Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

Adèle Haenel should need no introduction, but this year, Cannes provided three separate ones for any who missed her in BPM, The Unknown Girl, Water Lilies, or Love at First Fight (aka Les Combattants), to name just a few of her higher-profile, high-intensity roles. My introduction to her talents came in 2014, also at Cannes, through her performance in Love at First Fight, a film that treated as a curiosity what is at the heart of the actor’s appeal on screen: a fiercely independent intelligence palpable in every scene, articulated at a moment’s notice with a bracing, often furious directness, which can in turn be at the edge of a bluff, or a dare, or a doubt. Her three movies at Cannes spanned three sections and just as many kinds of stories: the Quinzaine opener Deerskin, an absurdist comedy, directed by Quentin Dupieux and starring Jean Dujardin, that evolves into a thought experiment; Aude Léa Rapin’s debut feature Heroes Don’t Die, a Critics’ Week metafiction about a self-professed reincarnated veteran; and, in Competition, the story of an artist and her subject, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma. The common thread among these might be that they each involve filmmaking or making art, and Haenel’s character provides a reality check, which is one way of describing the force of her acting. At Cannes, I sat down with the very busy actor. We did our best to cover all three of these films in our limited time.

Let’s start with Heroes Don’t Die. Could you tell me what attracted you to the story?

What attracted me was that it was a ghost story, and I think ghosts are a very cinematographic theme and also very contemporary. What I also love is the reflection of the dialogue between fiction and documentary. I thought it was very interesting to explore it while acting.

Was that part of the appeal of the Dupieux film, too? It also has to do with fiction and reality a bit, as you join the Dujardin character in making a bizarre film.

Maybe, because they both have this subject, so that’s what interested me at the time I shot those movies. I shot them one after the other… Yeah, I love questioning making fiction.

Why is that? Are you reflecting on the desire to create, or on the process of the filmmaking, the mechanics, the technique?

No, no, not at all. I just think that being onstage is a question that relates to everyone, acting in real life with several figures. Everyone relates to this acting in real life, so that’s why I think it’s a very existential thing to talk about representation, fiction, and stuff.

What was it like making Heroes Don’t Die, what was the style there?

[Aude Léa Rapin] is more into collective reflection. It was written two or three months before we shot the movie, so it’s all in one gesture. The way we did the movie was a bit like what is in the movie. It’s like the Boy Scouts—let’s build a house with a knife, you know? And that’s what I like in the film. It’s just joyful, acting like kids in a way: let’s try to build a story even if it’s really not perfect. There’s a very big space for improvisation because we said, okay, this is the situation, you have all your three characters and your main lines. And then let’s go into it like we were going into a ski slalom, and it went very well with my partners.

Heroes Don’t Die (Aude Léa Rapin, 2019)

And what was the style with Dupieux?

With Dupieux it was different because he is a well-known filmmaker. He is famous, people worship him.

A cult filmmaker.

He’s got a kingdom, in a way, so it was different. But I saw some of his movies, and I loved Reality, and that’s also a question of what is life, what’s not life… and I love this thing. So I said yes because I love his way of making things upside-down all of the time. But I complained about the poor feminine characters in his movies because he always made films with characters that are shitty women. So I said I don’t want to do a movie like that, but if you call me, it means that you want something else. Because I am very political in France and a no-nonsense feminist. Obviously I’m not going to do “the girl in love with the man who’s crazy”—it’s not going to happen. So what about changing it? So we changed it.

So you rewrote the character? [Haenel plays an unemployed film editor moonlighting as a bartender in a small-town inn where the Dujardin character is staying. He, in turn, is posing as a filmmaker while obsessively acquiring deerskin clothing. It’s a Dupieux plot.]

Before we started shooting, I was talking with my friend about what I should do with the character, how I should make her be a collaborator—a collaborator in the craziness of the movie. She’s very normal, and craziness comes from a normality. I also changed the focus, because she was focused on him and he was focused on the [deerskin] jacket. I said, let’s focus her on the jacket as well, just to see—and it changed and became a buddy movie a bit. So with Quentin it was a bit more like fighting, like we were not agreeing, but still we are collaborators and that was great. I am happy that we met. I hope he is going to change after that.

You mean, his films will change, you think?

