Growing up backstage

Emmanuelle Devos on Arnaud Desplechin, her mother and her inspirations

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Emmanuelle Devos joins Alice Winocour, Charlotte Le Bon, and Berenice Béjo on Michel Hazanavicius's Deauville Festival of American Cinema jury
Emmanuelle Devos joins Alice Winocour, Charlotte Le Bon, and Berenice Béjo on Michel Hazanavicius's Deauville Festival of American Cinema jury Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Emmanuelle Devos has had a special relationship with Arnaud Desplechin from her first film, La Vie Des Morts, with him as writer/director, on to La Sentinelle (a CinéSalon tribute to Caroline Champetier), My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into An Argument, Esther Kahn, Kings & Queen (Rois & Reine), and A Christmas Tale (Un Conte De Noël).

I met with Emmanuelle Devos at the French Institute Alliance Française (CinéSalon's Enigmatic Emmanuelle Devos) in New York for a conversation on Frédéric Mermoud's Moka, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay in which she stars opposite Nathalie Baye with David Clavel, Olivier Chantreau, Diane Rouxel, and Samuel Labarthe.

Emmanuelle Devos on her first director Arnaud Desplechin:
Emmanuelle Devos on her first director Arnaud Desplechin: "Our relationship is really so intimate, so special …" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

As a teenager Emmanuelle drew inspiration from Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Sophia Loren. Buster Keaton's Seven Chances is a notable childhood memory for her, along with Bambi, The Aristocats and Mary Poppins.

When her mother, Marie Henriau, (the voice of the mother for her character in Sophie Fillières' Gentille) brought her up on the stage in a theatre production when she was six years old, the die was cast for her to become an actress.

This week, along with Alice Winocour, Berenice Béjo, and Charlotte Le Bon, she is on Michel Hazanavicius's Deauville Festival of American Cinema jury.

Anne-Katrin Titze: In most, maybe all of your roles, I noticed, there is a kind of dignity. Even if the world seems to be against your character, there is an I don't care what you're thinking attitude. I feel it as very empowering for the audience. It's the opposite of a victim. You're almost like a western hero!

Emmanuelle Devos: Because I detest victimisation! I think really whether it's in your greatest moment of anger or in a moment of tremendous action that it's still possible for a human being to maintain their dignity.

Emmanuelle Devos with Mathieu Amalric in My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into An Argument
Emmanuelle Devos with Mathieu Amalric in My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into An Argument

AKT: I totally agree.

ED: It's true, I have refused roles where I would have been required to put myself into that kind of position of victimisation. For example, not long ago, I was offered a role of a woman who behaves in a terrible way towards her 8-year-old son. This is not a role I'd feel comfortable doing.

I'm not somebody who likes the idea of roles where people do things out of love and they're willing to do the worst things or suffer the worst humiliations because of love. That's the kind of character that goes against my grain and I'm not able to do it. It would be really too hard for me to do it and it would really make me feel bad, too.

AKT: Even in roles that might go in that direction, I have the feeling that you're the one who pulls it back from there. In Gentille, for example, there are icky moments and you pull it into another direction with no victim here. I like that very much.

For the retrospective at the French Institute Alliance Française, you picked two films by Arnaud Desplechin. I had conversations with him several times and e-mailed him that I was going to meet with you and he said "So great! Emmanuelle and you!"

ED: Ah, you know Arnaud!

Emmanuelle Devos and Valentin Lelong in Kings & Queen
Emmanuelle Devos and Valentin Lelong in Kings & Queen

AKT: Would you say there is anything that is unique to his directing style? Something that only he does?

At this moment, Emmanuelle's phone rings.

AKT: Arnaud senses we are talking about him?

ED: No, it's my son. [She tells him she is in the middle of an interview]. He says: "Bisou au journaliste!"

AKT: So what is different about Arnaud as director?

ED: Lots of things. The difference is that my relationship with Arnaud is very special, very intimate, very close. And he's my first director. Our relationship is really so intimate, so special, I don't even know how to put it in words, how to describe it.

AKT: During our conversation on My Golden Days, he explained his technique as humiliating himself in front of the actors so that what he is doing is so much worse than what they could ever do. In order to relax them. Anything goes - that's how he was explaining it to me.

ED: It's not exactly like that.

Anne Consigny with Emmanuelle Devos in A Christmas Tale
Anne Consigny with Emmanuelle Devos in A Christmas Tale

AKT: Well, that was his version. Your family comes from theatre. Your mother is an actress. Do you remember the first movie you saw?

ED: I remember the first was a Buster Keaton movie. I think it was Seven Chances at the Cinémathèque in Paris with my mother and my sister. And, like everyone, Bambi, The Aristocats, Mary Poppins. Walt Disney films.

AKT: Bambi, yes, I remember that experience.

ED: Traumatic! To see a movie like that when you are four or six years old and the mother is killed. It's horrible for a young kid.

AKT: And the first time you saw a film and thought - I want to do this? I want to act? Probably not Bambi.

ED: It was really more theatre that made me want to become an actress. It was more my mother as an actress because I went with her a lot of times to the theatre and saw her in the theatre and also even one time when I was six, got up on the stage with her. I saw her salute on stage and I went up on stage and saluted with her. That was more of an influence for me.

Emmanuel Salinger and Emmanuelle Devos in La Sentinelle
Emmanuel Salinger and Emmanuelle Devos in La Sentinelle

AKT: Then as a teenager, were there specific actors you liked?

ED: More the actors from the Forties, Fifties and Sixties. It's true, when I was around fifteen, it was more American films that I was seeing. You know, it's hard to pick one, like specifically say it was Elizabeth Taylor or Katharine Hepburn who was standing out to me. It's really hard to make a comparison but I think that you can find some inspiration from all of those great actresses, like Sophia Loren, from that period of time.

Read what Emmanuelle Devos had to say on Frédéric Mermoud's Moka, working with Nathalie Baye, and how she spent her time in New York.

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