Interview: Mathieu Amalric
“I am frequently asked if Marcello is my alter ego. Marcello Mastroianni is many things to many people. For me, he is not my alter ego. He is Marcello, an actor who conforms perfectly to what I want from him, like a contortionist who can do anything.”
—Federico Fellini, I, Fellini
Mange ta Soupe
An astonishingly fluid performer who morphs into polar opposites with the ease and grace of a Mastroianni, Mathieu Amalric is the avid “contortionist” of today’s French cinema. Since his much-acclaimed debut in My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument (96) in what became a career-spanning collaboration with director Arnaud Desplechin, Amalric has brought razor-sharp precision and a hint of quirkiness to every role—from the erratic harlequin confined to the mental institution in Kings & Queen (04) to the daunting James Bond villain in Quantum of Solace (08)—fearlessly navigating genres and perspectives.
But Amalric’s true vocation has always been mise en scène, and it is primarily as a director that this chameleon regards himself. Starting from low-budget semi-autobiographical shorts in the Nineties, Amalric has produced hybrid oeuvres which continually blend biting sarcasm with an intensely introspective, melancholic sensibility. His debut feature, Mange ta Soupe (97), is a tragicomic portrayal of the intellectual and emotional excesses of his literary critic mother. In his second, Wimbledon Stadium (01), he films then-partner Jeanne Balibar’s delicate face against the impressionistic backdrop of Italian seaport Trieste. At once participant and observer, the nameless protagonist embarks on a bitter quest to uncover why a prominent intellectual has never written in his life. Centered upon the notion of identity, the film reflects Amalric’s own anxieties as an artist split between acting and directing.
A decade later, Amalric is both in front and behind the camera. In On Tour (10), he plays Joachim Zand, a self-absorbed producer who tours France with his American New Burlesque company, and is confronted with ghosts from his past along the way. This visual feast, inspired by a Colette novella, bears witness to Amalric’s formal mastery and paves the way for another fastidiously crafted film, The Blue Room (14). Based on the Simenon book, Amalric’s latest represents a shift into hard-boiled territory and features his partner Stéphanie Cléau as the enigmatic mistress who brings about the hellish downfall of a good father figure (Amalric).
This month, Anthology Film Archives and French Institute Alliance Française held a parallel retrospective of Amalric’s work both as actor and director. In addition, Amalric performed at Alliance alongside Anne-Laure Tondu in the play Fight or Flight, adapted for the stage and directed by Cléau. Amalric plays Manuel Carsen, a ruined musician who hatefully condemns his social class. Throughout this long indictment, Carsen is visited by women from his past (including his mother and daughter), who haunt him in hallucinatory procession and drive him out of his mind.
I spoke with Amalric a few weeks ago over coffee in the West Village. When he left, the lady sitting next to us outside the café asked me if he was “someone famous.” I explained who he was, and she said she thought “he was a philosopher, because he had so much to say.” Perhaps she is right, and the young contortionist has turned into a wise thinker over the years.
The Blue Room
I saw you perform on stage the other night and I felt as though I were watching some sort of whirling dervish trance. So I thought to myself that playing a character like Manuel Carsen—a man who’s reached a point of no return and therefore allows himself anything—must have been an opportunity for you to take all kinds of liberties as an actor and really abandon yourself to the experience. Could you talk a bit about the rehearsal process and how you went about constructing this character?
Where to start… I didn’t read Eric Reinhardt’s novel for instance. The only thing that interested me was to understand why this text resonated with Stéphanie [Cléau] and her life, because I wasn’t present at the initial stages of the project at all.
So she didn’t have you in mind for the role?
Not at all. She started working with another actor first. But what I find quite surprising is that Stéphanie felt close to Manuel Carsen at the beginning, but then progressively, through rehearsals and after reexamining the structure of the story, I think that she started to identify with the daughter more. And then there was this kind of whirling dervish thing like you said. That is to say that Manuel Carsen’s monologue throughout feels like a vomit, a continuous complaint. He believes that he’s escaped from his parents, that he’s invented himself alone, that he’s removed himself from the picture, as the daughter says. And all of that comes from Stéphanie. She managed to get a miracle out of this, because she was really moved by the whole situation.
