BRM Interview: Mathieu Amalric

On the occasion of Mathieu Amalric’s new film The Blue Room premiering at Cannes, I present my interview with him from October 2013, when he came to New York City to promote the New York Film Festival screening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. While not specifically about The Blue Room, we discussed Amalric’s approach to acting and directing, which I hope might illuminate his process. This interview has never been published and runs here in its entirety.

Mathieu Amalric (photo by me)

BRM: Let’s start by discussing how you started the process of becoming an actor.

Mathieu Amalric: Nothing was expected, it was an accident. It was Arnaud Desplechin who invented me, as I always say. It’s true. I fell in love with movies and found my place in movies when I was young. I was 17 when I saw the work of Otar Iosseliani, who never picks actors; only friends or silhouettes. He directs with a whistle; one whistle you stop, two whistles you walk, and that’s it, then he does the sound in post, afterward. And I wanted to do what he was doing, which was to fabricate films. People say they are “Filmmakers”- yes, film “makers”, in English it is more beautiful. It is exactly that, you “make” films. Because it had to do with making with your hands, you head your heart— (gasps in revelation)— I could do anything with it. You never understand anything about life; the older you get, the less you understand and film is just a way to have the illusion that you grabbed something.

So, I was just working as an AD, an assistant editor, working behind the camera and directing my short films. And then Arnaud saw a short film in which I acted, because it was with my grandmother and my father, and he asked me to do some screen-tests for La Sentinelle but he didn’t pick me…

BRM: You had a small role…

Amalric: Yes, but I tested again for Comment je me suis disputé (My Sex Life… or how I got into an argument). Arnaud is an amazing director, especially with actors. The other directors thought that I was a good actor, and I am still living on that mistake. But like all phonies, you have to be very good to be a phony. Like people who do art forgeries; you have to be very, very good. So, I am getting better at false acting.

BRM: Can you describe the process of invention that you had with Arnaud? I am sure the relationship has changed over time, you must have developed a shorthand and trust by now, but at the start, how did he “invent” you as an actor?

Amalric: He told me 10 days before we started shooting that I had the role. For me, it was suddenly “Shit! I should have been better in school and learned my poems, so I had fewer problems with my memory… how am I going to learn all of this?” Because in this film, there was so much dialogue, and it was so precise, and you don’t want to change a word. It has nothing to do with naturalism; in Arnaud’s films, he is working on something else. So, ok- learn your lines, learn your lines, learn your lines— am I going to be able to say my lines not being conscious of what I’m doing?

And Arnaud, who is in love with actors and always wanting to help them, finds this way that you are occupied by tons of things to do at the same time, so that you don’t think that you’re acting, and if you don’t think you’re acting, maybe you grab some truth that belongs to you but that you’re not aware that you’re making. So, Arnaud says something like “Maybe on that line, you take the pen and then you take your cigarette there, and then you go over there.” Ok. And at the start, he would do a lot of takes, maybe twenty or so takes, and after each take he would say “I know what this scene is about, it is about that word, so we’re going to do something else.”

And so, after a moment, you cannot physically do everything he’s given you. And in that moment, something of you is grabbed by the camera. That’s how he works. And that as twenty years ago. Now, and its funny because it was specific to a film like Jimmy P., where something happens between those two men that is never named, but it has to do with friendship. Like he says at the beginning “Sympathy is sufficient… I didn’t help Jimmy because he was an Indian, but because it was in my power to help him.” That is how it is with Arnaud. Complicity, let’s say.

(photo by me)

BRM: I spoke to Arnaud about his use of masks, and often in his films, your characters are people who, underneath, are a swirl of contradictions which are always breaking through this mask they are presenting to the world. It has an almost spiritual component, where Arnaud is inventing, on the page, characters who present you with the opportunity to inhabit them and present this contradictory state to the world. Am I wrong about this?

Amalric: No no no… you’re right, and I was thinking when you were talking, that Jimmy P. is really two masks of Arnaud, one that is the Indian and one that is the Hungarian— not professor, because I think what Arnaud loves about Devereaux is that he’s a man who never presented himself as an expert— but there is something where Arnaud believes in humanity, and it is in all of his characters and its always like that. Even in his family films; he is the mother, the angry sister, the banished son. He is a great actor when he directs, he always has to get involved and demonstrate, and he plays the part to see how he would do as a girl, as an old man, as an adolescent. So, that’s why his films belong to everyone, he doesn’t tell people what to think. He wants you to take your own voyage inside all of those characters.

BRM: He also deals with outsiders, who are often set aside by society and convinced they are insane, but really, they are just alive; they’re not really insane. This is a thread throughout the work. Is this something that draws you to these characters?

Amalric: I am never driven to a character, it’s more that I am lucky that these amazing directors pick me and make me their puppet. It’s great! Acting is only abandoning yourself to someone else’s vision of the world. And it’s only afterwards that you discover the change in your perspective, that you’ve been looking at the world one way and never thought it could be the other way. It’s fascinating, it’s passion, it makes life more interesting. And then, when I go back to directing my own films, it helps me a lot.

