Word play

Denis Lavant on M Merde, language and counting cats

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Denis Lavant rotates the Alamo cube on Astor Place in New York:
Denis Lavant rotates the Alamo cube on Astor Place in New York: "Chaplin, burlesque, Buster Keaton, masque, Commedia dell'arte - it's the same." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Denis Lavant, Leos Carax's M Merde in Tokyo! and so much more in Holy Motors (with Edith Scob as Céline), Alex in Carax's debut film Boy Meets Girl, and opposite Juliette Binoche in Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood) and The Lovers On The Bridge (Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf), speaks about the creation of his most famous character and time with cinematographer Caroline Champetier in Paris before going to Tokyo. He gives background on the role he plays in Emmanuel Bourdieu's Louis-Ferdinand Céline and tries to come to grips with his relationship to tourist guest cats back home.

Denis Lavant goes into his special language that has become one of the most unforgettable personas in cinema when I ask him where M Merde came from before lunch at La Palapa in the East Village.

Denis Lavant in Holy Motors:
Denis Lavant in Holy Motors: "It's funny that you compare Céline and M Merde. Because Leos Carax is a big fan of Céline."

Anne-Katrin Titze: How did this character, M Merde - how did he come into the world? Was it Leos Carax who created him? Was it him with you? Was he born out of the sewers of Tokyo?

Denis Lavant: Tryp ises ryp! Ahaaahaha.

AKT: I get it.

DL: That's the language of M Merde. A bloudlia bloudlia la. Ai cointche tuit.

AKT: Exactly.

DL: Tuit a ce cerom.

AKT: I would have given you flowers to eat.

DL: Yes, yes, hey, hey. I like very much this character. I think Leos created this person. But after Mauvais sang, the second film with Leos, he writes the script for me to play the character. It's a dream of Leos and my possibility. And also my personality. And M Merde is a great character for me. Because it's my way. At the beginning of my work in the theatre, I'm ready to play M Merde. It's a composite of all I've done. Street theater, circus, burlesque …

AKT: … mime …

Denis Lavant with Juliette Binoche in Mauvais Sang
Denis Lavant with Juliette Binoche in Mauvais Sang

DL: Chaplin, burlesque, Buster Keaton, masque, Commedia dell'arte - it's the same. The first time I tried to play an essay of M Merde in Paris before we were flying to Tokyo - just in front of the Seine, the river, with Caroline Champetier, the elements of costume and makeup, I think about one character of Commedia dell'arte - it's Pulcinella! It's the first time Leos said to me, ah!, I saw the character of M Merde. It's very much like I was dreaming about this character when I was a child. It's an imaginative universe.

AKT: I thought so.

DL: With the language! Secret Language. It's very precious, I think.

AKT: And international!

DL: And international.

AKT: It's the sounds but totally understandable.

DL: I understand. It's really clear. I made poetry in Merde's language. It's a coherent language, you know. I am alone to speak this language.

Denis Lavant on Leos Carax and M Merde:
Denis Lavant on Leos Carax and M Merde: "It's a dream of Leos and my possibility. And also my personality." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: So far! I'm really hoping he would come back.

DL: Oh, yeah, it's possible. M. Merde in Holy Motors and Tokyo and after, I don't know.

AKT: He's coming out of the sewers, so maybe in New York?

DL: Yeah, it was an idea of Leos. After Tokyo, M. Merde in New York. On the Brooklyn Bridge? Oy way oy way, in propos de way tet. Wayh props de way tet. Oooh pas ce stout.

AKT: So you've been scouting here? Another film that I've seen you in that had a similar unpredictability was Céline.

DL: Ah, Céline!

AKT: There is a connection between Céline and Merde.

DL: It's possible. You saw Céline in New York?

AKT: It had one screening. And I talked with Emmanuel Bourdieu. We did an interview.

DL: Oh, great.

AKT: So - Céline and the unpredictability. I've hardly ever seen a character that's so unpredictable as your Céline in the Bourdieu film. How did you work on the unpredictability?

DL: I don't work. It's funny that you compare Céline and M. Merde. Because Leos Carax is a big fan of Céline. In any film of his there was an apparition of the character of Céline.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline director Emmanuel Bourdieu
Louis-Ferdinand Céline director Emmanuel Bourdieu Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I did not know this.

DL: In Boy Meets Girl, in Mauvais Sang, in the Holy Motors. The old man in the hotel he has the look of Céline. In Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf [The Lovers On The Bridge], the doctor, who treats Juliette Binoche [Michèle], his name was Docteur Destouches. Destouches is the real name of Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

AKT: His real name, yes.

DL: He is everywhere in Leos' work. Yes, I like to play this horrible personage, Céline. Because the moment in his life when I play him, he was paranoid because he was in prison for one year and was a sick, sad paranoiac. And with the guy Milton Hindus, it's impossible. It's explosive.

AKT: Because this Milton [Hindus] character comes and is so full of admiration for him.

DL: Milton is a big fan of Céline.

AKT: So if somebody is so depressed and suddenly there is this admiration - I think that's the explosiveness. Did you like playing with cats? Bébert?

DL: Yes, but we didn't play with much communication because the cat, it was on the table and it was [he makes snoring sounds, and gestures a shot the cat might have received to nap].

Denis Lavant as Céline with Bébert in Louis-Ferdinand Céline:
Denis Lavant as Céline with Bébert in Louis-Ferdinand Céline: "I like very much cats, but they are very unpredictable, spontaneous."

AKT: Sleeping?

DL: Sleeping, yes, yes. I like very much cats, but they are very unpredictable, spontaneous.

AKT: Incontrollable.

DL: Incontrollable, yes. I have two, three cats.

AKT: Two, three cats???

DL: Sometimes two, sometimes three.

AKT: That sounds scary.

DL: Sometimes four, yes. Visitors, tourists, guests.

AKT: Tourist guest cats?

DL: Yes, yes!

AKT: What are the names of your cats?

DL: One - the old Spanish cat, a big personality, was Leo. And - what was the name of the other? - the young black cat, female, was Bianca.

AKT: Black cat - Bianca. And then you have some visitors?

Denis Lavant had Cocina Mexicana lunch at La Palapa in the East Village
Denis Lavant had Cocina Mexicana lunch at La Palapa in the East Village Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

DL: Yes, the cats of the quartier. There are many cats who [come to] eat. They come into my home to visit. I'm hungry now.

AKT: You're hungry. Food is coming.

Ever the mime, Denis goes on to demonstrate the difference between "hungry", "angry" and "agree".

DL: Crazy language! Ha, ha, ha!

Denis Lavant is performing in Samuel Beckett's Cap Au Pire (Worstward Ho) through January 14, 2018 at the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet

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