The Diva of French Television
I'm sitting in an 18th-century castle in the small French city of Saintes, surrounded by paintings hung on ancient paneling, beneath a crystal chandelier the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and sipping champagne out of a Baccarat flute. The room's monumental doors swing open to reveal a handsome young Frenchman in a feathered hat, thickly brocaded jacket and velvet under-the-knee breeches. "Do you love it, darling? I bought it from the archives of the Paris Opera. Don Giovanni, 1960s."â€¨â€¨
I pinch my arm to remind myself I'm not on the set of a Dangerous Liaisons remake.
I'm in the living room of Nicolas Mercier, the creative powerhouse who is changing the face of French television. He's the hot young screenwriter who has made gay OK for millions of French viewers. In the industry, he's called "The Diva of French Television." As he should be. He certainly has the right wardrobe.â€¨
Advocate.com:Nicolas, your television series Clara Sheller offered French prime-time viewers all of the urban chic of Sex and the City with a plot line reminiscent of a pre-whitewashed Will & Grace -- that is, if Will got Grace pregnant and then stole her boyfriend. The series not only rocked the gay world in France, but it was watched in record-breaking numbers by the general viewing public and showered with kudos and awards by the critics. Why do you think it was so popular?Mercier: Have you seen French TV?â€¨
I try to avoid it.â€¨ [ Laughing ] Exactly. One of the reasons that Six Feet Under and Desperate Housewives are so popular here is because no French shows are as original. All you see on prime time is cop shows and bad reality TV. So I thought that by introducing these young Parisian characters who are just trying to find love while making the mistakes we all make, and showing the humor and tragedy of their humanity, people would respond to it.â€¨
Even if you include, oh, I don't know ... a two-boy, one-girl make-out session, unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion, and people "switching teams" any time the fancy suits them?â€¨ Even if. People are just people. Someone's sexuality shouldn't be more important than his story.
When I asked François-Pier Pelinard-Lambert, editor in chief of Le Film Français and TV presenter for Série Club, what France's gay community's response was to the series he said, "Very positive, because there have never been many gay characters in French television. And when they do appear, they are caricatures. What people love in Clara Sheller is the character of JP -- troubled and troubling, neither sure of himself, nor ashamed of what he is. He's a figure in which all gays can recognize themselves." He's right. I'm not into portrayals of stereotypically gay characters. My characters are just human. They do things that are unexpected. They're constantly surprising themselves with their choices. â€¨
That's what you're known for, isn't it? Not only featuring gay characters, but pushing the ambiguity of their sexuality. Nothing is black or white in your stories. You wrote the first gay scene for the long-running international soap opera Sous le Soleil. And that was a straight teenager who fell in love with his best friend. In Clara Sheller gay JP sleeps with his best friend, Clara. JP's mother leaves his father for an elderly gay man who she settles down with in peaceful domesticity.
This must leave some people confused about your intentions. When I asked Pelinard-Lambert if French gay viewers thought you went "far enough" with your depictions of gay characters, or if those wanting a more aggressive advancement of a gay agenda thought they were too sugar-coated, he said, "Some, probably, but he definitely pushed the boundaries further than ever. In season two the sex scenes, like the character of JP, were very daring. Few English-language series have even gone that far." What was it that you told me your mother-in-law said about the sex scene in season 2?
And I quote: "They didn't have to show him turn over." [ Laughs ] I guess that was pushing the boundaries a bit far for some.
It seems it wasn't just the menopausal crowd that complained. You just found out a few days ago that season 3 has probably been shelved because the network decided the sex scenes in two were too shocking for prime-time. That just shows the hypocrisy of the system. It was fine to show men kissing in the first season of Clara Sheller . But when season two had two men doing what heterosexual couples are shown doing all of the time, all of a sudden it's "shocking."
Pelinard-Lambert told me that in the context of the current economic recession TV channels worldwide are walking on eggs with any subject that is slightly taboo or edgy. They're avoiding anything outside the margins. It's the fact that television audiences even see the series as edgy or taboo that is frustrating. It should be natural. For me, I will have achieved my goal when no one thinks twice about a character's sexuality.
Your fans seem really upset. Well, I've been approached to write the script for a Clara Sheller film, so those characters won't disappear into the void. And if the film happens, it will be nice to work in a media that offers more artistic freedom than television.
You've written some of your own life into your stories. For example, your father's quote "It's as if my son were dead" was repeated word-for-word by the father in the telefilm Le ciel sur la Tete, about a young Parisian man coming out to his parents. That's the most literally I've ever drawn from real life. There are facets of my characters' personalities that resemble my own. But I've just finished writing a script about three 50-year-old women going through a sort of midlife crisis, and their stories speak to me more strongly than those of my young gay characters.
Your life seems anything but domestic. You're constantly on the move between your three homes, never staying in one place more than a few days at a time. So what made you decide to settle down and tie the knot with Paul [Krieger, Mercier's partner of 10 years]? I prefer to have three houses and one lover rather than vice versa. It's easy to have a lot of lovers. It's more difficult to stay with one person and be loyal to him. I chose the harder path.
Are you a monogamist at heart? In the beginning I was like everyone else who wanted to explore their own powers of seduction. But as I grew up I realized that the road I was traveling was vain and narcissistic. It's been a long journey, but in the end I realized that committing to one person was not only the most difficult path, but the most rewarding. So I guess I could say I'm a converted monogamist.
What do you think of the PACS [Pacte civil de solidarité] system in France, and do you think real marriage should be an option for gays? Legally, PACS is enough for me because Paul and I have the same rights as any straight couple who gets married, except for being able to adopt kids. I can't stand straight people who are anti-gay marriage, but feel almost the same about the gay pro-wedding crowd. It should exist because it is a good way to fight homophobia, but gay couples should be given the same rights without having to copy straight couples' traditions. I like what one of Delanoë's [Paris's gay mayor] cabinet members said: "Gay marriage should be authorized just so that gay men can have the opportunity to say no to a marriage proposal."
OK, now I have a very important question to ask you. Anything. I'm ready.
I heard you had coffee with Rupert Everett the other day. Is he as hot in real life as on the screen? [ Chuckling ] Well, although his mind is still very elegant and witty, he's lost that dandy touch that I loved and is going more for the short hair, tracksuit, and muscles look. I'm more into the natural look for men instead of the pumped-up gym look.
And finally, to end on an even more voyeuristic note, what two stars would you most like to watch doing a sex scene you wrote? Hmm. I guess it would be Colin Farrell and Jude Law.
Oh, my God, I would totally go see that film. [ Sipping his champagne and smiling oh, so suavely ] Who wouldn't?