My only contribution to it comes from the fact that we live together, so of course there was an exchange between us. She’d be like: “Read this. I don’t know if it’s interesting or not.” And I would show her my own writings. And it’s only when she found producers who were interested in producing her show, and theaters wanted to program it, meaning that it was obvious that this play was entirely her own work, that I came into the picture. So she was like: “Shit. Since they are willing to produce the show without you in it, that means they are not producing it because of you.” That was really important because it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
So once the play got produced, there was this kind of “joke” between us, the joke of The Blue Room—that is to say that she wasn’t an actress at all and I wasn’t a theater actor at all. Because we shot The Blue Room right before we began rehearsing the play.
I actually thought a lot of Julien, your character in The Blue Room, while watching the play. And it’s funny you used the word “vomit,” because I really felt like Manuel Carsen was “vomiting” everything Julien hadn’t been able to say in the film, that he was spilling out the ball of wool stuck in Julien’s throat, so to speak.
Yes, Julien certainly doesn’t have the required vocabulary or words. I was going to say the cultural veneer but… Manuel Carsen has invented himself as an aristocrat, so he’s much more eloquent than Julien obviously. He employs very “precious” words… I mean, I never thought of that parallel, but why not? The two are necessarily connected. In any case, there was an exchange between us: Stéphanie in jeopardy in the film, because she’s not an actress… In Simenon’s book, the mistress is older than the man, there is something indecipherable about her, a “hot and cold” sort of thing. I found that fascinating, and I thought it’d be interesting not to have two recognizable actresses for both female parts, so that we don’t recognize both faces. And nobody knows who Stéphanie is because we’ve never seen her. So we attribute to her the worst thoughts. Because had she been a known actress like Léa Drucker [who plays Julien’s wife], then it would have become a fight between two actresses. And it was the same kind of “joke” for me, because I don’t know how to do theater at all. I’ve never done it before.
The Blue Room
Weren’t you in a bunch of plays though?
No, I’ve never done it before. I have no training whatsoever.
Isabelle Huppert said, when she came to New York to perform in The Maids, that doing cinema has become like a reflex for her, that she doesn’t even have to think about it anymore, whereas doing theater feels like climbing a mountain every time. Do you feel the same way?
Isabelle Huppert is really an actress, and I’d even say only an actress. She’s not someone who’s ever thought about directing. And that’s what’s beautiful about what she does actually. She provokes encounters, but always as an actress, saying: “Film me. Make something out of me. Take me into your world.”
My case is really different because acting for me is never something I plan or anticipate. It’s never something I have in mind. I do it because it’s Stéphanie, because it’s Arnaud [Desplechin], because it’s the Larrieu [Brothers]. It’s not my nature, a priori. So it’s scary, of course. We did a lot of rehearsals for the play, and you think you’ll never make it. And that’s what’s good. And you were talking about abandonment earlier, but the way Stéphanie invented the show was extremely precise, in terms of the tempo, the gestures etc. The music, the freeze actions, everything was very meticulously designed. There’s also the text, which activates your memory in a different way.
But it was very unsettling because you cannot fall down in theater. That was quite paradoxical. You cannot fall down, you have no choice, you have to go on. And there are so many words that you just have to hope that you don’t trip over them. And then something eventually happens. You enter a certain state. I just try to abandon myself to the state of the day. For instance, Wednesday night was very different from last night. And performing here was very different from performing in France. Performing in Paris was very different from performing in Valenciennes. And here there was something that has to do with the energy of the city and those were our last performances as well. So there was a switch of that sort. We also hadn’t done the play for 11 months.
So Stéphanie very carefully thought out all aspects of the show, asking herself constantly: “Is Manuel going to stop? Is he going to shut up? What is he even talking about? Should we love him? Should we hate him?” She wanted to make it so that people wouldn’t feel any empathy for this character. He is pathetic after all, and Stéphanie wanted to keep this ambiguity the whole time. And that’s obviously a territory I love to explore. I don’t try to “save” the characters I play. I think Manuel is an extremely unpleasant and unbearable guy. And I know that for American people, it’s even more shocking because he speaks to a naked woman, he hits his daughter, etc. So I loved inhabiting that world. And I really tried to recall stuff from my adolescence, like imitating a singer in my room and all that. Since Stéphanie knows that I always wanted to be a rock singer…
I’ve never wanted to be an actor, but oh yes, I wanted to be a musician! But speaking of theatre, it is extremely technical. You’re not allowed to make any mistakes. You always have to be on top of the text. Our two performances here were pretty good though, to the extent that when we were cleaning up last night, we felt a little weird, you know. We thought to ourselves, maybe we could do it again in a few months, in another city. We said to ourselves: “Why not? Why not, after all.” Maybe we could do it in Stockholm, who knows.
