Part of Quentin Tarantino’s enduring appeal as a filmmaker is his flair for casting forgotten stars and finding new ones. Perhaps no film epitomises Tarantino’s person-picking skills quite like Inglourious Basterds, a project that cast Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, and Michael Myers against type, and thrust European actors Christophe Waltz and Mélanie Laurent into the limelight.
Waltz, who played Basterds’ chilling Jew-hunter, has subsequently reunited with Tarantino for Django Unchained, essayed James Bond’s nemesis in Spectre, and he features in Wes Anderson’s incoming The French Dispatch.
Laurent, meanwhile, has leveraged her fame to do, well, everything.
On-screen, she’s been a memorable presence, whether starring in popcorn-crowd pleasers (Now You See Me), Oscar-winners (Beginners), or festival wows (Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea).
Her 2011 album En t’attendant, co-written with Irish troubadour Damien Rice, was a cross-continental hit. In the same year, she made her directorial debut with The Adopted. She has since written and directed the coming-of-age drama Breathe, Tomorrow (a hopeful documentary chronicling positive social and environmental possibilities and projects), and Galveston, an adaptation of Nic Pizzolatto’s novel and her first Anglophone film as a director.
“My brain always, always goes to directing first,” says Laurent. “I’m following my instinct. That’s the only way I’m choosing things as an actor too, by the way. It’s whether I’m seeing things or not. I was not supposed to be in the new film. So I didn’t think about acting for months, even when I was writing it. But we were in the middle of the first lockdown, and at some point with the production, I had to put myself in the film, because it’s so complicated right now to set up a movie and find actors.”
Characteristically, the prolific Laurent has already finished shooting The Nightingale, her fifth feature, starring Elle and Dakota Fanning. She’s already deep into a sixth feature concerning feminist cosmetic surgeon Suzanne Noël, who repaired broken faces during the First World War and found a way to remove the tattoos of concentration camp victims. It’s a project close to her heart: her Jewish grandfather was deported from Poland during the Nazi occupation.
The way he talked about women, saying: she's too melancholic, she should have cold baths for three weeks. A lot of women killed themselves inside his hospital. And when you know all that, it's hard to say: that man was amazing.
But the new film of which she currently speaks is The Mad Woman’s Ball, a stirring feminist thriller and reappraisal of Jean-Martin Charcot’s achievements at Paris’ Salpetriere Asylum during the 1880s, a moment in history when the “father of modern neurology” was studying hypnosis and female “hysterics”.
“He was the first doctor who was almost like a movie star,” says Laurent. “He was so famous and respected. And he was also the first doctor to make so much money. He was really rich. In France, Alice Winocour made a movie about him (2012’s Augustine) and his relationship with one of his patients (Louise Augustine Gleizes). And the movie made him seem pretty nice. I watched it - obviously - and thought: Oh my God, I’m going do the opposite. It’s hard, as a director, putting famous people on screen, because they really existed. I hope he is not seen as a monster, but I have read things about him that I really didn’t like. The way he talked about women, saying: she’s too melancholic, she should have cold baths for three weeks. A lot of women killed themselves inside his hospital. And when you know all that, it’s hard to say: that man was amazing.”
De Moins En Moins, or Less and Less, Laurent’s first short film, played competition at Cannes in 2008. It concerned a psychotherapist and a patient suffering from amnesia. It’s tempting to see parallels with The Mad Woman’s Ball in which Eugénie, an intellectual young woman who may have psychic abilities (Laurent regular Lou de Laâge) is sent away to Charcot’s facility by her wealthy family. There, she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Genevieve (Laurent), Charcot’s no-nonsense senior nurse.
“I’m trying really hard to totally forget about that first movie,” cries Laurent, comically. “It was the worst short movie the whole time. No, it really is. So I totally forgot about that. I have never I asked myself: should I do a feminist movie? Or will this be fashionable? But when we had the whole Me Too period, I was asking myself which movie I should make now, what film, that as a female director, will make sense of the world? So when my producer sent me Victoria Mas’ novel, it was kind of a perfect way of talking about women who lived more than a century ago as a way of making something contemporary about what’s happening for us now.”
Laurent has been steeped in the arts and movies since her birth in Paris, to Annick, a ballerina, and Pierre Laurent, a voiceover actor (who plays Ned Flanders in the French version of The Simpsons). Her maternal grandparents designed and edited film posters. She is keenly aware of pioneering women directors and of the filmmakers she hopes to work with as an actor, a list that includes Céline Sciamma, Rebecca Zlotowski, Justine Triet, and Mad Woman’s Ball star, Emmanuelle Bercot.
In France we don't have indie movies. They are all indie movies. And that gives us way more space to exist, I guess.
“We have so many strong female directors,” says Laurent. “So when other countries were asking about the lack of female directors, It was weird for us as female directors in France to be like, yeah, I need to change for us right now. I don’t even know if it changed a lot for us in France. And I don’t know how to explain that. It has to be French culture for sure. I mean, compared to other countries in Europe, we produce many more movies; 30 movies are released a week. So obviously, when you have so many directors, you get more women. But we don’t have a lot of big studios, you know? Yeah. So it’s easier for any director, female or male, to go to a small company with a small project and say: that’s my movie. We don’t have indie movies. They are all indie movies. And that gives us way more space to exist, I guess.”
In some sense, The Mad Woman’s Ball, an Amazon production, is Laurent’s first experience with what she calls “a big studio”. As the star of two of Netflix’s most successful productions - Oxygen and 6 Underground - she’s in a unique position to understand the influence of the major streaming platforms.
“The Mad Woman’s Ball is my first French movie as a director with a major studio,” she says. “And they were amazing to be honest, because we were supposed to go into theatres - the classic way to make movies in France - and we had three different channels, distributors, lots of people on board, and then the second wave arrived, and everybody decided to freak out. A lot of projects fell apart because of that. But Amazon came at the last minute. And they supported every choice I made. Nobody showed up on my set, I was super free. And then nobody showed up in my editing room. I’ve had the experience of working two or three years on a movie and then being released in, like, a hundred cinemas. And not existing after a week. That’s painful as a director. But now I can access very different people in very different countries. The numbers are insane. It’s just such a chance for a director.”
The Mad Woman’s Ball is on Amazon Prime from September 17th