James Mottram

You play a philosophy teacher, and when she gets dumped by her husband, instead of playing the victim, she goes forward, which is so refreshing… “Yes, exactly! It doesn’t mean that she’s not sad, it just means, first of all, she keeps it for herself, and she doesn’t try to fight. Maybe instinctively she thinks that it’s going to be a new occasion for her. I think she’s right not to fight. There’s nothing worse than to fight for something that intuitively, you know she’s going to lose the battle.”

Do you feel like you identify with her? Are you someone who always goes forward? “Not as much as her, I’m afraid. But I think I brought to her a lot of irony, and a lot of self-mockery, in a way that I’m capable of.”

Have you followed Mia’s (Hansen-Love) career beforehand? Had you seen some of her other movies? “Oh yes, of course. Mia played my daughter in a movie by Olivier Assayas, called Les Destinees [2000’, and she was this young daughter who was becoming a nun at the end of the film. And so, a few years later, she becomes my mother, in a way, because an actor is always a little bit of a child to the director. This is actually one of the things I like about Things to Come, that generations are not what you expect of generations to be, in the sense that, for example, her own mother, usually you expect for the next generation to be more difficult to handle than the generation before, and in this case, it’s the other way around. The mother seems to be much more out of control, and the daughter became this intellectual. And so all the things are never predictable, and that’s really interesting about the film.”

Do you think this film is particularly French in the way that it deals with the situation? “I think it’s French, for the best sense of the word, if French means to be capable of being able to make a film like this, or how it portrays an intellectual. It’s a certain category of people, which is so rare, even, I have to say, in French films. It’s not a sociological category of people that you are used to portraying, or, if you portray an intellectual, then you portray maybe in a more boring way, maybe because that’s what you would think people expect from an intellectual, which in my opinion is completely stupid! Because the way she shows an intellectual is… she can do the dishes, and go to the bathroom, and be an intellectual at the same time! Only stupid people think that you can erect barriers between peoples’ lives. You are multiple people in one person. Plus, what she expects from philosophy, ‘I’m completely fulfilled by reading my book’. She finds a pleasure in it, so a kind of hedonism, maybe because she’s a philosopher, but it’s that simple! She likes it! It’s pleasurable for her. She’s more concerned about her husband stealing from her, her furniture, or a piece of clothes. I like that! It’s a nice statement in the film, plus I think the film is far from being boring. There is something so light in her, so cheerful, most of the time, so gracious in a way.”

A very sentimental film you could say! “Yes, and sentimental in a way that this is also something that I like in Mia’s view, and quite unpredictable. Most of the time in classical narrative, you would have one action, and then the immediate reaction to this action, so the husband says ‘I’m leaving you’, and normally, the woman should fall in tears, and react. But here it’s always delayed, which I think is very smart and much closer to the movement of outside life and inner life, which I think is really interesting in the film.”

What do you think of the source of your character’s ability to accept life and fate, as it is? “I think, her intelligence, first of all, and her sense of humour, sometimes, and her strength! As you quite rightly put it, it seems to be quite rare to portray someone who is not a victim by definition. Normally, a woman, if you take her in the great line of great heroines, normally a wife being left by her husband, should die immediately. (Laughs). No, she doesn’t die! How dare she!”

Or she should find another man… “But she doesn’t even want to find another man. The great lesson from the film is that she doesn’t find an answer in others, she finds an answer in herself, which is a good option. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t need others. You can need others, and yet not to the point that without the others you have to depend on that or you die! As a human being, she finds resources in herself. And of course, she’s helped with that, because she finds it in her thoughts, in her profession too. And it’s funny because someone the other day, who had seen the film said ‘Oh, I thought it was quite melancholy.’ Like solitude was necessarily connected to melancholy. For me, it’s not. You can be alone and very happy. She’s not alone, she’s not lonely, she’s sometimes alone, which is different.”