When you were talking about Stéphanie Cléau’s mystery earlier, I was reminded of something you said during the Q&A of Wimbledon Stadium at Anthology last week that moved me. Someone in the audience made a comment about the protagonist’s loneliness and you answered: “But we’ve never seen her life outside the film. We don’t know whether she has a lover or not, where she stays when she goes back to France.” A lot of filmmakers in our TV age have a tendency to want to reveal everything about their characters. They refuse to bring in subtextual material, and that creates a false transparency which leads to predictable and sometimes mechanic performances. So this idea of liberating the character, of allowing her to have a life outside the film felt incredibly refreshing. You film Jeanne Balibar’s face like a canvas onto which everyone can project their own colors.
The starting point for that film was the idea that female characters always have sentimental issues in movies. And that comes from Daniele’s writing as well [Daniele Del Giudice, the author of the novel]. In the book, the man [whom Amalric has made into a female character in the film] is almost like a recorder, a sort of geographic and geometric seismograph. Daniele’s writing is an investigation of how a sentence is born, of how sentences can tumble. It’s about these questions of “How can one write? How could one even dare to write a sentence?” And so it’s true that I gave this character only thoughts comme ça [Gestures up]. Intimate thoughts, which related to her life obviously. And we weren’t supposed to see her go back home, know about her life. No need for that.
But even so, at some point in London I “cracked” and I wanted to know more about her. I needed her to want a man. I needed her to have some kind of desire, a physical thing going on. And that also comes from the editing. It’s not something that I had thought out in advance, but in the film she progressively strips off her clothes because we get to summer time. So we see her in her swimsuit and all that. And with François Gédigier [the editor], when we were working on the edit, we felt the need to know a little bit more about this woman. We didn’t want her to be merely a thought.
Afterward it’s true that you spend much more time writing what’s not in the film than what ends up in it. Otherwise you can’t engage with the actors, you don’t know what’s at stake in the moment. You’re going to shoot the scene and you can only do it once in your life. You can’t do it tomorrow. You have to know that day. So even for On Tour for instance, the script was written over seven years with several interruptions, but we wrote so much. I can’t tell you how much we wrote.
In On Tour, you have an almost Wiseman-esque desire to “erase” yourself behind those women, like Jeanne Balibar’s character in Wimbledon “erases” herself behind her quest. You let them take over the film. And as opposed to the fragmented structure of Wimbledon and The Blue Room, the narrative here is really grounded in the present, in tune with the women’s bodies…
Actually, what I liked was the idea of a man who refuses to let himself be invaded by, not just women, but anything really. So I had the figure of Bluebeard’s wife in mind, of Gary Cooper in the Lubitsch film, Design for Living… There are so many films like that, where the man says: “Women and love, basta.” So he pulls the curtain over them. I was also thinking of Howard Hawks’s characters. There’s always this extraordinary woman who comes and invades his films, but Hawks’s female characters never depend on men. That is to say that there is a friendship between men and women in his films that I find extremely moving. And when we were writing with Philippe [Di Folco] or with Marcelo [Novais Teles], we were really looking for that kind of a refusal on the part of the character: “No no no no.” Joachim doesn’t even look at the women. He ends up looking at them. It’s not the same thing. At the beginning, he’s locked up in all these things he hasn’t said, his own problems. He’s like: “Shit, the kids. Shit, the theater in Paris.” Okay, he drives them. He places them here and there. But he doesn’t look at them. He doesn’t look at anything anymore. And then something is going to change… And for us, the ending was really an adoption scene, that is to say that it’s the women who adopt him and not the reverse. And that happens through Mimi [Le Meaux] but…
But he looks at Julie [Atlas Muz] when she’s doing that magnificent number with the balloon. The shot of her bursting the balloon is really a meta-image which speaks so much to his thirst for life.
That scene with Julie is really toward the end. So he’s already gone to Paris and come back. But there was something that really appealed to me, it’s that Julie is a genius. I just saw her again here in New York doing her show. She’s the definition of talent, you know. She just invents extraordinary stuff. And so for a very long time we asked ourselves, will Joachim fall in love with Julie or with… What upsets and moves him is that he falls in love with the one who does classical numbers, but something deeply affecting [speaking of Mimi Le Meaux]. So it’s much more “serious” because he’s not affected by talent per say. Perhaps it’s a genuine kind of attraction, and that’s something he had decided to stop. And for that, I thought of Bob Fosse a lot and of his wife, who used to say: “He wasn’t in love with me. He was in love with talent.” That’s why Joachim says to Mimi at some point: “I could love you if you had talent.” And so there’s something much more serious. He says to himself: “Oh shit. No, that’s not good.” When he looks at Mimi, he looks at this sort of feather. Whereas when he looks at Julie or Dirty [Martini], it’s something else. There’s a reflection there, a political depth, this idea of trying to convey something other than with words, with the body, with humor, in friendship with men. That’s why we were inspired by Colette for this film. It’s not against men. That’s why Joachim says: “Stop it. You move me.” That’s what the scene is about.
