Mathieu Amalric: I don’t need to act in order to feel alive…

The renowned French actor-filmmaker discusses his latest directorial Hold Me Tight, taking inspiration from Satyajit Ray and Alain Resnais, and acting less and less often
Mathieu Amalric
Mathieu Amalric

Mathieu Amalric’s Hold Me Tight begins as a classic tale of abandonment. On a dark morning, Clarisse (Vicky Krieps), without a preamble, packs up and leaves. We see her drive away in a red car humming ‘Cherry’. Meanwhile, her family—husband Marc (Arieh Worthalter) and two kids—adjusts awkwardly to the harsh glare of her absence. Hints of a mountain expedition gone wrong put me in mind of Force Majeure, the 2014 black comedy about a father’s impulsive—and all too momentary—desertion of his stock. But Hold Me Tight, a much more fraught and structurally complex film, is treading a different path, and the film soon reveals its hand.

Mathieu is one of the greatest living French actors of our time. He’s most famous for playing the journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) and the Bond villain Dominic Greene in Quantum of Solace (2008). He has worked with renowned directors like Steven Spielberg (Munich), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest HotelThe French Dispatch), Sofia Coppola (Marie Antoinette) and Arnaud Desplechin (The SentinelIsmael's Ghosts). He’s also an acclaimed director himself, known for festival-conquering films like On Tour (2010), The Blue Room (2014) and Barbara (2017). Hold Me Tight premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021 and is streaming in India on MUBI.

We spoke to Mathieu about conceiving and editing the film, taking inspiration from Satyajit Ray and Alain Resnais, and acting less and less often. Excerpts from a conversation…

Hold Me Tight is adapted from Claudine Galea’s unperformed play, ‘Je reviens de loin’. What spoke to you about the material?

First, I cried. When a nerve is touched, you don’t know why. It’s only emotion. Parts of the text were written as poems. I didn’t think it could be filmed, not at all. It’s thanks to my producers who love me, and who said, “Hey, what’s next?” and I said, “Maybe, read this.” It was a phantom film. And it was a dramatic film. So that could be related to cinema. I saw a lot of Japanese and Indian films. In these cultures, the past lives with you. We don’t know how to do that in France. We are not very tender with dead people. We only take care of them on the 1st of November, when we go to the cemetery. But there is no connection.

The film has a painful and traumatic centre but you and Vicky Krieps find humour around it.

I’m very moved that you felt that. It’s wonderful because we were always wanting to make jokes, and it was like, we can’t make jokes, because the story was so terrible. And Vicky had to carry that all the time with her. What made this humour possible is the fact that we shot in three periods of time. Because we needed the mountain in the spring but also in the winter. And there was also autumn. So I could edit between those shoots. I could see the film. And it was like, I don’t want her to be a saint or a martyr, I want her to be alive.

Like in the scene where she buries her face in ice…

Exactly. She wants to know if her blood is still in her body, if she can desire somebody. That brought this life that you are talking about. In the third period of shooting, we decided that let’s forget that you lost your children. Let’s just film things that you can have fun with, like talking to guys, singing, doing crazy stuff. Because craziness has something very baroque and humoristic.

There’s a strong theme of music in the film. Did you grow up with music around your house?

I started piano as a child. My parents were journalists for the French newspaper Le Monde. They were correspondents for Le Monde in Moscow when I was 8 years old. In Russia, you play piano and you play chess. That’s all you do.

From a cinema perspective, Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (Jalsaghar) is a very important film for me. It was this film that inspired me to work with music in Hold Me Tight. I started imagining the big, amazing pianist Clarisse’s daughter may become. It was also perhaps because I stopped piano (laughs). Because I’m lazy, so I did movies. Because it’s easier than music. I could imagine the pianist that I could have become, if I had continued.  

You worked with Alain Resnais through the latter part of his career. He experimented with form and narrative all the time. So do you in Hold Me Tight.  

Resnais is in my soul all the time. I have had the chance to know this man, to have worked with him two times and even ten minutes ago before this interview I was talking to a friend about Resnais. He is there all the time. He taught me not to be fancy or experimental just for the pleasure of it but to try and use all the tools of movie-making. To go to a place that in fact we all have in common. That’s why, while editing, I like to stop the shooting and really look at the film. To be able to say, ‘I don’t get it or I don’t feel that or I don’t understand’.

You took an acting break recently. At your level, what excites you today about the craft? 

I started as a technician at the age of 17. I didn’t start as an actor. I was really behind the camera. I did odd jobs and did my short films and then when I was 30 years old, that’s when I had this crazy idea to reinvent myself as an actor. I had never learned to be an actor. So I’m always attracted by the filmmakers. When they invite me into their world, I just dive in. Be it Spielberg or Polanski or Wes Anderson. Each time I am very lucky because I can act only when I want. I’m not like a real actor that needs to act in order to feel alive. A real actor will do films that he doesn’t really believe in because he has to play. No. I can only do it when it is irresistible.

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