- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2008

It would be easy to envy Philippe Claudel.

His novels have been both best-sellers and award-winners in his native France. He adapted one, “Grey Souls,” into a screenplay, but he’d already been writing for the movies years before. His very first film as a director, “I’ve Loved You So Long,” is opening in the United States to rave reviews after winning awards at film festivals. And he did all this while holding down a position of professor of literature at the University of Nancy in northeastern France.

In fact, it turns out that many people are envious of Mr. Claudel - not least of all his colleagues at the university.

“In America, people like the success of the authors,” the 46-year-old points out during a recent stop in the District.

Writers see the triumphs of other writers as showing a path for them all, he says. “It’s totally different in France. There are many, many jealous guys. It’s not simple.

“It’s not a problem for me,” he adds, “because I protect myself. I’m very strong. But it’s a shame.”

Mr. Claudel might be getting beautiful, Oscar-nominated actresses to star in his films (Kristin Scott Thomas is getting Oscar buzz for her performance in “Loved”); continuing to write commercially and critically successful novels; and touring the world to promote both. But he has no intention of giving up the academic life.

“For the moment, I prefer to still have these activities because it’s important for me to have a connection with the real world, with real life,” Mr. Claudel says, while simultaneously nursing both a hot beverage and a glass of white wine. Dealing with students and colleagues at the university gives him a “real connection with reality,” he explains, that writing in solitude does not.

“I like students, I like young people. It’s interesting to try to teach something,” Mr. Claudel says. He even cast 10 of his students as students in his film.

Strangely, though, he won’t talk to those students about what they likely want to know. “I’m a little bit of a schizophrenic person,” he says, noting that he separates his writing life from his academic one.

“I refuse to speak about my work, my novels, my movies, with my students I prefer to speak about the authors. Because I’m the teacher and my life is not important. There are many, many people more important than me.”

He’d rather talk to them, he says, about Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. This French director is a fan of world cinema; an admirer, for example, of young Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley. “It’s a perfect diamond,” he says of the 29-year-old’s 2006 debut, “Away From Her.” “She is a great artist.”

Mr. Claudel’s wide-ranging taste might be a result of how he got interested in the visual medium. He grew up in the small town of Dombasle-sur-Meurthe, and he remembers his family getting its first television in 1969. “Because my father wanted to have the TV for the first man on the moon,” he recalls.

His father woke him up in the middle of the night to see the footage. “It was fantastic.”

Every Sunday, French television would show old films from around the world. “I fell in love with movies at this time,” Mr. Claudel says. “It’s a long story, between the movies and I.”

In fact, while “I’ve Loved You So Long” marks his directorial debut, he actually did make a film long before, when he was just 22, after studying both literature and film in college. “It was very bad,” Mr. Claudel says with a laugh.

It’s clear he’s well-versed in American cinema. When asked if he’d like to make a movie in Hollywood, he pauses a long time. “I think the most important difference between European art and American art is maybe about the building of the movie. I wanted to make this one with a very small budget,” he says. “I had final cut. I don’t know if it’s possible to have the same freedom in the American context.”

Mr. Claudel’s work - both in novels and in films - has had exposure in the U.S., which he says is unfortunately difficult to come by for most French artists. “I think it’s very important to have a connection between people in different countries,” he says, just weeks after a French writer won the Nobel Prize and a Nobel official called American literature too insular.

“In France, we have a lot of translated books, foreign movies, music,” says Mr. Claudel. “We are a country with many, many faults, but on this point, it’s very important for me to have the chance to discover other movies, novels, music.”

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