Cannes Emcee on His Woody Allen Rape Joke: "I Didn't Want to Hurt Anybody" (Q&A)

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French star Laurent Lafitte, who wrote his own material, tells THR that his joke was misinterpreted and he would have cut it had he known the context.

In France, Laurent Lafitte is more than just recognized. The veteran actor is a well-liked household name with more than 50 credits on his resume, including this year's Cannes competition entry Elle.

But as the festival's opening night master of ceremonies, Lafitte all but ensured that the rest of the world would know his name, too, as news blasts flew from the Palais when Woody Allen became a target of the host's controversial monologue.

Allen, in attendance for the world premiere of his Cafe Society, was sitting next to his stars Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg and Blake Lively when Lafitte said: "You've been shooting so many of your films here in Europe and yet in the U.S. you haven't even been convicted for rape." The jab was received with gasps, and many took it as a reference to both Allen and fugitive filmmaker Roman Polanski.

But in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Lafitte insists that the joke, which he wrote, was only meant as a comment on "American puritanism" and Polanski's exile status. 

The moment was one of many surprising twists during an irreverent opening ceremony that also saw Lafitte lock lips with French legend Catherine Deneuve, 72, without speaking a word; popular French actor Matthieu Chedid, aka M, perform a special tribute to Prince with his classic “Purple Rain"; and one-half of Cannes' well-known "Leopard Ladies" wander onstage with two dogs and a cart.

As for the rape joke, "it cut a little close to the bone, didn't it?" said one British lawyer seated next to THR inside the Palais. That's not how Lafitte saw it. He said it was never his intention to hurt or embarrass anyone, and if he had known the full context, he would have cut it from the script.

The actor sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in the bar at the Hotel Barriere Le Majestic to discuss his turn as master of ceremonies, the controversial script and what it was like kissing Deneuve.

The Woody Allen joke got picked up everywhere, after being received by gasps in the crowd. Were you surprised by the negative reaction?

Not in the room, but after the show, I was told that there were strong reactions. What I've learned only just this morning is that Woody Allen's son made a statement yesterday with accusations [involving rape]. I didn't know that. When I wrote this joke, it was more a joke about Europe and why one of the greatest American directors spent years in Europe, [while Allen] didn't have to because he wasn't accused of rape in his own country, compared to Roman Polanski. It was [meant] as a joke about American puritanism and the fact that it is surprising that an American director wants to do so many movies in Europe. I didn't know about the other stuff.

How fresh was the joke?

I wrote the joke three weeks ago. When you listen to Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, he says a lot of very nasty stuff. He's very funny, and I don't think anyone asks him to explain his jokes the next day.

But they do.

In France they don't. They see Ricky Gervais doing the Golden Globes and just find it funny. I'm not comparing myself to Ricky Gervais, whom I profoundly respect and admire.

What was the response from festival officials?

At the afterparty, [festival director] Thierry Fremaux told me that he went over to ask Woody if he was embarrassed by the joke, but he said he was not. He said, "I thought that guy was funny." It's a storm in a tea cup, and it's a shame, because I tried as much as I could to write something funny every 20 seconds. In a show lasting 45 minutes, this is the only thing that will remain. It's sad. You have Catherine Deneuve coming all the way from Paris for one kiss. That's the magic of Cannes. The festival celebrates what's beautiful about the movies.

Would you have deleted the joke if you had known about Ronan Farrow's essay?

Yes, I would have. When we did rehearsals the afternoon before the ceremony, Thierry Fremaux and [festival president] Pierre Lescure were pleased with the jokes and all the writing. There was a joke about Nicole Kidman, and Thierry Fremaux asked me if the joke could be embarrassing for her. I didn't want to embarrass anybody, so I didn't say the joke.

Can you tell me the joke?

No.

So being negative wasn't your intention?

I wasn't in that spirit. I didn't want to hurt anybody. If I had known [the Woody Allen joke] could be misinterpreted, I wouldn't have said it.

Any other lines you decided not to use?

There are several I decided not to use, but those came in the writing process during the last four weeks. I got rid of many jokes.

It's now the afternoon after your first master of ceremonies outing in Cannes. How do you feel looking back on last night?

I think what went well was I did what I wanted to do. My main target was to make something different than the other years. I wanted the evening to feel elegant and glamorous because it's Cannes. But I wanted it to be funny, the way I can do it.

Did you work with a team of writers?

I wrote the material on my own. I wrote most of the jokes and then I asked [French comedian] Vincent Dedienne to join me in the writing. Cannes is very special, because nobody has seen the movies. It's not like the Oscars or the Cesars, because there's nothing to talk about as the movies haven't been shown yet. So I talked about what the festival is like.

What reactions have you received?

Enthusiastic, surprised reactions. I think that people who didn't like it [haven't] dared telling me yet. So far, the reactions were very good.

There also was a joke about Neil Patrick Harris proving that you can be gay in Hollywood and not be a Scientologist. Do you know any Scientologists or were you worried about their reaction?

I don't. And maybe they are. But I'm offended by people who interrogate others and rip them off and take their money.

Let's talk about the kiss. You told me last night that it was your idea to kiss Catherine Deneuve.

Yes, it was. I would have preferred it was her idea. (Laughs.)

That's a big idea. How did you make that happen?

I'm a big fan of her work. The main idea of the writing is that things happen in Cannes that can only happen here and being kissed by Catherine Deneuve could be one of those things. We had to make it happen.

What is it like to kiss Catherine Deneuve?

She's a very good kisser. When we were rehearsing, we kissed and then I took a second. I told her that I needed a second because I'm kissing Catherine Deneuve. I told her, "You don't care [about] kissing me, but it's [really] something for me to kiss you. I need a second." She said, "How do you know that I don't care?" She's very funny and very elegant and very classy.

How many times did you kiss in rehearsal?

Just two long kisses.

Are you single?

I don't talk about my private life.

You got to sit across from Catherine at the gala dinner after the screening. What did you talk about?

it was nice. There were a lot of people coming over so we didn't have a face-to-face dinner. We can fix that later, hopefully. She's a lovely person and a good example to many French actors and actresses. Her career is amazing. She's always curious and wants to do new things. She takes risks, and you can say that with what she's achieved, she doesn't have to. She wants to have fun.

What is it like to also be here with your film Elle?

That's the main thing for me this year. I'm an actor, and what I want to do here is share my movie with the rest of the world. I can't wait for people to see Paul Verhoeven's new film. I love the movie, and Isabelle Huppert is amazing in it.

Would you serve as the master of ceremonies again?

I don't think so. I don't like to do things twice. Sexually that can be a bit of a problem. (Laughs.) It's fun as a first-time experience, but I wouldn't want to do that every year.

Is there anything you hope people remember about last night?

It was a shame that we talked so much about the joke, because I think the sequence I wrote about the Paris attacks was so well-received and more symbolic for Cannes and cinema. It's important to mention that. I don't want anybody to forget last night. The evening went very well. There is that joke that is misinterpreted ... and so what?

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