“I’m just an actor. I can only interpret”
At 77, Françoise Lebrun is one of the great icons of French cinema. A valued collaborator, she has worked many times with directors such as Paul Vecchiali, Guillaume Nicloux and the late Jean Eustache, with whom she caused a sensation in the new wave, La Maman and La Putain. Eustache, whom critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called “an obsessive-compulsive and clearly tormented filmmaker who ended up dying by his own hand”, died in 1980 while planning a third collaboration with Lebrun.
“Just before he died, he wanted to make a film,” recalls the actor, who rarely feels the need to consult the translator who accompanies him on the London leg of the promotional tour for the new Vortex film. “He wanted to do something panoramic because he was in his room depressed. He couldn’t move and he stayed home. And he had a text and he called me and said I would like you to perform the text. And of course I said yes. I would be happy because it was 12 years after The Mom and The Whore. And he had also called on Pierre Lhomme, who was the director of photography for La Maman, to film it. And we talked together, Pierre and I, and we were very happy because Jean wanted to do something. And then John committed suicide. So they said. It was a huge loss. He was a star in the world of cinema.
When Françoise Lebrun arrives on the set of Vortex by Gaspar Noé, she discovers that, for his seventh feature film, the best provocateur in France has only a 10-page canvas as a script. It was a challenge for an actor whose flair for long, intellectual dialogue inspired Variety to call him “a supreme master of the sustained monologue.” La Maman et La Putain, for example, is composed almost entirely of cerebral monologues delivered over 219 minutes.
“I knew Gaspar’s reputation, you know,” said Lebrun. “So I was quite interested when he called me because I was like, ‘Well, it’s going to be different. And I watched some of his movies, not all of them, and it was intense and fun. But it was not a problem for me because I felt that it was going to be another journey.He films the actors with a lot of empathy.
For Vortex, the unnerving Noah drew on his own life experiences to address his most important themes to date: mortality, elder care and Alzheimer’s disease.
“This movie is the most realistic I’ve ever made,” the director said at Vortex’s Cannes premiere last summer. “There is less of an intention to make a narrative object to seduce an audience. In its content, it seems almost documentary. This is a very mundane story about the degeneration of thought processes related to the brain. After seeing similar situations with my grandmother, my mother and other people that I have seen die, I thought it was a shame that we didn’t see more movies that portrayed these survival mechanisms. very complicated.
Shot in split-screens and almost entirely improvised, Vortex follows a dying couple as he (Dario Argento), an aging film critic, tries to complete one last dense work on film, while his wife, a retired psychiatrist, loses his faculties more and more.
Prior to production, Noé interviewed Lebrun about his own personal experiences with dementia. The actor, whose mother remains mentally healthy at the age of 100, thankfully had no friends or relatives to base his character on. Noé stepped in with some home movies from his own mother, while Lebrun undertook his own research.
“It was really important not to fictionalize these aspects,” explains Lebrun. “I was watching documentaries and fiction films, etc. You have to go to a place where you can play. I deliberately didn’t see Amour by Michael Haneke because I know Emmeanelle Riva. We worked on stage together. I didn’t want to be influenced by his vision. I’m sure it’s a good movie.
Working from a skeletal sketch, Lebrun and Argento have fleshed out two extraordinary performances. It was an adventure, says Lebrun.
“I had confidence in the director, says Lebrun. “That’s the most important thing. He told us what to do. For example: you are going to have memory loss, you walk into a supermarket or you are walking down the street. Walk slowly, slower. Move your fingers. Lose your gaze. And sometimes she talks but not much. For example, she complains that this man follows her everywhere. The man is her husband. But she doesn’t know it all the time. It was an easy process even when the movie is intense to watch.
Lebrun, who became one of the defining faces of the French New Wave, was teaching at the Sorbonne when she was first courted by various filmmakers, including pioneering feminist director Michèle Rosier.
“She approached me in the street and asked me to be in her film,” recalls Lebrun. “She gave me her number. I was like something out of a photo novel. She often cast from the streets and from museums and galleries. I was already working on La Rosière de Pessac with Jean Eustache. I loved movies. Not so much theater. At the beginning, when I played on stage, I hated the public. The first time there was a curtain, I could see people’s feet under the curtain. There was a dinner scene and I had a fork. My only wish was to stab their feet because I didn’t want to continue. She laughs: “But the work has improved.”
At a time when many young actors deliberately seek out female authors, Lebrun is decades ahead. Several of her early films, including her collaborations with Eustache and Rosier, question and codify the modern woman. She then worked with directors Marguerite Duras, Claire Clouzot, Sandrine Veysset and Nora Ephron.
“I can’t take credit for it,” she suggests modestly. “I’m really very critical of myself. I can listen very well. I always listen to directors. And I like meeting them and trying to give them what they’re looking for. But I’m just an actor. I can only interpret.
Vortex opens May 13