Tycoon with a penchant for acting

Director Claude Lelouch on the death of colourful compatriot

by Richard Mowe

Controversial businessman Bernard Tapie, who became a star for director Claude Lelouch
Controversial businessman Bernard Tapie, who became a star for director Claude Lelouch Photo: UniFrance
By playing around with the acting talents of the disgraced politician, business tycoon, one-time president of Olympique de Marseille football club, and unabashed self-promoter Bernard Tapie, who has just died in Paris aged 78, director Claude Lelouch ensured a succes du scandale for his film Men, Women: A Users Guide.

The hype around its release in 1996 may have obscured the fact that Lelouch, staying true to his preoccupations, devised a well crafted film about the intertwining fates of two men who could not be more different.

Fabrice Luchini played the policeman who'd rather be an actor, and Bernard Tapie played Benoît Blanc, a famous lawyer who appeared to have everything going for him. They met by chance during a hospital visit, and thereafter became inextricably linked.

Lelouch recalled: “I could have called this film ABS (or if you prefer Amour, Boulot, Santé (Love, Work, Health), because these three obsessions seem to have become paramount.

“Once again, it’s a story about two men who were not destined to meet. One has almost everything and wants what he hasn’t got. The other has very little but wants to hang onto it. So both in their own way are very anxious. Everything starts in a doctor’s waiting room, because of a small ulcer brought on by this anxiety. For the first man love friendship, and money are no longer enough.

“The second man wonders what tomorrow will bring. Will he ever get the kind of work he wants? Will his girl-friend ever marry him? ‘The chains of love are never as strong as when they are made of gold,’ says the first man. ‘Love can be bought only by love,’ answers the second. Little by little this strange mismatched duo bond into an inseparable friendship as strange and strong as friendships we see in the movies and real life.”

The French poster for Men, Women: A Users Guide
The French poster for Men, Women: A Users Guide
On the passing of Tapie, who had been suffering from stomach cancer for nearly five years, Lelouch described him as the last of his three musketeers, the others being the late Jean-Paul Belmondo and rock-star-cum-actor Johnny Hallyday. He described Tapie as being akin to a 4x4 ready to take on any terrain including politics, acting, and business.

In an interview with Le Parisien newspaper Lelouch recalled that they had first met in the Seventies when Tapie had hired one of his cinemas to hold a product launch for a new credit card. “He was brilliant with an amazing ability to convince people. He could have sold almost anything,” said Lelouch.

When he worked with him eventually on Men, Women: A User’s Guide he describes it as one of the most memorable encounters of his career with Tapie more than holding his own against the experienced and multi-talented Luchini.

Lelouch saw him as recently as last Sunday in the company of actor Gérard Darmon. “He knew very well that we were saying goodbye. He was aware of the situation but he wasn’t afraid of death. He seemed to suggest that death could be even better than life.”

The insatiable public interest in Tapie in France will find further fuel in a new Netflix series Wonderman, inspired by his life, in which he will be played by Laurent Lafitte with whom there is a remarkable physical resemblance. The series will start shooting in 2022.

His rags to riches narrative provides fertile fodder. Born the son of a plumber in a rough neighbourhood of Paris in 1943, Tapie become one of France’s most successful and high-profile businessmen, buying and reviving dozens of failing companies while sailing close to the edge and being the subject of many legal disputes.

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