A road trip from Cannes to Paris, can be accomplished, according to Google maps, in a little over 8 hours. When, however, the driver is a charming Frenchman, guided by his Gallic joie de vivre, it turns into a 48-hour adventure, and for his American companion, it becomes, as well, a journey into discovering the allure of the French predisposition for cherishing food, wine, companionship, conversation and, perhaps, romance, not to mention rediscovering herself.
“Paris Can Wait,” which opened at Bay Area theaters this past week, is the first fiction film directed and produced by Eleanor Coppola. It stars Diane Lane as the long-time American wife, Anne, of a work-obsessed Hollywood producer, played by Alec Baldwin, who is never seen without a mobile phone attached to his ear, and whose idea of conversation with his wife appears to be limited to: “Where are my socks?”
Enter the Frenchman. When an earache prevents Anne from flying with her husband to his next film location, a business associate (Arnaud Viard) offers to drive her to Paris. He is driving there himself; why should she go by train? It’s an unexpected offer from an unknown man, but one who has just dashed off to buy strawberries, baguettes, and earache medicine for her. She accepts. Minutes later, they are dining, just the two of them, in a romantic garden setting — a must, he explains, before they can set out on their journey; and Anne’s face conveys her anxious, unspoken question to herself: “What have I just done?”
Her often bemused bewilderment continues as the journey progresses in leaps and starts. There is a pause to walk along the river beneath the famous Roman Pont du Gard, and, of course, there is, most importantly, dinner. To thoroughly enjoy dinner precludes the possibility of getting to Paris that day; he books a hotel known for its exquisite restaurant.
Anne’s confusion is intensified because, not speaking French, she is clueless as to the actual arrangements her Frenchman is making. In one of the sublime moments of the film, the thoroughly alarmed Anne follows the Frenchman and the bellman to — is it just one room? The man is carrying only one key. “I’m not French,” she mumbles. Ah, but she can relax: it’s two rooms. And she can enjoy the fabulous meal that follows, even if he has to borrow her credit card to pay for the rooms and the meal.
He smokes; he disappears, only to return with a car full of roses because she has mentioned she likes them. His car breaks down; this will not affect his proposed picnic lunch. He announces another important stop: It’s a textile museum, because she told him she owned a dress shop and likes fabrics.
When, she points out, feebly, that they are not making much progress toward their destination, he tells her, “Paris can wait.”
Making the film
It is a daunting prospect to decide to make a film, said Coppola, “when you are living with Academy Award winners.” Her husband Francis’ many acclaimed films include the Godfather series. Her daughter, Sofia, won an Oscar for “Lost in Translation,” and this year became the second woman ever to win a best director award at the Cannes Film Festival. Her son Roman’s 2012 film “Moonrise Kingdom” was nominated for an Academy Award for its screenplay.
“But at my age, there is a certain freedom,” said Coppola, 80. “What do you have to lose?”
Her life has been a balancing act of devotion to her family and expression of the artist within. A native of Long Beach, she graduated from UCLA in 1959 with a Bachelor of Arts in applied design. As a freelance designer, she created fabric collages and stitchery murals for architectural installations, and she taught design classes at UCLA, while doing graduate studies. She met Francis Coppola in 1962, while working on “Dementia 13,” the first feature film he wrote and directed. They married, and had three children. Coppola credits other women artists for support, inspiration and practical guidance to “doing what I could, when I could.” She developed a creative ethos, “the art of the everyday.”
She first ventured into filmmaking while living in the Philippines from 1976-77 when her husband was making “Apocalypse Now.” She began shooting off-camera activity, which developed into “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” shot and co-directed with Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper. Released in 1991, it won an Emmy, among other honors.
She has since made behind-the-scenes documentaries on seven films directed by her family. She “probably holds the world’s record” for such work, she notes. She has written two books, “Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “Notes on a Life” (2008). She assists in management of the Coppola family’s Inglenook Winery in the Napa Valley. She also created “Circle of Memory,” an international installation, in memory of her late son, Gian-Carlo.
Coppola was in her mid-70s when she set out to create “Paris Can Wait,” from an experience she had herself when a Frenchman offered to drive her to Paris. First, she took writing classes to complete the script.
“I was starting to look around for a woman to direct it,” she said, “when one morning at breakfast, Francis said, ‘Why don’t you direct it yourself?’” So, she took a directing class, too.
Despite being surrounded by her Oscar winners, it took six years to arrange financing for her film.
“I didn’t want to make a vanity film,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be a case of ‘Here’s a million dollars, go make a film.’ I wanted it to stand on its own merits.”
Financial backers were wary of her project, she said “because it didn’t fit into any box. It’s not a comedy, not a romance, and it didn’t have any aliens or burning car crashes.”
Another challenge, she explained, is that “it’s hard to get actors to commit to a film until you have financing, and it’s hard to get financing until they know who the actors are.”
“I kept going,” she added, and her first breakthrough came when Lane liked the part of Anne. Then, French actor Arnaud Viard signed on to be the French bon vivant. This left the role of Anne’s husband, the filmmaker. “I called every actor that Francis had ever worked with,” Coppola said, “and they were all busy.”
Then, it happened that Alec Baldwin called Francis, asking if, as a favor, he might appear at charity function. “It was a stroke of brilliant luck,” Coppola said. “Alec was an absolute pro.”
The film that took six years to put together was filmed in 28 days. “As it turns out, the cinematographer, the production designer and the assistant director were all women,” she noted and together, they created a movie that exudes subtle humor, priceless irony, and irresistible charm.
As for the film itself, Coppola said, cheerfully, “Filmmaking is one crisis after another.”
The completed “Paris Can Wait” became an official selection for the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, the 2017 SXSW Film Festival 2017, the 39th Mill Valley Film Festival and the 60th San Francisco Film Festival, but Coppola said she was not sure of its reception in France.
“There are some things the French will know,” she said. The opening scene in Cannes was not shot in Cannes because a Saudi prince had arrived and overtaken the town with his entourage when she needed to shoot her scenes, and any Parisian will also know that the scene in which the travelers finally do arrive in the City of Light, with the Arc de Triomph in the background, is not the route they would actually drive into Paris from Cannes. Ah well, no one can argue with the delicious depiction of all things French. Especially Frenchmen.