Do you find it difficult to choose your roles? Does it take you a long time before you come to the decision that ‘Yes, I want to play this character’? Or is it often a very quick instinctual sort of thing? “Sometimes it’s longer, especially when it’s a first time director, then the decision is more difficult. Less obvious to take. In this case, I knew Mia’s work, and it really took me 2 minutes to decide to do it. I read the script, and I said ‘I will do it!’ Because I thought it was a great character. She’s there all the time, each frame, which is nice for an actress! (Laughs).”

You recently worked with Paul Verhoeven in Elle for which you are nominated as Best Actress at the Oscars. Is Paul Verhoeven still a “madman” on the set, or did he mellow down? “I never knew he was a madman, but he wasn’t mad to me. I was mad at him, mad like I worshipped him. It was so wonderful. I loved him! It was great working with him. I think that’s a fake reputation. I never really was mad. Maybe in America, with mad people, but not here. (Laughs). We are not mad people, we are civilised people. (Laughs). So he didn’t need to be mad with us.”

Is there a different dynamic then, when you work with Paul Verhoeven, who has this enormous background and filmography, compared to younger directors? Does it depend from person to person? “Well there is a different dynamic from any director to the other. It’s very strange that when you make movies, whether it’s for the directors, or for the actors, but it’s always the first time for everybody, in a way. Of course, experience means something, but it’s really the ground for the present. And present means, first time. Because it means, you make movies with something that happens…when it happens. Not before, not after, but you work with this totally unpredictable substance, which is now. So it’s exactly the same, whether you are a first time director, or very experienced director, and it’s the same for us as actors. Experience doesn’t mean anything at this moment.”

With Paul Verhoeven on the set of Elle

And once you’re there? With experience, do you always sense when the film’s going to be good? Or, it doesn’t really matter? “First of all, you never expect a film to be good for everybody, unless you are completely stupid. (Laughs). You know you cannot please everybody. I mean that’s not my idea of doing things anyway. Of course you want to please as many people as possible. Especially movies I hope are still made for controversies, and from any self-expression to be contradictory, or not necessarily to get a worldwide response. And let’s say even if you expect a film to please the biggest amount of people possible, within this limit, it’s very difficult to figure it out, as you do a film. It’s not an issue you face when you do the film. It’s impossible to say.”

You’ve done over 100 roles. Now there’s this big debate that there should be an equal salary for female actresses and actors. What do you think? “Well I think the way it was said in America was quite right. I think Patricia Arquette was very brave to say it, where she said it. Maybe I don’t have to face exactly the same situation, because most of my movies I don’t have to conform myself to collaborating with other actors, or behind the actors. But in general, of course, it’s the same for every woman in the world. Yes, of course, you should get equity. Worldwide! Why not, between women and men.”

When you were talking about the source of strength for the character, you said that she takes it from herself. You take on so many difficult roles. When you have to face a very difficult role, do you also find the strength in yourself? “But a difficult role is never difficult to do, it’s difficult to watch, but not to do. People tend to think that because it’s difficult to watch, then it’s difficult for us to do. But it’s the other way around, and I keep thinking, and saying, that it’s two different jobs between being a viewer and an actor. I know it because I’m a viewer as well, so when I see a difficult role on screen, I say ‘Oh my God!’, but a great role is never difficult for an actress, it’s always easy, because it’s full of richness, and full of depth. But a bad role would be much more difficult to do.”

So after all these movies, and films, what does acting in films give you? “A way of life, mostly, and you forget reality, which is always good. It’s like drinking alcohol (Laughs). It makes you very dizzy, and it’s very, very nice, actually. It’s exactly what I feel when I act in movies.”

Things to Come is playing at the 2017 Alliance Francais French Film Festival, which opens in Sydney on March 7, Melbourne March 8, Canberra March 9, Perth March 15, Brisbane March 16, and Adelaide and Hobart March 30. Head here for more on Things to Come.


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