Françoise Lebrun: ‘I’m just an actor. I can only interpret’

Star of La Maman et La Putain on her role in Gaspar Noé’s film about age and Alzheimer’s

At 77, Françoise Lebrun is one of the great icons of French cinema. A prized collaborator, she has worked on multiple occasions with such directors as Paul Vecchiali, Guillaume Nicloux, and the late Jean Eustache, with whom she made the nouvelle vague sensation, La Maman et La Putain. Eustache, who the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum characterised as “An obsessive-compulsive filmmaker and clearly a tormented one who wound up dying by his own hand”, died in 1980 while preparing a third collaboration with Lebrun.

“Just before he died, he wanted to make a film,” recalls the actor, who seldom feels the need to consult with the translator who accompanies her on the London leg of the promotional tour for new film Vortex. “He wanted to make 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 told me that I would like you to perform the text. And of course I said yes. I’d be happy because it was 12 years after La Maman et La Putain. And he had also called Pierre Lhomme who was the cinematographer of La Maman to film it.  And we talked together, Pierre and I, and we were very happy because Jean wanted to make something. And then Jean shot himself. So they said. It was a huge loss. He was a star in the universe of cinema.”

When Françoise Lebrun arrived on the set of Gaspar Noe’s Vortex, she discovered that, for his seventh feature, France’s finest provocateur had a mere 10-page outline in lieu of a screenplay. It was a challenge for an actor whose flair for lengthy, intellectual dialogue inspired Variety to call her “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.

Director’s empathy

“I knew Gaspar’s reputation, you know,” says Lebrun. “So I was quite interested when he called me because I thought: Well, it is going to be different. And I watched some, not all of his films, and that was intense and fun. But that was not an issue for me because I felt this was going to be another journey. He films actors with a lot of empathy.”

For Vortex, the ever-innervating Noé drew on his own life experiences to take on his weightiest themes to date: mortality, elder care and Alzheimer’s.

“This film is the most realistic I have 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. It is a very banal story about brain-related degeneration of thinking processes. After seeing similar situations with my grandmother, my mother and other people I have seen die, I thought it was a shame that we don’t see more films that describe these very complicated survival mechanisms.”

Shot in split screens and almost entirely improvised, Vortex follows a dying couple as he (Dario Argento), an ageing film critic, attempts to complete a last dense work on cinema, while his wife, a retired psychiatrist, increasingly loses her faculties.

Ahead of production, Noé asked Lebrun about her own personal experiences with dementia. The actor, whose mother remains in perfect intellectual health at the age of 100, happily had no friends or relatives she could base her character on. Noé intervened with some home movies of his own mother, while Lebrun undertook her own research.

“It was really important not to fictionalise those aspects,” says Lebrun. “I was watching documentaries and fiction films and so on. You have to get to a place where you can play. I purposely didn’t see Amour by Michael Haneke because I know Emmeanelle Riva. We’ve worked on stage together. I didn’t want to be influenced by her vision. I’m sure it’s a good film.”

Loss of memory

Working from a skeletal outline, Lebrun and Argento have fleshed out two extraordinary performances. It was an adventure, says Lebrun.

“I had trust in the director,” says Lebrun. “That’s the most important thing. He told us what to do. For example: you’re going to have a loss of some memory, you walk into a supermarket or you walk down the street. Walk slowly, more slowly. Move your fingers. Lose your gaze. And sometimes she speaks but not much. For example she complains that that man follows her everywhere. The man is her husband. But she doesn’t know that all the time. It was an easygoing process even when the film is intense to watch.”

Lebrun, who became one of the defining faces of France’s nouvelle vague, was teaching at the Sorbonne when she was first courted by various filmmakers, including the pioneering feminist director, Michèle Rosier.

“She walked up to me on the street and asked me to be in her film,” recalls Lebrun. “She gave me her number. I was like something from a photo novel. She often cast from the street and from museums and galleries. I was already working on La Rosière de Pessac with Jean Eustache. I loved movies. Not theatre as much. At the beginning, when I played on stage, I hated the audience. The first time there was a curtain I could see people’s feet below 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 go on.” She laughs: “But the job got better.”

In an era when many young actors are purposely seeking out female auteurs, Lebrun is decades ahead. Many of her earliest films, including her collaborations with Eustache and Rosier, question and codify the modern woman. She has subsequently worked with directors Marguerite Duras, Claire Clouzot, Sandrine Veysset and Nora Ephron.

“I can’t take the credit,” she suggests modestly. “ I am really very critical of myself. I can listen very well. I always listen to directors. And I love to meet them and to try to give them what they’re looking for. But I’m just an actor. I can only interpret.”

Vortex opens May 13th

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