But it’s true with Arnaud, in all of his films, he is attracted by men and women who are capable of resisting what society expects of them. I don’t think he sees them as victims, but as heroes, as in Howard Hawks films, I don’t know… strong. The women in Howard Hawks films are incredible. They are not victims crying that society set them aside, they are in the center, and they invent their own methods for placing themselves there. It is an act of self-invention; the same as Devereaux in this film, not quite anthropologist, not quote psychoanalyst- he made this new psychoanthropology. But in the end, as an actor, you just try to know your lines, create a credible accent, and you try to be like an athlete, who can do all he wants because he can control his body and be precise. And this film is so much about listening to the other, working on what is being said between the lines.

BRM: Every time I see you in a film he is not directing, I feel like you’re having an affair with the other director. What do you take from working with Arnaud to, say, Julian Schnabel or to the set of a James Bond movie?

Amalric: Every director is very different; what would there be in common…? Hmmm. I try not to arrive with any principles. I am a virgin. It’s true. But then technically, I work hard, but my goal is to be as light as possible for the director, not ask questions, or very concrete and precise questions. It has to do with the state of stupidity, which is very important to have as an actor.

BRM: You’ve just solved American celebrity culture for me… (laughs)

Amalric: (Laughs) Yes, ok, but American actors come ready, and they are difficult to change, they don’t want to be stupid, it’s too frightening. They don’t want to belong to someone else. They did their work on their own, they constructed something else. But stupidity has to do with everything being possible, it’s important. It’s also maybe why directors like to work with other directors, because actors that are only actors can think they believe in the director as “god”— that he will know everything— and they want to be loved, they want to be accepted, so there’s a lot to do with psychological seduction and taming. When you’re a director, you know the solitude of the director and you know that he feels he is pretending to know everything when in fact he simply hopes the toilet is nearby because it is so scary. So, you try to be generous and listen to the music and rhythm of the performance. The reason movies are so fun to do is because they are a collaboration, you feel like it is an orchestra with a common tempo.

(photo by me)

BRM: You also direct… how do you work with other actors then? You’re entrenched in the filmmaking community in France, everyone seems to know everyone else…

Amalric: I’m part of them, so it’s natural. I know how it is. I know directors who have never acted who somehow think actors are miracles, you have to say the magic words to open them up, or like a romantic relationship. Directing goes through the body, a way to move on set. It’s not the words. Acting is another handcraft, which is why I love movies. That’s why I think it has nothing to do with being an artist; we’re not painters or writers or musicians. Movies are like a circus, more impure, you just try to do what you can, and it is never what you dreamt of. You have to manage reality. And I find that way more freeing than staring at a blank page and you have to invent the world everything is possible. in a movie? Nothing is possible. So, we struggle and you hope a little miracle happens.

BRM: Jimmy P. is Arnaud’s first film in America, and as a lover of cinema, can you talk about shooting this film here together, a period film that draws on the American landscape? It really draws on the history of American film.

Amalric: Not acting in your own language brings its own challenges, but then there is this way of making each word precious. Words, when you work in another language than your own, are precious. And it also has to do with exile; two men who are trying to become Americans. Yes, there is something about the history of the construction of this country, the dream, the acceptance of different cultures. For us in France, racism is a problem in this regard. We have this sickness everywhere else in the world; identity. For America, it’s not the same problem, everyone is from somewhere else. American cinema, too.

The BRM’s Greatest Hits | Kings And Queen (2004)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

Today’s Greatest Hits post is a piece that is very important to me; my first piece of writing about the work of Arnaud Desplechin. There will be more of Desplechin in the days ahead; no other filmmaker thrills and moves me so deeply. I have had the chance to talk with him a few times and I’ll be reproducing those interviews here as well, but for today, a chance to revisit my initial reaction to what remains one of my favorite films, a chance to revisit the story of my discovery of Desplechin’s work. Today is a rainy day in October, 15 years (ouch) after I first saw My Sex Life on another rainy, blustery October day in another city in, seemingly, another life time. A perfect time to revisit this post…

The original date of publication was September 16, 2004.


Toronto 2004 REVIEW | Rois et Reine (Kings and Queen)

