Interview: HOLD ME TIGHT Director Mathieu Amalric on Vicky Krieps and His Cinema of Gesture
Mathieu Amalric, a prolific French actor whose filmography includes Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Quantum of Solace, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Summer Hours, and many many more, is also an accomplished film director with a wide range. Hold Me Tight, starring Vicky Krieps, is his latest directorial output and perhaps the most touching and emotionally resonant film in his filmography.
With the film opening in the U.S., I had a chance to chat with him about his craft and filmmaking process at length, via Whatsapp, before his flight to the New York premiere of his film. I loved his sprawling answers that jumped from one subject to another fluidly. This interview gave me a great deal of insights into an artist's creative process.
Hold Me Tight is playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles today (September 23). Please check Kino Lorber website for more rollout dates near you.
Screen Anarchy: The thing about you as a director since the early 90s, is how distinctly different each of your projects is, from one another. I am wondering about how you go about choosing your next project, and in this case, HOLD ME TIGHT.
Mathieu Amalric: Yes it's really a miracle to find something concrete. It's like a magnet. It's true that when you don't have that, your life feels strange...but that's how you feel often. In one moment, you don't know why, but it congregates towards something, something that makes you see the whole world. And it's true what Truffaut was saying and everything, when I talk to friends who make films, well not all of them, but I feel certain things like that.
The film before this was Barbara. I had some sort of a feeling that was solidifying. So I said, "let's go somewhere that is very strange...," I swear this is true. But after Barbara, I told a producer, "No more films that are in order, I want to film now the storytelling that is not in a straight line."
It was Claudine Galea's play, a very slim book that had never been performed. It brought me to melodrama. Melodrama of the first degree. Very simple. When I read it, I was struck by it. It was the opposite of everything I hated in Barbara.
Of course, every time you make a film, you throw it away and go somewhere else. And then later on you love them again. It was not to be a form of distance. It was not to be... Barbara was almost like a commission for me. It was Jeanne (Balibar) and the producer's idea. Jeanne was supposed to do it with Pierre Léon but the producer didn't want him. So they called me up and asked how about you do it? But it was a biopic. You can't really cheat in a biopic. But this film, based on a play, a melodrama, where it afforded me a direct access to the emotions I wanted. So it was that factor for this film.
I started to write, immediately in fact. What drew me into it was that Claudine developed a game of invention for this character Clarisse. I was attracted to her gesture toward imagination.
Cinema can amplify those parallel lives. In fact, we deal with it each moment in our lives -- we either accept or we are scared of them. That's what I like about Clarrise. That she finds the way to accept them and even bring more beauty to them than what she could've had in real life. But it is real. There's no difference in aesthetics between what's projected and what's real. I don't even know if there's a memory in this film. Maybe a discotek is a memory...maybe. But I think even that, she ...
In my head, she transformed it a bit.
But all the rest is a projection. I was thinking of a spectator looking at the screen, you know that there is nothing behind the screen but at the same time you believe in it. This is true. And that's what happened in the editing. With my editor, François (Gédigier), we really played around the idea that what the audience is experiencing can be very close to her gesture.
I see. You mentioned that Galea's play was pretty short. How much of it was from that and how much of it you did you invent?
It takes place in the Pyrenees. But in Galea's play, it's not really specific. It's here somewhere...
[Amalric looks around for the book.]
There is a house, there is a car, there is a boy and a girl...thoughts, words and things that go from one place to another in the same graphic way...onto the pages like that. She uses italics, antiquated fonts, a long monologue...
[Amalric holds up Galea's play with the film poster as a cover.]
It's a reprint, so they put that cover on it now. So it's not really a play in a typical sense. She is playing with forms. And at the end yet, there is a mountain.
For me, the mountain, my father comes from the Southwest of France, some of my filmmaker colleagues are from the Pyrennes, the border with Spain. So we searched for the house there, not in the mountains but at the foot of it, just outside Toulouse called Saint-Orens. And that's where we shot. When Clarrise takes the car, she goes to La Rochelle, by the sea. Do you know it?
It's the west coast of France. A very lovely port town.
Vicky Krieps is wonderful in this film. How did you get to cast her for the part?
That is something that I really...the producers Laetitia [Gonzalez] and Yael [Fogiel], I gave them the book. And they said, yes we can try something with that. So I go to the house and for a day and a half I did archeological work. The first thing I did was start with objects and Vicky appeared. Just like that, she appeared in my head.
