“An actor should be ready to be burned alive”
Playing with fire could stand as a pretty accurate description of acting—at least when the actor is Béatrice Dalle. More than three decades after memorably burning as a witch in Marco Bellocchio’s 1988 The Witches’ Sabbath, Dalle plays a director who sends her lead actress (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to the stake in Gaspar Noé’s Lux Aeterna (2019). Eventually, everything turns hellish and chaos reigns—in other words, it’s a thrill for those who cherish cinema as a vital Black Mass. I met the legendary French actress in a Paris café to talk about her work in Noé’s film, her storied career, her views on acting, and the time that she almost bit into Nicolas Duvauchelle’s neck.
How come it took so long to see you in a Gaspar Noé film ?
That’s a question for him! But you’re right, I knew that I would fit easily into his universe. I have seen all of his films and dreamed of working with him. We actually met just a few weeks before shooting. We had been asked to do a shared interview and I accepted straight away. Not long after, Gaspar was offered to shoot a film for Saint Laurent, and that’s how it happened.
The idea came from Saint Laurent’s creative director, Anthony Vaccarello, right ?
Right. We met four years ago, on the occasion of a shoot with Juergen Teller. He’s the nicest guy, which is pretty rare among fashion designers, and he’s a true and well-intentioned art sponsor.
How specific was his proposition to Gaspar?
It was full carte blanche. Basically, the whole film is an improvisation—which was nothing new for me. I have no problem improvising, as long as I’m working with a great director.
"I literally couldn’t understand a single word that he or Abel said. The only word I could understand was 'Fuck!' since it was the one they used most."
Would Nobuhiro Suwa’s H Story (2001) be your most improvised film?
That film was improvised in just a few days. I’d been blown away by M/Other (1999) so I was thrilled when my agent told me Suwa was thinking of me for a remake of Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), which is a film I love. But I told him right away that I wasn’t sure it was a good idea—what’s the point of remaking such a masterpiece? He didn’t even argue, he just dropped it, and decided we’d go to Hiroshima and start from this new idea: a filmmaker wants Béatrice Dalle to play in a remake of Hiroshima and she declines.
I spent two months with him, and he couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do. When we had only a week left, I reminded him that I was about to fly back to France, and he was like, “Maybe we’ll shoot the film on your way back to the airport?” But as long as you believe in the filmmaker, you have nothing to worry about. Of course, when you’re working for someone like Michael Haneke who has his films worked out in his mind from A to Z, it’s the other way around. When we met for Time of the Wolf (2003), he insisted I read the script, which I actually never did. But he was so inflexible I had to fake it. He was talking to me about this or that scene, and I was like, “Yeah, sure…”
This idea of giving in to chaos rather than to a detailed script seems to be both the method and the subject of Lux Aeterna.
This connects to the beliefs of some of your favorite filmmakers. This notion of a shoot as pure creative mayhem can be found in, for example, the work of Abel Ferrara—for whom you played an actress in The Blackout (1997).
Ferrara was exactly what you would imagine—it was all trouble and yelling, but as soon as you heard “Action!” he was brilliant. This shooting was pretty messy, all the more for me since I couldn’t speak a word of English. I was supposed to be Matthew Modine’s long-term girlfriend, and I literally couldn’t understand a single word that he or Abel said. The only word I could understand was “Fuck!” since it was the one they used most.
Was Lux Aeterna the first time that you’ve played a filmmaker? How did you prepare?
I didn’t. I never prepare, but also I didn’t know what my part would be until the first day of shooting. All I knew was that I’d be working alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg. All the rest was made up on set, in five or six days. I never get involved on the basis of a script. All I need is to be fascinated by the filmmaker. As I always say: it’s like falling in love. Maybe you’ll end up banging into a truck, maybe it’ll be bliss, you can’t be sure. But once I have said ‘yes’ to a director, I will never say ‘no.’ I would be ashamed of myself. I don’t want a filmmaker to be happy with my performance: I want him to jump for joy. My job is to give all I can. All I need is to find poetry in the director’s intentions—but not in a mushy way. Jean Genet was the king of poetry, yet he was super hardcore.
You’ve often said an actor shouldn’t be mistaken for a director, or even for an artist…
I hate it when people use this word undiscerningly. Should you trust TV or the press, now that everybody is an artist, and even a genius? I respect poets too much to think of myself as one. It’s such a pleasure to play parts that others have written for you.
So you don’t believe your inventiveness on set has anything to do with poetry ?
I’m an instrument. Give a great instrument to a great artist, and he’ll work miracles. So I’m doing my best to be a Stradivarius. Which means giving as much as I can. People often wonder how I can cry on command. But the truth is I don’t: I believe so much in what the film is telling that I eventually break down. To me, acting is like going into a trance. It’s real incarnation. If I’m asked to die of love, I’ll die of love.
So an actor has to be absolutely devoted?
Well, others are free to do whatever they want, but that’s the way I do it. I accept everything.
Again, Lux Aeterna relates to this sentiment, since Charlotte plays an actress whose character is burnt at the stake, and then, in the flickering ending, she herself sort of burns.
To me, an actor should be ready to be burned alive. Yet I despise the cliché of actors putting themselves in “danger.” Actors don’t put themselves in danger—firemen do. Actors are treated as princesses. Complaining actors give me homicidal tendencies. I have no problems with actors being paid a fortune for shitty parts, as long as they’re happy with it. But don’t pretend you’re facing any danger.
The first sequence of Lux Aeterna, in which you and Charlotte swap ideas about acting, appears to be barely fictional. It looks like it was shot in a single take.
