Tuesday, August 27, 1996

The LBO Artist As Movie Star: Reinventing Bernard Tapie

Filmmaker Claude Lelouch Reinvents Bernard Tapie: from business tycoon to movie star, writes Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

The European, 27 August 1996.

In one of the early shots of Claude Lelouch's new film, Hommes, Femmes: Mode d'Emploi ("Men, Women: Instructions for Use") starring Bernard Tapie, the 53-year-old bankrupt businessman, Eighties icon and ex-minister of François Mitterrand, the camera glides past a Crédit Lyonnais branch on Place de l'Opéra. This triggers some nervous giggles in the audience. Crédit Lyonnais is of course the bank that financed Bernard Tapie's wildest business ventures throughout the Eighties, and, being still owed 1.3 billion francs, forced him into bankruptcy a year and a half ago.

Asked about the shot, Claude Lelouch claims he didn't even notice the Crédit Lyonnais sign while filming. Neither did he plan a subtle reference to Bernard Tapie's tax-dodging shell company for his corporate jets (and his yacht), which resulted in an 18-month prison sentence currently under appeal ­ one of several ­ when he shows Benoît Blanc, the fictional character played by Tapie, flying his own helicopter inscribed "Air Blanc".

One is inclined to believe Lelouch, if only because movieland is a vastly different world from the financial and political one inhabited until now by Bernard Tapie. In the latter, people know all about the companies Tapie bought (Wonder, Look, Terraillon, Testut, Adidas), the bankers who gave him unlimited credit (Pierre Despessailles of SdBO, Jean-Yves Haberer of Crédit Lyonnais), the judges who have charged him with corruption, tax evasion, misappropriation of company funds, intimidating witnesses (Eric de Montgolfier, Eva Joly, Thierry Philipon), the politicians who supported his meteoric career (François Mitterrand et al.)

It's an impressive cast list, with intricate ramifications and hundreds of episodes. Tapie's own life isn't a two-hour feature film, it's an Aaron Spelling series spread over the years, and true addicts in Paris know every little plot turn.

But Claude Lelouch, who has clocked some 30 movies since his famous A Man And A Woman, churning out at least one a year, isn't that kind of an addict. Twenty-seven years ago, he came across the young Bernard Tapie, who had taken to rent his screening room every Thursday night not to show pictures but to give motivational sales talks. He was, Lelouch recalls, "riveted" ­ and asked Tapie if he had considered acting. The former car salesman and budding business leader, who five years earlier had cut three singles in an attempt to break into the pop music scene, answered he wasn't interested. In 1972 Lelouch followed up on his instinct and called Tapie, offering him a part in L'Aventure, c'est l'aventure, opposite Jacques Brel and Lino Ventura. He didn't have time, Tapie said.

Lelouch called again ten years ago, in the middle of the go-go Eighties, when Tapie had become a star on the Bourse, in the evening news, as chairman of Olympique de Marseille football club. His latest project was a monthly TV programme entitled Ambitions, in which he interviewed, in front of a studio audience, young people who had plans to set up a business, and solicited phone-in financing pledges. He was proving a first rate television personality. "I told him I didn't know whether, in ten years' time, he would sit in the Elysée Palace or in jail, but both would be interesting to watch ­ would he let me follow him around with a camera for a documentary?"

Still Tapie turned Lelouch down. But when, last year, having been declared bankrupt, his house and his furniture repossessed, threatened with expulsion from his seat in the Assemblée Nationale and jail, he received yet another telephone call from Claude Lelouch, he knew the filmmaker was in earnest, not trying to score easy publicity points. "He was in the pits," Lelouch recalls. "Nobody else was calling ­ apart from his lawyers. He said yes."

"We knew perfectly well it would be no use making me an idealist hero, a knight in shining armour," Tapie says. "Nobody would have believed it. So Claude chose the only option ­ he made me into an even worse bastard than expected."

This is disingenuous. Benoît Blanc, the shady, high-powered lawyer whom Tapie portrays in the film, is fallible but engaging, capable of great charm (like Tapie) and vulnerability (much less like Tapie), a persuasive talker (like Tapie) who can argue about religion and philosophy quoting Pascal or St Augustine (totally out of character). Tapie's quick, instinctive intelligence is there, but not his essential brutality and ruthlessness. "I was not interested in these aspects of his personality", Claude Lelouch told me, a little wary. "You have to remember this is a fiction film. Benoît Blanc is not Bernard Tapie. He is a character I wrote up, and then offered to Bernard because I thought he would be ideal. If he'd turned me down I would have offered the part to Jean Yanne."

It should be said at this stage that Hommes, femmes, mode d'emploi is a very good movie, and that Bernard Tapie is a brilliant actor in it, unexpectedly understated: but then the entire cast is superlative, from Fabrice Luchini, who plays a plainclothes cop whom Tapie befriends in a hospital waiting roomwhen both have to undergo tests for stomach cancer, to Anouk Aimée as a charming black-crepe-wreathed confidence trickster working Paris cemeteries in search of rich widowers. Lelouch has been known to be uneven, but this is one of his best efforts ­ a wistful fable about playacting on stage and in life, about human relationships and death.

To a French viewer, the sub-text of Tapie's personal history adds obvious depth to his character. (It's probable some of the on-screen coincidences came unconsciously to Lelouch.) But Tapie's performance is such that Gillo Pontecorvo insisted that the film should open the Mostra at Venice next week, asking Lelouch "Who is this new actor you have cast? He is remarkable." Now there is talk of two parts being offered in America (including one, possibly, as Che Guevara), and although Tapie isn't talking, he admits that he has been brushing up on his English. "There's a strong buzz about him," Lelouch confirms. "People in Hollywood have their ears to the ground. Bernard has a serious career ahead of him."