I think I'd seen Phantom Thread four month prior. I remember the first shot she appears in as a waitress and... sometimes it happens in the streets, it's like, "I know that person. I knew that person somewhere..." We have those feelings sometimes.
I tried to phone her and it doesn't go through because where I live in Brittany the reception is not so good. Then I googled and found out that she has a French agent and I call her agent and she says she will be in Paris in three weeks. So we meet. And I don't have a script yet. So I give her the book and we forget to say if we will meet again or do the film together or anything. It just happened!
That's why we say it's our film. And we had to shoot in three different periods of time because of the mountains and the snow. It took a year and a half. Shooting and stopping for four months, waiting for snow to melt, and a lot of things happen during that time, you know. It is challenging to have the same crew for that long period of time. Life happens: separations, moving, new relationships.... And I think that was part of our film as well.
But the stretch of time was also valuable because we were editing between the shooting. That creates the possibility to be a spectator. We started by spring, which means we got rid of the dead immediately. After two days she finds the bodies. It's done. But that means we could move toward something relatively lighter, like her in the kitchen, or singing while driving, eating or trying to flirt with a man... things like that wouldn't have happened if we had to wait out of respect for the dead. So sometimes the order of which you film can have an influence.
What I love about the film are the small details, like Clarisse burying her face in ice in the fish market or hugging a total stranger in a pub. You don't know what those mean when you see them, but at the end you realize how things are all related and connected to each other, like her listening to the cassette tapes of Lucie playing piano. I am wondering how much was in the script and how much was improvised.
When I say I did the work of an archaeologist, this is what I meant. Yes, they were not in the book but in a way, when I talked with Claudine, I don't know, I was trying to imagine this woman, that I was this woman.
For instance, we had to film this scene in the cafe. At that moment, the audience is judging this woman, "how can she leave her husband and children?" She is guilty. That's what you think. But the whole crew and everyone on set knows that's not the case.
She says, "He's gonna call me in a week." You just put yourself in that situation. It's her reality. Yet I pretend that I left and they stayed. It's so simple. She leaves like that.
My job is to help my actors. So in this film it occurred to me that me being an actor really helped. It really helped me a lot because you don't need words sometimes to express. You just need an object or something to incite those emotions.
Maybe it's the woman at the bar that I like a lot and I want her to believe me. Or that dream catcher in Lucie's room that invokes something in me, or I want the man at the bar close to me so if I fall, I won't fall to the ground. I would do a walk-through with my crew and cast where I am doing all those things and convey what I was trying to express.
Those things with the ice. It's in the morning. Me and my crew had a location scouting. La Rochelle has an extraordinary market. And the backstory is that Clarrise had too much to drink the previous night. I even wrote a scene where she had a party the night before. We didn't end up filming that. The thing is that when you go to the market in the morning, you see people working and it's full of life. Life is going on all around you. It continues.
This morning, I looked out the window and there were people preparing delivery and... I can watch that for hours. I guess I wanted to comment on real life. I don't know.
It makes sense.
That's why she went there. And when you saw that ice, because I am in her head, I know that there will be bodies underneath the ice come Spring and she still has to wait for the inevitable. That's unbearable.
I think I mentioned in my review but all your films have a sense of controlled chaos.
Yeah. It's true.
That chaos is reflective of what's going on inside your characters. It is very interesting to see that. I always wondered about what your film set is like. Is it controlled chaos? Or not at all? I wonder if it's very different from, say, the set of Arnaud Desplechin's film set, for instance.
There is. Arnaud's film set is becoming quicker and quicker. When we were young, he was doing 35 takes. We had time and we had three months to do the film; now he has to do his films in five weeks with a small budget, but he uses that. That is something we have in common. We love to shoot quickly.
But this one was different. We were shooting for six weeks. And I write a lot, in fact -- a lot, a lot, a lot. So that I can rewrite at the last moment, in the morning.
I see, I see.
And I give sort of a letter to the crew every morning, usually it's dialog but this film it was replaced by gesture or piece of music. What's the scene about? Where does it happen? Where are we? I have worked with the same people for 20 years and they will never leave me alone. But they won't let me be the artist on the ivory tower.
They keep you in check.
Exactly. I know them and understand them because I was a film technician also: sound, first AD and I did all the jobs in movie making. So you know changes can occur at a moment's notice in film sets.
You know what you have to decide and when you have to decide. There are all the books on Fellini that are great on that: 'The work of a great director is in fact decided on the last moment'.