In the future, yeah, I think so. Because I was confronting him on things. I must say, I think he’s a very poetical man.

Did you like doing comedy again?

Yeah, I love it, I love comedy.

Do you feel freer or a different energy?

No, I think it’s more the comedy itself is more free. It’s more like a blurred zone… To me, humor in many of the movies I did is like a background, and I like always having the possibility of humor, and I think it’s more creative too. For example—it’s stupid, but just so you understand—in Heroes Don’t Die, I gave myself just one rule: never shout. So you can try to focus on rhythm all the time, try to focus on the words you are saying. It changed it a lot, actually, trying not to go to exploding. Because then it becomes a bit shitty, I think. It’s a very basic thing, but if people want to make movies like that, maybe they should do that too.

Right, because then you have the range if you need it. You don’t start big.


Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux, 2019)

Could you tell me about Portrait of a Lady on Fire? It relates to collaboration as well because it’s a painter and a subject collaborating in a way.

Well, it’s like a collaboration with Céline [Sciamma] that lasted for almost 15 years, so it’s a movie I really care for. It’s a movie I really, really care for, and it’s obviously the subject that interested me. But it’s also just the fact that I have been collaborating with Céline and this is the most important rencontre, or meeting, I had in my career. So it’s a good reason, I think, to do a movie.

How did the historical setting play into your approach?

I say it’s like the denomination of the film. It’s focused on an idea that is both technical and philosophical. So, for example, in Heroes Don’t Die, on the technical level, it’s just the idea that you don’t shout. And the path that led me to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was thinking: what is an emotion? What’s an emotion—that’s the question. It’s more about what is the question underneath the film, than what are the characteristics of the film. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I tried to build a character that was not like a psychological unity, like a person, but like a painting from Picasso. For example, in Picasso, there is the eye and then the mouth all on the same side—but the Egyptians also did that with the foot and stuff, but anyway… To me it was more like, how do you build a character that is difformé—deformed through the point of view. It is like you’re inside, traveling, but through acting. That’s what I was trying to do, that is the technical thing.

That’s fascinating.

You have to understand as well that underneath all these things is always a failure—it’s never working well, it’s just something that makes me believe when I do it. I want to do it this way because this is what I’m excited to do, and when I see the movie, I know that it’s not going through—clearly, you won’t see that. If I don’t tell you that, you won’t see it, but for me it’s very clear that I did that.

But you need that horizon to move toward…

And also to just dream about it, just try to invent new things and not to do clichés, you know, just to try to still be alive.

What’s the next thing you want to do?

I do theater in France, but in German. It’s a play from Robert Walser and the name is Der Teich, in French it is L’étang—like a very small lake. It’s all about a young adolescent faking his suicide to see if his mother cares for him.

Which character do you play?

I play a lot of characters because it is a bit schizophrène.

And in cinema, who are some of your favorite directors?

I love Toni Erdmann, for example. And Mati Diop is a very great upcoming filmmaker. It’s great to be in this competition this year, knowing there is film like that. I loved the movie.

Anyone internationally you’d like to work with?

No, I’m not really into that, but if there is any country I would go to, it’s Germany. I feel bound to this country, because I do speak German. I have roots there. I already made a film in German.

Could you talk about where you’re from?

I lived as a kid in a town nearby Paris—Montreuil, a very left-wing, artistic neighborhood, a town where every actor and filmmaker lives. But I didn’t know that because I was just a kid. I think that has an influence [on becoming an actor]. If you live in a small town in a village, there’s not much chance that someone will see you in the street and offer you a part. I made my first movie because I went with my brother to the casting [session].

Would you ever want to direct a film? It’s notable that all these films have to do with directing reality in some way.

I’m more into making mise en scène through acting, because I believe there is a big, big space there and that you can do a lot through acting. I don’t know…

I do notice that in your performances, how you can shift the focus of the scene.

Maybe it’s became a bit natural for me—I don’t know what to say about that, I just have the feeling of what it is. I do worship the set. I think it’s like going into a church. I don’t like people having their phone out. It’s very sacred. I’m also not very tolerant of when people obviously don’t know a set and they do things… And I say, you cannot do that, like a preacher in a church.

So you lay down the law a little bit?


Nicolas Rapold is the editor-in-chief of Film Comment and hosts The Film Comment Podcast.