Menteur takes a simple comedy premise into the realm of full-on fantasy

We spoke to Louis-José Houde, his co-stars and the film’s co-producer and co-writer about making the kind of film we don’t expect from Quebec cinema.

On the surface, there’s nothing tremendously original about Menteur, the fourth collaboration between director Émile Gaudreault (Mambo Italiano, De père en flic) and star Louis-José Houde. It’s a mainstream comedy with a relatively high-concept premise: a compulsive liar sees his world upended when every lie he’s ever told — from the littlest, whitest lie to lies so grandiose they threaten the very fabric of society — become true, all at once. What audiences perhaps don’t expect from Menteur is how far and how deep the fantasy runs. It’s a rare thing for Quebec cinema: outright fantasy, with everything that that implies. For much of the cast and crew, working with so much CGI was a brand new prospect.

“I learned early on that you only have one chance to make the movie,” says Denise Robert, who has produced all of Gaudreault’s nine movies. “I don’t want to regret it 20 years from now when I show it to my grandchildren and think about the things I haven’t done. Each movie is my last one; I have to give it my all. (…) It’s the film Émile and I have made that has the most action and effects, which requires great preparation and teams that are ready to work. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to prepare. Someone who specializes in action had to storyboard some of the more complicated scenes. It also helped the actors visualize what was going on, because obviously the drones and other effects weren’t on set.”

“We had to do some of the scenes 30 times over — there’s nothing more absurd,” says actor Antoine Bertrand. “I don’t understand how the people who act in X-Men can act in front of nothing at all. I imagine at some point you get used to it, but there’s something completely absurd to it. Your eyes are dead! You’re looking at nothing. Well, we were looking at flags!”

Émile Gaudreault on the Menteur set

Simon Aubert (Houde) runs his entire life on lies. An executive at an aviation company, he lies about everything: the reasons he’s late, the reasons women should sleep with him, the reasons why people shouldn’t have to worry about them shutting down the plant, the fact that his parents (Luc Senay and Véronique Le Flaguais) used to beat him, the fact that his sister-in-law (Anne-Élisabeth Bossé) is in love with him… Simon’s self-serving lies are so abundant that the universe (governed by a handful of Buddhist monks, it seems) decides to right a wrong by teaching him a lesson and making all of the lies reality on the eve of his company’s crucial meeting with a Russian businessman (Vitali Makarov) that Simon absolutely needs to impress in order to prevent the closure of the small-town plant where his twin brother Phil (Bertrand) works.

With a concept like that, Menteur could go any which way — but it heightens the stakes considerably and turns into an effects-heavy (or certainly effects-heavy compared to Gaudreault’s previous films) high-concept comedy with some elements of ’90s-era comedic vehicle plotting.

“It could have been more family-centric, you know, he gets the girl in the end,” says Bossé. “It’s fun that it took on this kind of amplitude — it strengthens the message, too.”

The film also goes fairly deep on the aviation industry, reflecting the many scandals and political machinations that have rocked the Quebec economy over the years. If it’s true that it could have been about anything, a high-concept comedy that’s partially about sponsorship scandals and the looming threat of a plant closure is very Québécois.

“It’s an incongruous choice,” says Patrice Coquereau, who plays one of Simon’s co-workers in the film. “It’s easy to label things. We very much work with labeling in this industry. ‘This is the way it should be, normally.’ When you step out of it, you can kind of explore and take on different topics.”

As co-screenwriter Eric K. Boulianne (Avant qu’on explose, De père en flic 2) explains, all of that was built from a very simple premise, and yet the work is surprisingly in-depth, functioning more like the lengthy pre-production on Mike Leigh films (!) than your typical comedy production.

“It’s a real piece of teamwork,” says Boulianne. “Émile comes to us with a very general idea, and in this case, there was literally just one line. He had the idea of a compulsive liar whose lies become real, and that’s it — no characters, no situations. The work begins there: we get coffee, we talk about the characters, we make lists of lies, we talk about the role of lies in our lives… Once all that is done, and it’s basically just conversation, we start to get more precise. Émile’s very inclusive through it all. He wants our input, and he wants input from the actors. Once we have an idea of the characters, we meet with the actors and they give us some juice for their characters. We don’t have much possessiveness over individual aspects of the script. It’s very collaborative, which is what makes it work.”