An example would be the fight scene between the brother and sister in the room. I didn't think it somehow was strong enough. Then we have this beautiful tree just outside the window. But you don't ask the person the morning of the shoot that he will be falling off of a tree. You plan that four days in advance. But things happen like that.
There is also a lot of live music playing in the film. The two girls who play Lucie, Juliette and Sophie, are not actors but musicians. So we had live piano music all the time. We had another house with a grand piano where they played because they have to practice for their conservatory. Both amazing pianists and that gave us something quite incredible.
We had very long one-takes for different reasons. I knew Vicky had to go deep into places to reach them and it is a hard thing to do. I'm not going to ask her to find the bodies twice, you know. You do that once. She had to prepare for it. Really prepare for it.
There's almost no professional actors in the film. They are people who actually own those places we shot. Only professional actors were Vicky, Arieh [Worthalter who plays the husband, Marc] and the guy at Marc's job and Aurélia Petit at the gas station scene, which I invented two days before the shoot. I thought to myself, "I think we need another scene before she leaves."
For this film, I wanted to create objects that could go and connect to something that we already shot, a memory of something. For instance, when she falls after the ice scene and she is carried away in this blanket, what the prop master would do each time -- because she is inventing all those scenes, to put all her objects in her projections -- we used the same blanket that Marc uses after taking a bath. So we had a lot of different ways to go about connecting those moments -- through objects, through music, through gestures -- all the time.
It was written precisely like that. But in editing, there are other possibilities to go different directions. In the scene where Clarrise is told by the innkeepers that she has to wait until Spring for the snow to melt. She goes out to the car and starts digging. The next scene is her and Marc in the discotek. She heard what was said but she doesn't want to hear it.
With my editor, we ask, "So where could she go now?" For me, I feel that she goes to the beginning. The beginning is when she met this guy. Then they lived together, had children. "If I hadn't met this guy...," that's why she goes to the beginning. That's how the editing goes.
In Claudine's book, it's the final, final revelation. You have suspected all along but it's literally the last page of her book that reveals it's her imagination that her family is growing without her because she left. The script was written like that. And because we had time between the shooting and editing, I hated the fact that the editor and I can be the puppeteer. You see what I mean? It's like, "Aha, we know more than you!" It was clear after the first week of shooting that it was not us who were puppeteers but she was.
It's always the case with your films that it doesn't feel like trickery. I feel that there are real emotions behind it. I love hearing about the process of the film in how it was put together. It adds so much to the experience, looking back. I might have to watch the film again to get all the details and connections you put in. That's quite marvelous.
But I have the feeling that we all do that in fact. I was thinking about a traffic jam. Why would they prefer to be in there to go to work and get stuck in their cars?
I think people need that sometimes, that they want to be alone sometimes. They are not at home and they are not at their job yet. It's in those moments you imagine horrible and beautiful things and that's where decisions are made in their own lives: it can depend on something they hear on the radio or what you see outside, or weather, or something stuck on your windshield... I am sure that we all imagine things, four or five things at the same time.
I think cinema can explore your mind and body like that of dance. I think dance is an art form that can transpire those feelings, even more than music. There's no words to describe when you see someone move and you go "Ahhh" in awe.
My work is in storytelling and it's all about how to put those things together. So to what point do I want to give information? Do I need to make it too clear? Do the questions I ask need to be intellectual? How do you bring those questions down to the belly again?
These are all done in the editing. We concentrate on the voice also. Do we need to make things clearer? Vicky was in Berlin and I would try to record her line reading in my iPhone to put in the film.
It was my editor and my producers who did not want to make things more clear and more obvious. It's usually the other way around: directors want to make it more obscure and producers want to be more linear and more obvious, therefore more commercial!
People take things differently. That's why I loved the Q&A last night at the sneak preview. Some people get it within a few minutes that she is in mourning. Some people don't get it, that she invented the whole 'losing the family' thing to make excuses to leave her house. People also project their own lives from the loss of a loved one or even a bad break up. It's great to see the different reactions.
You did something very special here. So congratulations. What else do you do when you are not making feature films?
I do a lot of short music documentaries. I've been working with John Zorn. You know during his famous marathon sessions? I filmed that. And I've been filming him since 2010 whenever I am in New York. We've done four, five of them together.
My girlfriend Barbara Hannigan is a Canadian soprano opera singer. There is a YouTube video called C'est presque au bout du monde that I did for Opéra national de Paris. You should check it out. It's very intimate. It's just a soprano preparing her voice.
I will do that.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com