“Our Love and Battles Can Be the Same Thing”: Mathieu Amalric on Risk, Collaboration, and Why Sex Scenes Should Never Be Improvised

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Anthology Film Archives, in partnership with the French Institute Alliance Française, is celebrating French actor and filmmaker Mathieu Amalric in a comprehensive retrospective through December 15. Mathieu Amalric: Renaissance Man highlights his work as a director. Amalric has collaborated with some of international cinema’s finest filmmakers, including Alain Resnais, Olivier Assayas, Roman Polanski, and Otar Iosseliani. He first trained behind the camera with Louis Malle, France’s eclectic visionary. As a director, Amalric’s interests have taken him from the paintings of Edward Hopper (Hopper Stories) to the inner life of American burlesque dancers (On Tour) to an erotic thriller (The Blue Room). Born in the same Parisian suburbs as luminaries like François Truffaut and Marcel Duchamp, Amalric rejects the label of “artist,” but balances the cerebral focus, passionate intensity, and instinctual physicality worthy of that title. Flavorwire spoke to Amalric about capturing intimacy on film, the rituals of writing a movie, and what it means to be a Renaissance man.

‘The Blue Room’

Flavorwire: Your acting and directing is extremely physical. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, you carried the movie by using only your eye. In Blue Room, you make us very aware of the lovers’ bodies, with their sweat-slick skin and blood. With On Tour, you celebrate the beautiful, fleshy bodies of burlesque dancers. You once said that having an idea is very physical and almost sexual. What is your draw to this when creating films?

Mathieu Amalric: I never thought about it. What you say, it’s true. The animal compulsion that we have, a nervousness, a movement, speed . . . something that has to do with dance, in a way. I would have loved to be a dancer. I would have loved to be a rock singer or something like that — maybe because of this. I find that sometimes it’s a sort of comedy, like in On Tour. To have this clothed man and contrast him with those women, who after years and years search to accept beauty in themselves — it’s so open, generous, and warm. I find it comical, this very small man adopted by those women.

How do you capture something so intimate and physical on film, like the way bodies interact or lovemaking? Do you rehearse those scenes or do you prefer to improvise?

Oh no, you can’t improvise things like that. Usually, it’s true, directors are afraid of those things and think that actors will manage. Being an actor myself, I hate when they do that. Those are exactly the moments where you have to be very precise, because a gesture tells something. It doesn’t mean anything to say they are making love. How? Why? What gesture is it?

For instance, with the beginning of The Blue Room, it was very precise. This way of shooting it by pieces, I wanted something at the same time that was a bit frightening. It was sensual, but at the same time it could be a police scene with dead bodies. It has nothing to do with tenderness. Sometimes pure sex is very harsh, like a war. In On Tour, the camera caresses the bodies. In Blue Room, it was something to do with a knife — chop, chop, chop — because we’re only in his head, in the head of that man [referring to Amalric’s character, Julien]. You never know what his wife or his mistress think. That’s terrible. But that’s also what’s exciting about life: you never know what the other person thinks. Sometimes, you have a memory of a communion, and ten years later . . . well, the memory of that moment is not the same. It can be terrible. [laughs] Never improvise those moments. You have to help the actors.

I’m also interested in the way you’ve explored how the chemistry and passion between two people can become a power struggle or an obsession. This was the subject of Blue Room, but it also dictates your role in Venus in Fur. Do you essentially see relationships as a sustained and prolonged series of confrontations?

Fortunately, not only that. But there is something at the same time quite honest in real love that has to do with a kind of conversation. In a philosophical way, you accept the other, the alterity of the other. For me, loving is accepting who somebody else is, not trying to change them, and not trying to be the same. Sometimes we feel forced to compromise, and that’s why sometimes there is a game of power between people. Our love and battles can be the same thing. I think silence is the worst thing in the world.