Transformation is a powerful thing. The first time I ever saw a film by Arnaud Desplechin was one of the cinematic moments that changed my life. Close your eyes with me. Imagine that feeling of walking into a movie theater unaware and walking out a new person. It’s 1996, I’m 25 years old and living on poverty wages in Washington, D.C. spending my days in an exhausting government job and my nights hopping from one movie theater to the next. My favorite of the bunch, The Biograph, had closed and been replaced by a CVS pharmacy. All that remained, aside from the relatively mainstream fare, was the snobby Kennedy Center and The Key Theater on Wisconsin Ave., one block north of M Street (it is now a Banana Republic, a fact which makes it hard for me to walk though the doors of that particular chain store.) The theater was well kept, and I slid in, dripping wet from the rain on the streets, grabbed a seat near the back and watched what has become one of the cornerstone films of my life; My Sex Life…or How I Got Into An Argument. There are moments you never forget at the movies, and I can remember almost every detail of that night; the smell of the space (popcorn and expensive perfume), the shape of the head of the person in front of me, the texture of the floor beneath my feet, the lumpy contours of the cushion in my seat. The epic scope of the film, the honest exploration of real and complicated feelings, those messy interactions of people my own age; it was literally transformative. Matthieu Amalric’s performance as Paul Dedalus, so flawed, selfish, egotistical, manipulative, and so very alive, resonated with me in a powerful way, but so too did Emanuelle Devos as the heartbroken Esther and Jeanne Balibar as the manipulative Valérie. Every character in the film feels like a part of me. The jilted lover, the lothario, the confused student, the rival– all of them share something of me, and the impression they made on me in my mid-20’s, was profound. The cast in the film has gone on to become the face of contemporary French cinema, and seeing them perform in other films (particularly Devos in Read My Lips, Balibar in Va Savoir? and Amalric in another favorite, Late August/Early September) feels like spending time with old friends whom I miss dearly. I have since seen every film Desplechin has ever made (save for Love Without Pity, which I have been unable to track down), and when I saw that his latest feature, Rois et Reine was rescheduled for a new screening time at Toronto, I jumped at the chance to spend my night with my favorite director. I have literally seen over 22 films since the week began, many of them excellent, but no film has moved me as powerfully as Rois et Reine.

Kings and Queen

Rois et Reine reunites Devos and Amalric on-screen as Nora and Ismaël (yes, the literary puns certainly apply), former lovers whose lives have diverged onto two very different paths. As Nora confronts the death of her father, Ismaël is forced into a psychiatric hospital in order to prevent him from hurting himself with his erratic behavior. The two story lines could not be more divergent at first; the gravity of watching a beloved daughter handle the death of her elderly father played against the hilarity of Ismaël ‘s own confrontation with his anxieties, his unhelpful therapist, and his drugged up lawyer. But the thematic overlaps become clear as soon as Nora’s father checks into the hospital and we start to see the institution at work– the doctors are unable to save his life, much like they are unable to free Ismaël from his neuroses. Similarly, the dysfunction of Ismaël’s family life is played against the strength of Nora’s character and her devotion to her familial responsibilities, a strength that comes into question when Nora makes a profound discovery after her father’s death (to give away more would ruin the experience of the film.) And so, Desplechin juggles rhymes and themes much like the poets and philosphers his characters constantly quote. Life is comedy and tragedy, illness and vitality, love and death, cruelty and compassion, crime and charity. All of these qualities are reflected in both Nora and Ismaël’s experiences, and if in the beginning our sympathies lie with Nora’s grief at the expense of fully empathizing with Ismaël’s pleas for freedom, by the end of the film both characters have been so thoroughly changed and made equivocal by their actions, we come to find worth and humanity in both of their experiences.

Desplechin has once again taken the epic approach to intense personal experiences, but his confidence and ability as a director to illuminate life through the power of small details shines as brightly as it ever has. The use of music in the film ALONE could warrant a 5 page review. Desplechin uses music like no other director working today. The choices he makes sometimes literally underscore specific emotions. Other times, music is a tool to rhyme situations and characters. This affords him a powerful weapon in his creative arsenal, allowing him to use sound to add layer upon layer of meaning in his films. I am surprised that more filmmakers have not picked up on his technique and utilized it. On top of his incredibly intelligent presentation of the rhythms of the personal moment (the director’s signature jump cuts within a shot are deployed to great effect) Desplechin proves that he is as profoundly talented a comedic director as he is a dramatic one. Amalric’s performance is as good as you are likely to see in any comedy this year, and the visions of him break-dancing to a French rap song during a group therapy session and crashing a college party in a theatrical cape will forever bring me pleasure. But once again, much like her powerhouse turn in La femme de Gilles, the movie is practically posessed by the subtle beauty of Devos’ performance as Nora. Her portrayal of a woman trying to keep it all together while being engulfed by loss is exceptional (Devos is a world class crier), and the work I have seen from her in the past two years alone has launched her into my personal pantheon of great actresses. I could simply watch her forever. Desplechin is a great actor’s director, and Rois et Reine is all the proof anyone should require. I was moved so deeply by the character’s choices, became so invested in their lives, I truly wished the movie never ended and I could spend more time with them.

This time, however, I was certainly more experienced as a fan of Desplechin’s work and as a moviegoer. Despite my own fatigue after days of endless screenings, I felt so alive in that theater, was so actively engaged in the story, the filmmaking, the performances, I was literally vibrating when I walked out into the night, alone with my thoughts. I clutched my bag against the dark night and let my experiences of Desplechin’s work echo down the empty streets of downtown Toronto, a feeling that filled me with that rainy night on Wisconsin Avenue back in 1996. Transformed again, as new and as alive as the first time.

Kings and Queen