To make a little detour: I watched your short films online.
Last year you made a short about road safety for France’s Délégation Interministérielle à la Sécurité Routière (DISR). I wonder how you ended up doing that one…
Yes, that was a commission film!
Do you conceive of those as small “manifestos”?
Manifestos?! [We both laugh] I could never say that. I’m a little against the notion of auteurism. But I really give myself fully to those. For the road safety one, there was an extraordinary game with constraint. It was very long: five minutes. Usually, they make 30-second videos. Every year they try to make one with a film director. So they have a viral campaign that is going on all the time. But they also try other stuff that are shown in theaters and that people don’t immediately connect with road safety. There’s only the logo at the end. People don’t understand what they are watching. They’re watching a film.
So there was this constraint of not showing the car accident. They just gave me eight lines: it’s Christmas Eve and the father doesn’t seem to be able to enjoy the night and slowly we are going to understand that he’s killed a kid the same age as his son because he was writing a text on his phone while driving. It was only that. So it was fun to do it but extremely difficult. They [the Interior Ministry] visited the set all the time. They wanted it to be extremely clear. So there are pieces of dialogue for instance that I would have taken out. But I left them because they made me. They redid the whole color grading too. I would have kept it darker. But I really loved doing it.
There are some cinematic “brush strokes” in that film nonetheless, like the glass of wine spilling on the tablecloth. The red splash is actually a fetish image of yours: the blood drop on the pillow when Esther bites Julien’s lip in The Blue Room and also the marmalade drop on the laptop. I really love that motif.
That’s right. I had never thought about it. For The Blue Room, the first sentence of the novel was: “I hurt you. No. Are you mad? No.” It begins like that. That means they’ve just finished making love. So I had to find something. There are all these sounds in the credits and then that image of the drop came to me. And I used it for the marmalade as well but I didn’t consciously think of that image. I just closed my eyes, I was in the dark and I was a spectator. I started from scratch, from the very first image. I know that Resnais used to work like that.
You also made a music video for the band Eiffel [in 2002], which is a striking formal experiment. You have a singular way of revealing psychology on the screen.
I really loved the singer, Thomas, who’s quite an astonishing guy. He worked with Noir Désir a lot, he comes from Bordeaux as well. So that was a difficult exercise and I really love doing things that I don’t know how to do. I always try to put myself in situations where I don’t know how to do things, like on a theater stage. I feel like in those moments, maybe something can happen.
The editing is extremely meticulous, very staccato. It almost feels like you’ve edited the video in your head beforehand.
They actually imposed a music-video editor on me. I wouldn’t have edited it like that. We had longer takes when we were filming and they didn’t end up in the final cut. You know, you shoot for a day, you edit for two days, and that’s it. You only have three days. It goes by extremely fast. The last thing I made was a commission for the Paris Opera. Oh, how I loved doing that! They asked 17 people to make a film: visual artists, choreographers, writers… And you have no constraints, so it’s terrible. No time constraint, nothing. You have to shoot at the Opera but you can put in anything you want: song, dance, anything. The budget: 25,000€. Ah, finally a constraint! How do you make a film with that? So I did it on my own. I filmed it and recorded sound on my own, with the camera I have here with me. Last night I was filming John Zorn with it at the Village Vanguard after his show.
Wow, I didn’t know he was around.
Yes, yes. And last night was pretty rare because he was playing with The Dreamers, so it was gentler than usual. I’ve been filming Zorn for about six years now and I do it on my own.
Are you making a film together?
No, no, we do it just like that. We became friends. No one else but me has the right to film him. We don’t know what we’re going to do with the footage. At some point, it was for Arte but then I abandoned that idea. Sometimes he films me and other times I film him. But most of the time, I don’t film him. I just want to live the moment when I’m with him. When I’m at his place, I eat the pizza he makes me, I’m just there.
To return to the Opera film, it’s the last thing I’ve done so it’s very precious to me. And I really loved doing it. The singer is called Barbara Hannigan. It’s just a Soprano who warms up her voice before the rehearsals. And Oh la la la! It completely moved me. Completely. And that was a commission as well. It’s extremely erotic. So I had told the Opera, if there’s something that might interest me, it’d be: “Where does the voice come from?” Obviously in a man, I could see roughly where the voice comes from but I didn’t know at all where a woman’s voice, that hallucinating thing, came from. And so for me it was like a fantasy. At the beginning, I wrote these words, like a poem. It was something quite sexual. For me, it really had to do with pleasure. And it was also connected with pain. I thought about the women in Hitchcock’s films and of a baby’s cry, the strength of the voice, as if singers looked for that. The strength of a baby’s voice is not normal. It’s crazy. Where does that come from? So I didn’t know anything about it but I had like an instinct that the film would revolve around that. And I didn’t know how to do it. So I had imagined a film with a lot of editing, maybe even shots à la Jonas Mekas, these kinds of flashes. I had already filmed babies before, so I thought of all those things.
I was talking to the people at the Opera about it and I said to them, I’m thinking of something that has to do with pleasure, with fear, with desire, even with death. And I just asked them for a list of singers who were in Paris in June. I said I would really like to meet Véronique Gens, and they said: “Maybe you should meet Barbara Hannigan.” And voilà, so we did it. We didn’t even talk about the film. I sent her a text about this whole voice story and she agreed. You’ll see when you watch it, I couldn’t shake off the effect because I was living my fantasy. It was much more than what I had expected. It’s almost obscene because it’s a work that they do alone, before the rehearsals. No one is supposed to be in the room with them when they’re warming up their voice. I always try to make things like this happen, you know.
Do you still view your acting experiences as coincidences?
I mean, I don’t provoke them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t work. I work a lot, particularly on the text.
Anne-Laure Tondu in the play literally embodies the idea of multiplicity: she’s a chameleon that constantly changes colors and identities.
Yes, Stéphanie said from the very beginning: “It’d be good if you played all the parts.” So the characters she plays become almost like incarnations of his own fantasies. That is to say that she doesn’t exist, only the daughter at the end exists. And so the ending gets strangely hyper-realistic in that sense.
Like in Fellini’s City of Women.
Yes, Stéphanie had a lot of fun with that. It’s like when you are alone in your teenage room and you fantasize about being the singer of the world. And you really think you are that singer when you’re alone in your room. I always think of Grégoire Colin’s scene in a Claire Denis film, in which he dances alone in his room. It’s an extraordinary scene. So this sort of extraordinary delirium, you know?
Are you still working on an adaptation of The Red and the Black?
No, I put that aside for a while. I’m working on something that once again didn’t originate from my own desire so I enjoy it a lot. But it’s extremely difficult. I really feel like I’m never going to make it. If I don’t have that, I become wary. You really have to find the absolute necessity inside yourself that you’ll be working on this movie and not another one. So I can’t really make films like exercises, even something for road safety. I always ask myself how I can say things without words. Like in the road safety film, I was trying to communicate something with the gifts, the kid in the ghost costume, the bike that bangs against the floor, the scratch on the car… To show visually that Caroline [Ducey, who plays the wife] is pregnant. It’s funny because I had called Caroline and she said: “You know, I’m pregnant.” And I said: “Wait. That’s really great. Don’t move.” So I rewrote the whole thing with that moment that I really love. The guy is crazy. He thinks that the kid he killed is going to be born again in his wife’s belly. And I would have never thought of that had Caroline not been pregnant.
Do you need to be alone and isolated when you’re writing? I have this image in mind of a vampire who pulls his cape over his head.
I was talking to Stéphanie about this earlier actually. I need to go away from Paris and lock myself up for a few days. Usually three or four days are enough. But I don’t bring anything with me. No phone, nothing. I usually go with a friend, Marcello or Philippe, and we talk. We only talk and something eventually comes out. Every film is different, you know. It’s the film that decides. For On Tour, we wrote for a very long time. But The Blue Room we wrote in a month. When the film begins to decide things on its own, it’s an extremely good sign. And it’s also a collaborative effort. I always work with the same crew, so they make fun of me now. In any case, I always have the impression that I’m snatching films.
Yes. It’s always this question of not having time and of not saying to yourself: “What I’m doing is very important. So I’m going to lock myself up for a year and I won’t do anything else. Because it’s very important.” I don’t think I’d be able to do that simply because I don’t have time. I feel like I’m always stealing time. So I work a lot on my own films. But in a manner that is a priori uncomfortable.
Translated by Yonca Talu.