Louis-José Houde might be the only true movie star in Quebec in the sense that, as a stand-up, he rarely works in television, which gives his film projects the lustre of a real star vehicle. (They also consistently make money, which is not always a given in the current film landscape.) Menteur is his fourth film with Gaudreault, but he’s not resting on his laurels yet.

“I’m not nervous, exactly, but acting remains an irregular thing for me,” says Houde. “It’s not what I do every night. I thought it was really fun to work with Antoine because I didn’t really know him in real life. I was excited to work with him and I wanted to be on his level. He’s worked a lot, and I wanted to be able to act alongside him without disappointing him. (laughs) There’s always a bit of nervousness there. I didn’t know Catherine either, even though I thought she was a great choice, but I remained somewhat afraid of not being on her level.”

Catherine Chabot in Menteur

Menteur also marks the first silver screen role for Catherine Chabot, who plays Houde’s love interest Chloé, a translator hired to help with the arrival of the Russian businessman, someone who, unlike Simon, has a policy of being honest and transparent to a fault. Chabot is mostly known for her work as a playwright and actress in the theatre, which is where Gaudreault spotted her in the first place.

“Émile told me about Catherine and I think he’d written about three words of the screenplay,” says Houde.

“I saw one of her plays and wrote to her on Instagram,” says Gaudreault. “I didn’t know her at all, and at first I wanted her to write a movie with me. But when I met her, I knew she was the character! She was so effervescent — I knew this is what I needed for the character. There was an audition process, but the stress of the audition was all wrong for the character. None of the other actresses were any good at all. It was unbelievable!” 

“I’ve never played the love interest, ever!” says Chabot. “I had to check with them: ‘Are you sure I’m the one you’re looking for? I’m not exactly the poster child for that!’ But the fact that the character had sort of a hard life worked out well. But I did think it was weird that I was cast as the bombshell! (…) Émile coming into my life is a turning point, no doubt about it. The night he came to see my play and connected with it… he believed in me.”

The cast is adamant: Gaudreault (a former sketch comedian turned screenwriter and subsequently filmmaker) takes the business of being funny very seriously. Gaudreault can go for 25 or 30 takes before he gets what he wants.

“We do it until the knot in your stomach leaves,” says Chabot.

“The things that make people laugh on set never make it into the movie,” says Gaudreault. “The funniest thing we shot was this scene with Antoine getting caught in something in front of a group of young women. On set, people were in tears; it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen in their life. When we screened it for a test audience, they only laughed a little. We were expounding so much energy for such limited returns that it was downright embarrassing! I never laugh on-set. I might laugh writing it, I laugh when we do it at the table read, I laugh when we’re rehearsing it, but there’s so much that needs to go right in the rhythm of shooting it and making it surprising that I can’t really laugh. I’m waiting for it!”

“It’s a climate of complete trust,” says Chabot. “Émile doesn’t let anything slip by; he’s always the middle of the film, the dialogue, the punchline, the laugh. You can lose yourself in it, and it’s wonderful to be able to do it 20 times. I don’t get turned off by that — it’s the opposite, in fact.”

“It’s one of the great things about being on a production that has a good budget,” says Houde. “We get to do it until it’s right, because we have the time and the resources.”

“The emotions are real,” says Bossé. “My character is in a different state, but I’m still playing it as real. I’m not an alien!”

“And we’re not playing funny,” says Bertrand. “We’re just playing the situation. With Émile, we never talked about comedy. We talked about situations. ‘Your wife is cheating on you.’ From there, of course, we know what movie we’re in. There’s a tone that we have to respect, but if you start playing the gags and the punchline, you’re already too far to the left of where you need to be.”  ■

Menteur opens in theatres on Wednesday, July 10. Watch the trailer here: