France's Jewish Triple Threat

Pascal Elbe, who will be filming his next two movies in Israel, reveals what motivates his acting, directing and writing efforts.

PARIS - "I was boiling with anger when I heard that Mike Leigh and Ken Loach had called for the boycott of Israeli films," says French-Jewish actor, director and screenwriter Pascal Elbe. "As a Frenchman, I see in culture, as in academia, a necessity for every dialogue. What bridges do they want to burn? To silence Israeli cinema? That's ridiculous! After all, Israeli cinema is also a vehicle for criticism and that's one of the reasons why it's successful. It touches on relevant and painful issues, at a time when in France they prefer to make stupid comedies that have guaranteed success and don't challenge anything."

Elbe, who this year is serving as president of the 11th Israeli Film Festival opening today in Paris, will arrive in Israel next month to film two movies, one of which he is directing.

Stephane Cardinale / People Avenue

His first directorial effort came out last year, "Tete de Turc" ("Turk's Head" ), for which he was nominated for a Cesar (the French Oscar ) in the category of best debut film. In the movie, which received mixed reviews but was a box office success, Elbe also plays the character of an Armenian doctor called in to help a dying woman in a poor neighborhood in Paris. Local youngsters pelt his car, thinking it's a police car, and it goes up in flames after a Turkish teen tosses over a Molotov cocktail. Out of remorse for what he has done, the boy then rushes to save the doctor from the burning vehicle.

The film's plot moves back and forth between moral questions about the role of the police and questions of social solidarity. It also centers around the political tensions in France, as expressed through the relationship between the Turkish boy and the Armenian doctor.

"The work on the film was an adventure, artistically speaking," says Elbe. "In France it isn't easy to produce films, especially those dealing with sensitive social issues taken from the front-page headlines. Before filming began, I said to myself that the movie could also be my last, but that I would just go with my feelings."

After 15 years of acting, the transition to directing was a very significant step, says Elbe.

"Nowadays, commercial filmmakers in France face two possibilities: shallow popular comedies or serious dramas," he explains. "There are very few good comedies. They're a lot harder to write, but it's also necessary to know how to make a good drama. Happiness does not film well, but it's all too easy to make a movie that's a series of sad and dramatic incidents.

"In both cases, people don't go to the theater to listen to a story. They want to enjoy themselves, to experience something. I wanted to break down these frameworks. The success of cinema from countries like Argentina, Mexico and Israel lies in the fact that the films from those places are funny, sad and suspenseful all at once."

Elbe's eyes brighten when he talks about directing. He admits the move, among other things, is also an investment for the future.

"My fate as an actor has already been determined, in effect. I've been destined for roles in comedies as a lover, a friend or a husband. In this way, a few years from now the industry would bury me," he explains. "But as a director, for the first time I can choose the stories that interest me, the actors I want to work with and the roles I myself am interested in playing. I decided to change my fate and I gave myself the right to speak."

As a director, Elbe has chosen to tackle the exposed social nerves of everyday life in France. As an actor, he was mainly identified with comedic turns. His last such blockbuster appearance was in the 2008 "Mes amours, mes amis," (also known as "London mon amour" ) directed by Lorraine Levy and based on a story by her brother, bestselling French novelist Marc Levy. The screenplay of the kitschy romantic comedy is typical of Elbe's acting career; he knows how to adapt himself skillfully to the handsome and sensitive macho character.

In 2006, Elbe tried to challenge the genre with a romantic comedy of his own, "Mauvaise foi" ("Bad Faith" ), which he wrote with actor Roschdy Zem. The film tells the love story of Clara (Cecile de France ), who is Jewish, and Ismael (Zem ), who is Muslim. The two must deal with the refusal of everyone around them to accept their relationship. It's a kind of French version of a Ben Stiller comedy, focusing on Jewish and other families, but France is not America and a Jewish-Muslim couple is still pretty much a social anomaly.

The screenplay succeeds in creating chuckles in places where there would usually be silence or embarrassment. In one scene, Ismael comes bearing flowers for Clara's parents. The mother opens the gate, takes the flowers and thanks the person who she assumes is an Arab delivery boy.

"It was important to me," says Elbe, "to make fun of the social distinctions made among Jews and Muslims in France. There's no better way to discuss these issues than through humor."

Elbe, 43, has been living in Paris with his wife for 20 years now, where they are raising their 9-year-old son Leo. She has two children from a previous marriage, Hugo (21 ) and Alexis (24 ). Elbe, who many now be the darling of the society pages, spent his childhood very far from the lights of Paris. He was born in the Alsatian wine city of Colmar to a middle class Jewish immigrant family from Algeria; he attended pubic schools and lived most of his young life in nearby Strasbourg.

"We weren't part of the Jewish community," he says. "It was important to my parents that we integrate as much as possible. But I felt my difference at school all the time - I was a dark Jewish boy."

And though he now has the presence and confidence typical of young actors, Elbe says he was an introverted adolescent who escaped from reality into an inner world of fantasy.

"I would walk past the National Theater in Strasbourg, fantasizing an audience cheering me on. I wanted more than mediocrity," he recalls.

At the age of 18 he went to Paris to study acting, to the displeasure of his parents. Upon completing his studies, he played mainly supporting roles first in theater and then in films. The turning point in his career came in 2003, after he was cast in the comedy "Pere et fils" ("Fathers and Sons" ), directed by Michel Boujenah.

In Israel, Elbe will be tackling his second directorial effort, a crime thriller in the style of Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can." The film is based on the true story of a French white-collar criminal who fled to Israel after getting in trouble with the authorities. While researching for the film, Elbe met with the real-life criminal, who is currently living in Ashdod. "I have no problem with showing the ugly side of the French Jewish community," explains Elbe. "Even though many people ask me why I'm making a film about a Jew who stole millions - and in the period after [Bernard] Madoff."

The first film he directed, he continues, gave him an opportunity to tell his own story indirectly.

"When my parents immigrated to France, they did everything they could to integrate into French society," he says. "But I, like my friends who are Muslim immigrants - we still feel like exotic birds. Our life here is a continuous battle. The ability to write and direct films is an opportunity to contribute to this struggle. It's a privilege."

"In thinking about the [first] film, I went back to my childhood. All of a sudden it was clear to me that I wanted to talk about the experience of foreignness. This is expressed in the film through the tension between the state, the police and the children of immigrants," Elbe explains. When asked whether he thinks there should be solidarity between Jews and Muslims in France as two minority communities, he sounds more hesitant.

"As a Jew, I feel a connection to Israel," replies Elbe, "but I don't expect my Muslim friends to defend it - just as they wouldn't demand my opposition to it. This doesn't mean there aren't moments when I don't feel comfortable with Israel's actions. The current government in Israel is a disaster. But as a whole, in friendship and in business, I prefer to keep politics aside."