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Interview with Fabrice Luchini

Fabrice Luchini - Dans la maison de François OzonTwo years after POTICHE, you worked with François Ozon again...

I didn't expect to do another film so quickly after THE WOMEN ON THE 6TH FLOOR. I'm no glutton for action, and the theater takes up a lot of my time. It just happened. I can be swayed by charm, I let my feelings guide me. If someone is courteous, elegant, funny, simpatico, talented and we like working together, I'm in.
Then there was the script. I don't know how to read scripts, I'm only mildly interested, if at all. My daughter usually decides for me. But in this case, something stood out. It would be unthinkable to turn down a script this rich, this suspenseful. Finally something new but not abstract, something that felt good, was ambitious but not psychological.

Do you relate to the way Germain relates to literature?

Let's just say it's within my realm, but the director is the one responsible for bringing the actor to the character, he took me there. He's the boss, I'm the tool. In the past few years I've discovered an extraordinary method: I'm totally obedient. It takes a lot less energy and the directors lead me to the note they want me to play. Cinema requires total availability, vacuity. You should arrive on set in a kind of somnolent state. I don't have the conceit of great actors who claim they can play any role. And the older I get, the less I have it.
My responsibility here was just to make it lively and funny even though the character is a bit depressed. Actors must be effective. Chekhov is admirable for the intellectual nuances, but I also like the clarity and efficiency of Feydeau's actors when they don't become prisoners of the exercise, mere machines.

Germain is a man passing on his love of great writing, as you do when you read great works on stage.

Yes, but in my case it's very different. My theater audience pays fifty euros a head to hear Baudelaire or La Fontaine, Céline or Flaubert! Germain is not waxing poetic, he can't be an "emotional athlete" as Jouvet called theater actors. So neither could I, as Germain. In the theater, I frame the action, especially in my literary one-man shows. Cinema is less physical, you are working within the director's frame. François Ozon was careful to temper my literary advice to Claude, it was very written. He was obsessed with preventing me from doing Fabrice Luchini!

So you didn't add your "grain of salt" to Germain's discourse?!

Not really. But that's a good sign, it means I appropriated what was written. I have no opinion on what Germain says, but obviously there are echoes within me. I suggested Flaubert's A Simple Heart, it's a piece of writing I absolutely love. And Germain gets conked on the head by Céline's Journey to the End of the Night, but that was François making a playful reference to me. What Germain says is not important, the pleasure of cinema is what counts, and Ozon is responsible for that. However there is one line that comes from me. When my wife in the film is talking about a contemporary artist, I was supposed to give a long-winded theoretical answer. But I thought of our French Elvis, Johnny Hallyday, and whittled it down to, "I'm not sure it'll sell." I love Johnny, he has flashes of brilliance. I'm a big fan of his sound bites.

Dans la maison de François OzonYou're known for being funny, but you're also very moving here, especially in the last scene, on the bench.

Yes, there is a lot of alternating between the two registers, it's a great role. An actor cannot come from a position of strength. He can be colorful, but he must be vulnerable to render the humanity. It's good I'm being offered roles like this, because if I'm always some sort of symptom that some people enjoy and others can't stand... Actually I've been getting roles like this for about a dozen years now. And people say, "Ah, so you can do emotion!" as though I were eternally a Rohmer character, the inveterate chatterbox, a man of mere words playing brilliant, sarcastic, cynical or mean roles.

How did you work with Ernst Umhauer?

It was very perilous on the part of Ozon to give a role of such importance to a young man who had so little film experience. He gave me one important indication: forget literature and imagine you're teaching a young actor in a drama class. And I thought of some otherideas, if I may wax philosophical for just a moment: the illumination of the other, Levinas... I'd considered that when I was doing THE WOMEN ON THE 6TH FLOOR too: What does it mean to come face to face with the other? When you start out as an actor you're extremely self-conscious, totally focused on yourself. It would be a lie to say that changes, it is actor's curse! But luckily, miraculously, the presence of someone else, unless you're beyond reach, is a fertile resource for an actor. Your own part doesn't matter, the important thing is to turn your attention to your partner to the point of being almost exclusively focused on him. I like such roles now, being a receptor for the other. Which is rather unexpected from a guy like me, who's been acting alone on stage for years. Alone with the authors and the audience. Can't complain, I've been in good company: La Fontaine and the genius of the written word.

How would you describe the bond that develops between Germain and Claude?

Psychology is killing us. Actors always yammering on about their characters! No. It's simpler than that. You've got a teacher and a young man. You've got the pleasure of cinema, delivering your lines, the strange situation the characters are in, the way my character sees this young man embodying the enigma of youth and talent... I don't analyze it, I don't care about the psychology of it.
And when I'm acting opposite Kristin Scott Thomas, all I have to do is adapt to the very different actress she is, with her considerable experience, her intense presence, her incredible physicality. It cannot be diminished, which is why, the moment we start a scene, as soon as she speaks to me and I respond, the dynamic is different than with Ernst. Delectable, no need to fabricate.
Knowing your role doesn't mean knowing your lines by heart. First and foremost, it's about knowing what place you occupy in the overall layout of the film, understanding the action and what cog you are in the wheel that makes the vehicle move forward. So rather than focusing on yourself and preventing the movement of the narration, you propel it forward.

Which cog were you, in this film?

I don't know how to define it intellectually. I can only define it hierarchically: camera, young man, creation... The lead role is François Ozon's camera, next comes Claude, a sort of twisted Rimbaud. Then in third position comes the teacher, who progressively loses his footing as he accompanies this young man.
For the first scene where I meet Claude, I knew I had to make sure I wasn't playing the words. All I had to play was: How can this be? That's my job: whatever you do, don't play the words. In life I'm extremely analytical, I have an opinion about everything, but on the job I'm a complete moron.

How is François Ozon's camera the leading role?

Because it moves. It goes into the house, analyzes it, studies it with irony. It films psychology in Germain's wife, strangeness in the young man, the middle-class at Rapha's houseand the imagination through Claude's writing. In the theater my job is to provoke images, give image to what authors wrote. In an Ozon film, he's the one who gives image to the writing, I'm not responsible for that. I've only been taking roles where I don't have to do anything these past few years!

Dans la maison de François OzonWhat was it like on the set?

François is very pleasant to work with. He's a singular director, always on the go. He frames the shots himself, he's always busy, always behind the camera. It makes you want to be on top of your game, be part of the team, part of the crew. The atmosphere on set is exceptional, he creates an intensity. He's clever, mischievous, enigmatic. He doesn't intellectualize anything, he's a man of action, not of analysis or conversation. He's not at all 18th century, he's a man of his time. He's very removed from my writers. He likes Virginia Woolf, I like Céline. Flaubert is all we have in common, but we get along famously.

Germain is very different from Robert Pujol in POTICHE.

Indeed! I was concerned I wouldn't be able to play Robert Pujol in Ozon's revisited farce. I really had the bad role, a horrible character, a thankless role! Pujol isn't mean, he's pathetic, spineless, mediocre. POTICHE was all about Catherine Deneuve but I didn't care. A year later, Ozon gave me a great role, human, broad. It's a real gift and I never expected it.

What was your impression seeing the film?

An impression of comfort. We get confused watching the film, but rather than feeling cold and abstruse it's completely comfortable. At a certain point you're floating, you don't know if you're in the writing or in reality and you don't care. It's not dreamlike, the way many of those rather annoying films where you don't understand a thing can be, those horrible Cocteau-wannabe films. And it's not psychological realism either. One word comes to mind: jubilatory.