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Florian Zeller, French writer conquering global stage and screen

Florian Zeller holds his Oscar statuette after winning the Best Adapted Screenplay for ‘The Father’ at a screening of the Oscars Monday April 26, 2021 in Paris. (AP/Lewis Joly, Pool)

PARIS: At 41, Florian Zeller has already had a glittering career, described as a “genius” by Le Figaro and “the most exciting new theatre writer of our time” by The Guardian.

His plays have been staged in more countries than any French writer of his generation, and now with an Oscar for his first film “The Father,” he looks set for still greater success. In Britain, he is likened to one of his heroes, Harold Pinter, and in France to the most fabled of his predecessors.

“He is a child of Moliere,” said French actor Pierre Arditi, who appeared in two of Zeller’s plays, “The Truth” and “The Lie.” “When we read his plays, we think that it’s simple but it’s much more complex, and that is what defines a great writer... He’s a young surgeon of the human soul.”

Already a household name in France thanks to a series of novels, the first published when he was just 22, Zeller fell in love with theatre after iconic French author Francoise Sagan recommended him to a director.

“The French stage was a marvellous destination and a dream,” he told AFP in a recent interview, “but it was when my plays were staged in London and had a big success, with three at the same time ... That’s when they started being picked up in Asia, Latin America and the US.”

They have now been performed in more than 40 countries, and won awards from Tokyo to New York, but it is with the film version of “The Father,” adapted from his own hit play, that his star has really risen.

On Sunday, he won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for the film, while Anthony Hopkins took home the best actor award for his performance as an elderly man suffering dementia.

It perhaps made sense that Zeller, who considers Pinter a “major inspiration,” made such a mark in England.

“There is something that is close to the British soul in my work, where the subtext is as important as the text,” he told AFP, “where the apparent simplicity of the language hides powerful hidden currents that can be quite violent.”

He went further at the British BAFTA awards this month, where he also won best adapted screenplay, saying, “I’m French, as you can hear, but in my heart I’m English.”

Christopher Hampton, Zeller’s English translator and a renowned playwright in his own right, says it was nonetheless tough to get backing when they first tried to bring “The Father” to the British stage.

“It wasn’t easy to get the producers to believe this was the kind of play people would want to see,” Hampton told AFP.

They got a short run in a small Bath theatre but, despite strong reviews, still struggled to have it taken to London, getting slots only at smaller theatres before finally transferring to the West End.

“Even then, I think they took the theatre for only eight weeks ... and what happened was that it was so sold out that they had to take another run,” Hampton said. “It was a runaway success.”

The play was inspired by Zeller’s own grandmother, with whom he was very close, and who began suffering dementia when he was 15.

“I think he is a very important playwright,” Hampton said. “His work connects directly with audiences in a very powerful way.”

 

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