Mathieu Amalric is a poet who composes in lost moments and dreams we wish were real. His characters say the things they’ve always longed to, they live a waking life and another, harder to reach life, caught in images between what we see and what we only feel. His movies as a director are less well known on the world stage than his work as an actor, which feels cruel. He’s a great actor, one of our most interesting and generous screen presences, but as a director you can count his peers on one hand.
His latest is “Hold Me Tight” an adaptation of a play by Claudine Galea about a woman grieving what is, what was, and what will never be. It’s some of his sharpest work as a director of images and actors. Vicky Krieps plays a woman who can only visit her family through memories and cruel scenarios. Amalric wanted to work with her after seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” and in Clarisse she’s found her next great role. Amalric is cavalier with the plot when I speak to him over Skype because the story isn’t precious, it’s the things he and his actress uncovered together that matter. But if you haven’t seen the movie yet, it would be best to do so before reading on.
Talking to Amalric is one of life’s great joys; few people seem so happy to be alive and able to discuss what matters to them most. I last met him for his 2014 autumnal mystery film “Blue Room” and he seems more ecstatic than he did then. He’s got a winning hand and he knows it.
Since “Blue Room” you’ve embraced a more productive abstraction when telling your stories. It’s easier than ever to become lost in the currents and the streams of your movies. You’ve talked about being influenced by music, I wonder how that relates directly to your methods on set. How did that change you?
I’m not gonna play the proud person, ya know? I do what I can. I’d love to work with a showrunner. Really! At the beginning it’s always ... I love storytelling. And I don’t know why. It just vanishes. It just disappears under my skin! [He mimes this with his hands and then slaps his knees]. And this one. It came from the script. Coming from this play by Claudine Galea that had never been performed. Because there was a twist it was easy to sell, it was like “Usual Suspects.” It was like that. I got money easy. Because you believe something and then at the end it’s Dah-Dah-Dah no! In fact ... they were dead! Oh! Uh! Boo hoo! [He mimes drying his tears] Perfect. That’s how it was written!
That’s how I started to shoot the film. We shot it ... thanks to the seasons, the film needed the seasons, in three periods of time. Starting in spring, starting at the end, starting when she finds the bodies. Then autumn, then winter, February 2020. We would edit with François [Gédigier] each time, between the periods, six months apart. And after the first shoot, I felt we were too far from what, in fact, I was in love with ... which was the gesture of imagination of that woman. Observing somebody, being a puppeteer, knowing me, knowing that we’re the people making the film, fabricating the film, it was not the right feeling! She was too mysterious, or too much of a saint, and I was disgusted by that! It was obvious in fact that it was the character of Clarisse who was making the film. She’s doing the images, she’s editing. What attracted me was to be in her head. Of course when you enter a head the storytelling goes [loud crashing sound] goes as crazy as what we have in our head even now. We’re thinking about something else right now, too. It became quite exciting to explore that with the tool of cinema. How come we are in instinct, sensation, smells, sounds, light, everything! Everything! Those things became exciting.
Then what I do, I always have a very precise chronology so the actors and the crew know exactly where we are in time. If you put the story in order it’s: she receives a phone call, your husband and kids didn’t come back from this night, she comes, the avalanche people say we won’t find the bodies until spring. I think she went in a hospital. We did film a scene in a hospital. But we took it out because in fact, it was too obvious. If she was crazy the audience would be too protected. So then I thought she’d stay in that house. Not move. Her friend who owns a gas station says “You have to move. You’re not gonna wait til spring.” She takes her car, she takes that car because it’s his car, as we discover in a flashback to the discotheque, it’s the car that brought her family to death. That’s the story! And for me it’s like if she could ... [he puts his hands in the air feeling vibrations] ... if there was a radio she could ... [he turns imaginary dials and makes static noises] ... take a space trip, she could connect with them, like an antennae. And she can say, “Wow ... what if my daughter was a great pianist? What if my husband that I didn’t desire anymore, what if I want to see him naked again?” She can do whatever she wants. And of course we do exactly the same thing she did. We prefer to forget that it’s real. This denial. That’s how we would be nourished. By getting close to her gesture.
You talked about how Alain Resnais, who you worked with a number of times, was in the back of your mind while filming this. And clearly there’s a lot of his movie “Providence,” in which an author revisits and revises memories as he dies and is then confronted with the reality he’s been fighting. It’s been fascinating to see in the last decade or so how important he’s become kind of the key to this modernist moment. Why do you think he’s become so important?
You know, you’re right. I didn’t really think about that! Maybe ... what comes to mind when you said that is that [Resnais] was a guy who was having fun. And wasn’t just stuck in theory. Because theory dies. And pleasure never dies. Maybe it’s this thing that he had about experimenting like a scientist. Working with trial and error. I think of Resnais, I had the chance to meet him the last time he went to New York and it was so moving. He loved that city. We went to see a Sondheim play. It was ... it was his humor. Yeah. How he believed there wasn’t an intellectual world that wasn’t accessible to everyone. It was never about theory. But you’re right, of course I thought about “Je t'aime, je t'aime,” “Providence,” of course. But it would mix with “Rain People” from [Francis Ford] Coppola, and a lot of Japanese cinema about phantoms. How phantoms are treated, how they’re real. They know how to live with phantoms so beautifully.
