when Veber cast her. She is now back in London working in theater, having split from her husband, according to Veber.

The model, played by former concert pianist Alice Taglioni, outsmarts the billionaire as well, turning the plot to her own advantage. Veber explained, “She blackmails her lover because I wanted to revenge all the girls who have been lied to with — ‘I will divorce. I love you.’ B.S., you know. It really doesn’t happen.”

Designer Karl Lagerfeld has a cameo in the film, adding authenticity to the fashion milieu. “He’s a diva,” said Veber of his old friend, adding, “He’s a charming, intelligent, amazing guy.” The episode in the film is an actual Lagerfeld fashion show with the same models and clothes, reshot to exclude the celebrity audience.

Veber calls the United States his home explaining, “I live in Los Angeles because I love American life. I know that we have everything… in terms of restaurants, shows, and I can park my car when I’m done! Being a screenwriter is being a man who is sitting down all the time. In Los Angeles you can go in the gym, you can go in the pool. The weather is beautiful, so you can forget this writing. When you’re in Paris you have eight months that are dark and grey and rainy.”

Still, Veber loves France and returns often, but globalization has blurred the distinction for him. “We are so much invaded by your culture. We have two fast foods on the Champs-Elysées now, a Burger [King] and a McDonald’s, I think. We have your music on our radios and we put on our baseball caps sideways.” “But,” he sighed, “we are not the same kind of people. I discovered that when I arrived here.”

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