Mathieu Amalric is an actor and director with a startling sense of range, having worked with Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Julian Schnabel, Alain Resnais, Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg, Guy Maddin, and Eugène Green, as well as seemingly every European actor of note, in the last 30 years. But the backbone of his career is his ongoing collaboration with Arnaud Desplechin. In such flamboyantly excessive and openly autobiographical opuses as Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale, and, now, Ismael’s Ghosts, Desplechin blends every conceivable genre to dizzying emotional effects, allowing Amalric the opportunity to hit broadly comic as well as subtly melancholic notes. A distinctive key to his performative style is his ability to ground outsized farcical behavior in specific psychological textures without diluting the force of the farce or cheapening character psychology with platitudes.
I spoke with Amalric over the phone after he had just landed in New York City to promote Ismael’s Ghosts at last year’s New York Film Festival. The film is a characteristic Desplechin romp: an alternately insane, astonishing, and exhausting blend of genres that, in this case, include missing-person mystery, artist’s morality tale, and spy thriller. Amalric was keen to discuss Ismael’s Ghosts as well as his next directorial effort, Barbara, in which he plays a director on screen who’s attempting to make a film about the titular French singer. We also spoke about Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, the short film that Amalric made about her, and the athleticism that unites acting and singing. Amalric frequently speaks of acting in metaphors, which, one gathers, allows him to analyze his art while engulfing it in a preservative mystery.
Your prior film as director, The Blue Room, is strikingly beautiful.
Ah, merci. We shot it quickly in five weeks. I like to make films that I once couldn’t even imagine that I’d do. A bit like the new film I’ve directed, Barbara, which may be playing in New York at [Rendez-Vous with French Cinema] next March. How can I have fun with the biopic and the period film? My life as an actor gives me force and inspires me. Having shot Ismael’s Ghosts just before Barbara...I don’t know. [pause] It’s like a breathing that goes from my life as an actor to conducting my own films.
Conducting is a poetic way of describing film direction.
Yeah, yeah. Filmmaking involves the energy, the group, and listening. You don’t do a setup alone, you do it with a crew. It’s almost like free jazz. Everybody has to be very precise on the chords, and then we can surprise each other.
You’ve worked with many legendary filmmakers. When you’re directing, do you ever wonder how they’d handle a scene if they were in charge?
I do think about them when I’m directing. When I’m location scouting and when I think, “What is the scene about?” Or when I’m wondering how to finish the day. [laughs] Very precise, very trivial questions, in other words. But that’s the magic of cinema: You do what you can with the money you have. But when I’m an actor, my pleasure is to be solely in the head of the person who’s fabricating the film. When acting, I completely forget myself and try to be like an athlete, you know? But there’s also a question of when to disobey the director, so as to fulfill a secret desire that the director maybe wasn’t even aware of. To find something more unconscious. That’s what Jeanne Balibar did in Barbara and it was amazing to see.
Since you’ve been working with Arnaud for so long now, is there like a subconscious thing between you guys at this point? A private language?
A complicity? For sure. He likes to work fast, which is why I’m using this athlete’s metaphor. So you have to be good, you know? Our collaboration is also like an old couple. How do we continue to seduce one another and be alive together and not be like that couple that goes to dinner with friends, and the man tells a story that the woman already knows and [makes snoring sound]? How do we continue to surprise each other? Our collaboration is more and more scary, and it’s great for that.
Ismael’s Ghosts has a certain devil-may-care quality to it.
A certain what quality?
Devil-may-care, a kind of chaotic, free-wheeling quality.
Yeah, it does. I think that’s why Arnaud often likes to name characters after actors. The films have a boldness that we’re not allowed to indulge in real life. Impolite, pompous, huge, too-much-ness—these qualities are wonderful to play. Arnaud’s films aren’t sequels to one another, but they offer complementing colors to each other.
Like alternate angles.
You’re a remarkably vulnerable actor, especially for a contemporary man.
Oh wow. I try to be. [laughs] I try to stay vulnerable, yes. It means that I’m in danger. When you have to act with Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg, you have to be vulnerable. The beauty is to be like a…sponge. I don’t know. I have to try to allow myself to be changed by what these actresses are doing in front of me. I try to get rid of all the tricks that actors develop.
I wonder if your vulnerability is connected to the athleticism of acting you describe. Its as if you’re wringing yourself out so as to start all over again in each performance, so as to allow connection among you and your co-stars.
There’s something about athletes—or, what I’m discovering also with this soprano, Barbara Hannigan—musicians as well. You can look up a YouTube video in which Barbara spends 15 minutes warming her voice, and you can see how vulnerable and dangerous it is. She’s preparing herself for the race. Her performance will only exist once. You have to be like a knife: sharp. And you also have to be vulnerable so that things can utterly affect you.
A notable element of your art is that you’re drawn to so many other powerful actors, particularly female actors.
Yeah, I’m lucky. In a way, I am my co-stars’ souls in the films. I am a foil. They have to go through my body to express themselves. Arnaud and I embrace a loss of control, which you almost need to avoid a coldness of perfection.
Ismael’s Ghost has a pleasing sense of contrast. The dialogue is lyrical and literary, and then you have that wonderful visual spontaneity.
I know. That’s the art of Arnaud. A lot of people think that we improvised, but, as you say, the words we say are very beautiful and precious. Thanks to the prep, I think—Arnaud likes us now to come in and read a little—he manages to turn the moments on set into adventures. Anything can then enter the framework. It’s just… [exhales] With Ismael’s Ghosts, it’s like Arnaud threw several plates against the wall. Or several colors or forms. We’re trying to mix different materials: There’s the spy film, the tragic melodrama, and the drama about the loneliness of an artist. And there’s a tenderness here that’s been growing in Arnaud’s work throughout the years.
The unruliness is freeing.