To dedicated Tapie-watchers, there are strange similarities with Bernard Tapie's previous incarnations. Whenever he bought up a new company or started in a new enterprise, he was, he assured the audiences that invariably flocked to see him, a changed man. When he ran for the House, in 1988, he said he would put all his businesses into a blind trust. (He didn't.) When he acquired Adidas in 1990, he swore it was the culmination of his career, that he would run it for decades (He flogged it off two years later.) Earlier he variously vowed he would devote his entire energies to cycling (he sponsored a team including Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in the Tour de France for three seasons), to football (he bought Olympique de Marseille in 1986 and sold it in 1993). Even Lelouch had a few private butterflies before he started: he shot the 53-million-franc film in 39 days last winter, having worked out a supertight schedule "because I couldn't be sure Tapie's interest in the whole exercise wouldn't flag. But it didn't. He never came late, not even once, and he always knew his lines."

"Can cinema save Tapie?" asked the headline on the cover of thre newsmagazine L'Express last week. The answer, roughly, is "no". On the day the movie was released, Tapie formally resigned from his seat of Député, explaining in radio interviews that he couldn't lead a political and an acting careers at the same time. This had been nicely timed to ensure additional media coverage for Lelouch's film. It was also untrue: Tapie jumped because he was about to be pushed ­ in a matter of days rather than weeks. He has already been given separate suspended jail sentences adding up to over eight years, only part of which are suspended; these, together with his bankruptcy, make him uneligible for elected office; he isn't even allowed to vote anymore. He hasn't given up his EuroMP seat, however ­ the invalidation procedure there is much more arduous, and Tapie needs the job and the 70,000 francs a month pay, his only source of income these days. "Brussels is different," he says unconvincingly. "You don't have to give up your professional activity to be a MEP." But soon, when all the appeals have run out, Tapie will in all probability have to do time ­ one or two years at the very least. It is, say intimates, a perspective that terrifies him.

Bernard Tapie was born in 1943 in North Paris, in a working-class family, and grew up in Le Bourget. He doesn't even have his baccalauréat (although he has at times to have an electrical engineering degree). But at school, at the army or on a hadball field, he was from the start the boy around whom all the others clustered. After the army he worked as a car salesman, then started a business selling TV sets. From this (and after his brief attempt to become the next Johnny Hallyday, under the name Bernard Tapy) he graduated to creating a commercial consumers' association that obtained discounts in big stores for its members.

He had a partner there; he left under a cloud. More can't legally be printed: Bernard Tapie, until two years ago, had a clean criminal record; it is actionable under French law to mention whatever got amnestied in the past. There followed an unsuccessful attempt to create an emergency heart disease ambulance service; then a first buy-out of an ailing newsprint company, the harbinger of countless LBOs throughout the Eighties. But Tapie first impinged upon the national consciousness in 1979, when he announced grandly he would buy up the castles belonging to the deposed Central African "emperor", Jean-Bedel Bokassa. The deal eventually fell through, but Tapie became a star, getting his first taste of being interviewed by every television channel.

He had vowed he would become an industrialist. What he really became was an asset-stripper. His technique was always the same - he'd buys up a practically bankrupt company for one symbolic franc, file a winding-up petition, then got the receivers to agree to a 12- to 24-month freeze of all its debts. Next came ruthless downsizing, while Tapie convinced hard-pressed creditors to let him buy back the company's debts for a small fraction of their face value ­ between 10% and 30%. Publicity he took care of himself. Usually management and employees at first welcomed this forthright, smiling, charismatic character who swooped down upon them flying his own plane, haranguing them on the shop floors, vowing that he'd make the company great again. But Tapie's problem is that he is no industrial strategist ­ and he can't resist a quick franc. The plane costs were billed to the companies he visited, for instance. New products were long in coming. He announced profits when there were none.

In the mid-Eighties it was impossible to miss Tapie in the media. He had his own TV programme. He said he would start "no-nonsense" business schools designed to train good salespeople. He bought an 18th century townhouse in the grand Faubourg Saint-Germain from the couturier Hubert de Givenchy, and said he was filling it with priceless antiques. (When they were seized by Crédit Lyonnais two years ago, it turned out many were fakes.) He sailed the biggest yacht in France, the Phocéa. He gobbled up companies with proud old names, such as the 84-year-old Madame Grès's couture house. And thoughout, he was bankrolled by SdBO (Société de Banque Occidentale), a Crédit Lyonnais subsidiary, with gay abandon.

Tapie says today many more people share the responsibility for Crédit Lyonnais's appalling losses (estimated at some 100 billion francs) ­ but he's the only one whose name comes back again and again: the establishment figures get away with it. He has a point: a former Crédit Lyonnais chairman, Jean-Maxime Lévêque, for instance, whose own small private bank, IBI, was bought out by the Lyonnais, lost them 8 billion francs, 6 times as much as Tapie. Yet the man in the street doesn't know Lévêque's name. But this is a poor excuse ­ and it doesn't start to cover such convictions as corrupting players from the Valenciennes football team to throw their match against Olympique de Marseille, or Tapie's numerous tax dodges.

Still, when he acts in a film, Tapie doesn't cheat anyone. All he is contracted to do is there to see on the screen; there are no disappointments, no funny surprises. Rather than being paid up front for Hommes, Femmes, Mode d'Emploi, he has decided to get a percentage of the box-office results: after the first 35,000 tickets are sold, he is to receive 2.85F on each ticket price. (That way the money won't be confiscated too soon by the Lyonnais). If the movie does well, he stands to make several million francs. As it is, his letterbox is filling with scripts every morning.

© Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 27 August 1996

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