Some of your compositions feel evocative of paintings, as in Blue Room. And you must have an attraction to the work of Edward Hopper, since you directed a short for Hopper Stories. Do you appreciate fine art? What influences your film compositions?

I think I do, yes. But, I don’t want to put a word on it, like “artist” or “author.” I don’t even think about that. With [cinematographer] Christophe Beaucarne, sound engineer Olivier Mauvezin, the set decorator, and the editor, there must be something where we are trying to use all of the possibilities of movies, to love each way of expression, to use everything that movies can bring. [With Blue Room, I thought], “How could [author Georges] Simenon be loved by movies?” Each time, we tried to use a way of expression as fully as possible. But I don’t try to be too aesthetic.

‘Venus in Fur’

What have you learned about directing from the filmmakers you’ve worked with, like Roman Polanski or Alain Resnais?

I am a patchwork of all those people. I don’t even know if I exist inside. Maybe I’m just a crossroad for those beautiful people. My richness comes from them, really. That’s obvious. I can feel it more and more now. I miss Resnais a lot. Arnaud Desplechin . . . this relationship, for 20 years, is so precious. It makes me able to discover other ways of seeing human relationships, politics, the world, the landscape, physical desire. It obliges me not to have a stupid life.

Who are the directors, actors, or playwrights you would like to work with?

I never think about all that. I think it’s just something that happens. It’s a mystery. I never thought that one day I would work with Roman Polanski, for instance. Never, never. He changed actors nine days before the shooting [referring to Venus in Fur]. It was like, “OK, life wants to tell me something that is amazing.” I didn’t have time to be afraid, because we immediately had to go to work. Geniuses are often very simple, concrete, practical people. It doesn’t go to words or theory, it goes to very practical stuff. That’s what I like about movies. I prefer not to say a name, because then it will never happen. I can say I met Chantal Akerman in August. She said, “After the holidays, it would be nice if we have a little café together, because I’d like to maybe do something.” Well . . . she died.

Do you have certain rituals you must do when writing or directing a film?

Unfortunately, I need to try to stop smoking cigarettes. It’s terrible, but I can’t separate the thoughts that get out of the brain and smoke. That’s very problematic. I wake up at 3:30 AM when I don’t have to work at night. During those moments, you’re still completely virgin of all the complications that everyday life brings. Those moments where the day hasn’t started, it’s between sleep and reality.

You once said, “If you love movies, then you love America.” What makes a movie uniquely American?

It has to do with us Europeans, perhaps. Childhood, adolescence, and how we fell into loving movies. I think it has to do also with not complaining. [laughs] We have a sickness in Europe. We can do only a film about people who didn’t succeed. I like belief in life, human forces, and humanity — even in American cinema of the ‘70s. Even in [John] Cassavetes. Even in Bob Rafelson and films with antiheroes. There is something about action that is bigger than life. It’s stupid, I know, it’s a cliché — but for us Europeans, the influence is absolutely extraordinary, to [influence] America. The best American directors have loved European cinema. Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Friedkin . . . all those directors have been, in a way, stunned by European cinema. There has been a back and forth.

‘On Tour’

The name of the Anthology Film Archives retrospective is Renaissance Man . . .

I didn’t know what it meant. I saw it yesterday on the poster and I said, “What is that? Do I have to come with a wig?” They explained to me what it meant, the expression. [laughs]

That’s funny. Now that you know what it means, is being a “Renaissance man” about exploring the possibilities, or more about being a chameleon and never becoming pinned to one particular thing? You’ve said several times before that you like to be hidden behind the scenes.

I fell into movies wanting to design. I saw a set. I saw all those people working, all those jobs that were together creating a film. I started very young doing jobs in movies. I try to use all the possibilities of the human body, everything. I [want to] continue to be curious about anything — taking risks, trying always to do something that you don’t know that you’re able to do. For instance, that’s why I’m on stage [this week]. I never really acted on stage. So, it’s dangerous. I like it. Maybe I will finish my career being a rock singer or a dancer, who knows.