There were a few, actually. Each one was different. Gaspar had sudden ideas, like the two guys hitting on us.
The rest of the film seems more scripted.
Yes, but again, everything was improvised. When the producer character complains about the film that I’m supposed to be shooting, it’s pretty simple: the guy is treating me like dirt, so I treat him like dirt. Simple reaction. What was harder was when the girls, including Charlotte, were at the stake. After a while, they were suffering a lot being tied to those poles, and asked me to help. But Gaspar told me not to—and not being able to offer a helping hand was pretty hard. But their suffering was the very meaning of the scene, so he was right. In a more general way, being unscripted forced the film to feed off whatever was happening on set.
Me breaking down at the very end, that was not expected. I really don’t know why that happened—actually, the strobe may have contributed. We really experienced the effect of the strobe on set, so much came out of it. And there is another thing: we were on set everyday around 4 PM but Gaspar insisted we not shoot before 2 or 3 AM, sometimes 4 AM in the morning. “My films are not the kind you shoot at 9 AM, fresh as a daisy,” he said. And he’s right, because this waiting time puts you in a particular state of mind.
Take Jacques Doillon, for instance [Dalle starred in his 1990 A Woman’s Revenge]: he can go up to 40, 50 takes. His feeling is that when you’re exhausted, you end up finding an idea that would never have occurred to you at the start. It’s like performing on stage when you’re sick or wounded. You think it’s going to be hell, and you’re going to be so bad, but often it turns out to be really good. Because you have no choice, you have to jump into the fire.
The stake, again! You have this wonderful line in the film: “Burning at the stake is so neat: you’re the queen of the village!”
To me, anything that burns is erotic. A stake is such a mysterious, mystical thing. I’m fascinated by the Middle Ages; it was such an austere time, but it was also packed with crazy beliefs. Like the fact that women who claimed they could hear voices were all auditioned by the king—not only Joan of Arc, all of them—in case they were right.
Although you’re not the one who burns in Lux Aeterna, Gaspar may have thought of you for the film because of your role in The Witches’ Sabbath.
What made that shoot difficult was that, back then, Bellocchio couldn’t do anything without his shrink, who was like a guru. I think his name was Fabiola. He directed the film as much as Marco, who insisted I meet with the guy before shooting. The first thing he said to me was, “Do you realize how dangerous cinema can be?” In a hospital where he worked, three young, desperate girls had each removed one of their eyes, imitating my character in Betty Blue [Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986].
Making the film, there was also this caricature of a producer, constantly insisting that it should be sexier. When I was on the stake, he was like, “All I get here is a girl in a frock, I paid for Béatrice Dalle from Betty Blue!” So he started cutting holes in the fabric with a utility knife. I have to say it was quite difficult after Betty Blue to get clothed roles. But I was lucky enough to act for Doillon right after Beineix, so then I began to get offers from very intellectual filmmakers—though I was nothing of an intellectual myself. Claire Denis, for instance.
"To me, anything that burns is erotic. A stake is such a mysterious, mystical thing."
Denis is another filmmaker working on visceral subjects, though in a more cerebral way.
On the set of Trouble Everyday Day I went into a real trance, though. I didn’t sleep for a whole week. For this scene where I’m devouring Nicolas Duvauchelle, the two of us were supposed to work with a choreographer to be ready for the shooting. So we all met in a hotel room and started rehearsing, but straight away I said, “This is useless; you can’t rehearse such a scene, this is too extreme for rehearsal.” And everybody agreed. When the day came, an image suddenly popped into my head. I remembered a wildlife documentary I had seen, showing a mother orangutan that wouldn’t realize her baby was dead, so she was cuddling him, then roughly shaking him, because she couldn’t understand why he wasn’t reacting. That’s where I found inspiration for the scene. I remember the makeup girl looking at me as if I were an enraged animal. Nicolas got scared also, as I was supposed to bite into a prosthesis that was set on the left side of his neck, but I ended up biting the other side by mistake.
Are there other directors whom you would love to act for ?
Lars von Trier. That would be dope, but I can’t speak English. Same goes for John Waters, who I love so much. I missed the opportunity to work with Aki Kaurismäki, for a very silly reason. He was supposed to send me the final version of his script, but instead of my place, he sent it to my agent, and I never got it. Once my friend Jim Jarmusch was in Aki’s office and spotted a Night on Earth poster where my name had been underlined with scotch tape. Jim asks him why and Aki goes, “I like her so much, I wanted her to play in my film but after sending her the script she never answered, not even to decline.” I was so pissed when I learned that.
A last word about cinema and trance. Noé’s film opens with this quote from Dostoevsky: “You are all in good health but you cannot imagine the supreme happiness an epileptic feels in the moments before a fit.” The funny thing being that, just before that, an intertitle warns the viewer about the sequences in flashing lights.
I love this quote! A while ago, I had some junkie friends who shot massive fixes in order to overdose, because if they didn’t die (obviously they didn’t care if they did), they could get the best trip ever…
Oh, by the way, you want to see real trance? You should watch this Bo Diddley gig from 1969 [JM: Probably D.A. Pennebaker’s 1971 film Sweet Toronto]. I’ve never seen a gig so beautifully filmed, and Bo Diddley goes into such a trance he doesn’t even realize when the song is over.
Jérôme Momcilovic is a French film critic, working mainly forLes Cahiers du Cinéma. He has published three books (about Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chantal Akerman, and Maurice Pialat) and is a programmer for the Cinéma du Réel documentary festival. This interview has been translated from the French.