The way that she responds to grief is different than in something like “Ugetsu” or “Empire of Passion,” movies about a fear of what’s been left behind. In this movie, there’s a coming to terms with the missing. Initially there’s this hysterical response but she does learn how to live with it.
I think that’s why we took out the scene in the hospital. Also because we had three distinct periods of shooting. I remember, we would look at the film with François, see it come together and I said to Vicky at one point, “You know I’m sick of this story of a woman who lost her children. I’m bored. Let’s forget it. We’re just gonna have fun now. Now you’re gonna look at men, you’re gonna sing when you drive, you’re just gonna have fun.” And how lucky we were to have that moment where the film stopped. I love to shoot in separate periods because you become a spectator. It’s not your film anymore. You say, “I don’t want to see her like that anymore.” You see her in the beginning and you think maybe she’s in the guilt of having outlived her family. In fact everything is said in the first seven minutes you just can’t hear it. You don’t want to hear it. You’re not supposed to hear it. It’s there, though. It’s in the first gesture, she goes in the room and her son is in white and he’s like a cadaver.
Everything is there already but you can’t see it. We brought those things to the beginning of the film so there’d be something so strange ... the way the mind forgets how to put one foot in front of the other to walk. I thought about the pain ... the way you’d really prefer to die when you lose someone you love. A separation. A split. You get crazy. And reality and imagination have the same color. That’s why with the director of photography and the sound engineer there was this feeling that everything had to be treated with the same aesthetic.
That’s why Robert Bechtle [the American photorealist painter] came to mind, the painting of American imperialism. Something about that gesture was almost religious. It was crazy, to reproduce something ordinary so precisely. A glass of water, whatever. Why? Why be so precise when painting his wife and his two children eating ice cream ... he’s painting them from his basement when he had his wife and his two children in the house! It was very close to what Clarisse was doing with her reproduction of reality and the possibility of going further. Make the family grow. Make them grow through sound, through piano. That’s why we had to hire real pianists, to hear real music.
Having heard you describe your working relationship with Vicky Krieps, it becomes very easy to immediately romanticize it, especially when compared to the depressing way we talk about filmmaking in America ...
You’re too tough! You’re too tough! We French always say a lot of bad things about the films of our own country, but it’s not true. There’s something about the way Americans treat sound that is so different because it’s not direct sound. There are things that you can really grab from them. There’s of course something about the cinema of the '70s in the United States, a unique moment in the history of cinema that I come from. But I’m sorry I cut you off.
No, no, of course, but is there a moment from this process that really stands out as an especially exciting moment of collaboration between you and Vicky, a joyousness when you were really on the same page about the direction the movie and this character should take.
Vicky ... it’s a miracle, you know? This was something that never happened in my life. The pleasure also to film someone who isn’t part of my life, I discovered that. I always film people who are part of my life. [Amalric’s ex-wife Jeanne Balibar has been the star of three of his films, and his former partner Stéphanie Cléau is in “Blue Room.”] Vicky as an actress ... we were professionals! That was very strong. You can go very far and she appeared to me when I was writing after two or three days. We didn’t talk that much. We didn’t need to. Vicky loves the space, loves to put her body in spaces, her energy. Maybe the luck I have as an actor ... I loved to play her part [while blocking the scenes] before she arrived with the crew. It was important for her and the child actors that we only do two takes. And we were doing 25-minute takes, we had to create a realistic situation that the dead were real. When you film for a long time there’s no playing anymore. I would sort of whisper what had happened to me during the rehearsal and like a relay race, I would hand her the baton and she ran to do the take and she would give things that are ... you don’t know where they come from. She has this capacity to connect to very deep ... I don’t know where she connects to. And then what’s amazing is that 15 minutes later she’s laughing. It’s the pleasure of playing. It’s not “I have to suffer! I have to suffer! I have to think about the death of my own children.” She goes to a more lucid place. She has a lot of humor and imagination.
That will never happen again, this thing between Vicky and I. In the press book I tried to say very important things about the movie, but really! I remember the producer saying we were like twins. She loved that I would only give her the text for the day early in the morning. It’s not like because it’s written down, it’s like the Bible and you have to respect it. You have to verify the Bible if you believe it. How do you believe in the Bible that morning? That’s what’s beautiful. The belief is real and alive. Spontaneous and not forced. So I’d verify the script in the morning and something else might come to me! That comes from the trajectory of all the writing we did for the film.
I mean it’s like [John] Cassavetes, as you know. Cassavetes wrote 400 pages, everybody forgets he comes from theatre. Everyone thinks you have to get a camera and your friend, but his scenarios are written like classical theatre. And here there was something very classical. Grief. Someone has to wait for the bodies to be unearthed. She’s in a state of hope. And hope is horrible! Delirium! Trump will not be president in 2024. That’s hope! We still believe it. We have to believe it! If we don’t believe it, it’s gonna happen. We have to believe. That’s how we continue. That’s incredible in the human mind. The force of hope.
"Hold Me Tight" is now playing in select theaters.