Attempting to define the screen persona of Emmanuelle Devos is a fool’s errand. The French actress confounds expectations every time—with apparent effortlessness, she reliably gives all her movies an electrical jolt. To coincide with the release of her latest film, Moka (2016), at Manhattan’s Film Forum, the French Institute Alliance Française (fi:af) is currently honoring her with a mini-retrospective.
From the moment Hélène starts banging her head against a picture window in Moka, we know we’re in for a turbulent ride. Since Hélène—real name Diane—is played by Devos, this comes as no surprise. Whether exuding power or vulnerability (a Devos specialty), slyness or diffidence, she invariably delivers a punch to the heart.
Culture Trip: How do you even begin to put yourself in the mind of a woman who has lost a child?
Emmanuelle Devos: I tried, of course, but putting yourself in that frame of mind makes you very afraid, and I anticipated that would happen to me. The way I dealt with it was by writing a journal as if I were the character—the journal she would have kept during the month she stayed in the sanitarium as a mother in mourning.
CT: Diane has decided that her way of coping with her loss is to seek revenge. Do you think that’s something you would do?
ED: It’s a question I actually asked myself every day during the shooting. The more I thought about revenge, the more I realized it really would serve no purpose. It wouldn’t provide any kind of relief. What was more important—and what served a very important purpose—was Diane being able to know what had happened to her son.
CT: What befell the son was terrible, but it’s like a Hitchcockian MacGuffin: as Diane seeks the truth, the viewer’s interest is more in her rather than what had happened. It’s a character study, and we want to see if she’ll change.
ED: Yes, I agree. This connects up with what I said briefly about revenge. I think Diane is following two paths. The first is the path toward finding who the guilty person is. The second is the path to try to find herself in her new role as a mother who has lost a son. How is this change going to affect me? How is it going to enable me to continue to live my life? I talked a lot with the director, Frédéric Mermoud, about how this process of change helps her to adapt to her new status.
CT: Diane goes on a hike with Marlène to probe her mind, but ends up feeling empathy for her. Despite her composure, her perfect hair, and her perfect façade, Marlène has her own set of fears and doubts. How did you and Nathalie Baye establish this tacit bond between the two women?
ED: The fact that it was Nathalie who was playing this role was perfect. First of all, she’s a friend, so we knew each other. I think she plays the character sympathetically, but—and Nathalie has a science of acting that enables her to do this—she also has a mysterious aspect to her. You can see how Diane would think that Marlène could still be the son’s killer, even though she is sympathetic. The viewers might also have that feeling. Nathalie has this supernatural perfection with an undertone of iciness that enables her to pull this off.
CT: She’s a bit like one of Hitchcock’s unreadable icy blondes, in fact.
ED: Yes, bizarre perfection. [laughs]
CT: Frédéric Mermoud also directed you in Complices [aka Accomplices, 2009]. The two films are similar in that each shows how the effects of a perverse sexual relationship ripple outwards. Did Frédéric talk about that at all?
ED: I think it’s important you know that Frédéric is Swiss, and that this is a very Catholic—in fact, even very Protestant—kind of film where, if you commit any fault or make any mistake, you’re punished for it, and everyone around you is punished, too, because of your sin.
Frédéric is very nice—he has a wife and three children—but I’m always making fun of him, telling him he’s a big pervert, because this perverse instinct he has really goes against his façade of a very smooth Swiss guy. [laughs]
CT: Do you think that filming around Lake Geneva contributed to Moka’s melancholy atmosphere?
ED: Yes. It’s a very strong landscape, and when you take the trip from Lausanne to Évian it’s like going from one world to a completely different world. The lake itself gives the appearance of being very calm, yet at certain times when you’re on it you’ll suddenly start to feel seasick because of the movement underneath. It’s like an allegory or a parable: here you have this very Swiss calm on the surface, but underneath you have the ugliness and the betrayal that we see in the story.
CT: Frédéric has said he wanted to direct you like an American actress. What do you think he meant by that?
ED: I don’t know. I think he was speaking about staying very close to me in every scene, though I’m not sure that that’s a specifically American way of directing an actress. Maybe what he had in mind was a film like Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980). Sometimes French actors say they’re acting in an American style because they’re moving around. [laughs] French cinema can be much more cerebral.
CT: Frédéric also said he wanted to exhaust you on the film. Did he?
ED: No, it’s my job. I think what he doesn’t understand is that, for us actors, it gives us pleasure to be placed in these very complicated situations. Being in extreme positions is why we do this job, and as a director, he’s not really on that same level [laughs].
CT: Vincent [Olivier Chantreau] is very likeable as the young crook in Moka. Do you think Diane gets close to him because she wants to feel alive again?
ED: I think so. For the last three or four months, she has been pretty much dead inside, and [their involvement] really does revive her a little, even if it’s just from the point of view of giving her some sexual excitement. At the same time, you realize that her having a relationship with this young man is impossible.
Frédéric wanted to shoot a scene of Diane and Vincent in bed together, but Olivier and I didn’t think it was a good idea. Frédéric did shoot a scene, but what you see on screen is not the full scene. It sort of takes a position halfway between what my opinion was—that we shouldn’t show it—and his, that it should be shown.
CT: It could all be in Diane’s mind… .
ED: Yes, because it was too early for her to be in a relationship–impossible. And I think also the proof that we actors were correct was that we had a very hard time shooting that scene.
CT: You gave an extraordinary performance as Violette Leduc, who was much less emotionally controlled than a woman like Diane. Did that make Violette harder or easier to play?
ED: Violette was the first person I’d played with whom I had absolutely nothing in common. Of course, since she was a real person, I was able to read about her life and work, but I found that nothing she said, did, wrote, thought, or felt was common to my own experience. So while I was touched by her story intellectually, it was very hard to work toward creating this character.
CT: Tell me a little about your long collaboration with Arnaud Desplechin, who has directed you in six films.
ED: I really don’t know what to say about it, except that I think he needs me. And perhaps he needs me more than I need him, because what will happen is he’ll make two of three films without me and then he’ll call me and say, “We have to make a film together.”
CT: I think particularly of your character Faunia in Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008). All bets are off when she enters the movie. One more question: do you think you’re still growing as an actor.
ED: I think the older I get, the more I realize just how immense is the work that has to be done each time. When I see my previous films, like the films that are in this series [at fi:af], I think I would be incapable of making those films now, because when I made them there was a certain level of unconsciousness or innocence that I was able to draw on that I don’t have now. In order to achieve that same thing, it requires much harder work.
CT: But you’re still growing?
ED: I hope so. [laughs]
Moka continues through June 27 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, NY 10014. Box office: (212) 727-8110. filmforum.org
CinéSalon: Enigmatic Emmanuelle Devos continues through July 25 at French Institute Alliance Française, Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: 1-800 982-2787. Information: (212) 355- 6160. fiaf.org