Mélanie Laurent is the real thing. In her onscreen roles, from Nazi hunting cinéphile in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds to musical virtuoso in Le Concert, the 28-year-old Parisian actress has always had a cool, demure air. Accounts of the moment when Gerard Depardieu asked her if she wanted to be an actress after he spotted her visiting a film set aged sixteen seem to portray her reaction as involving nothing so much as an insouciant shrug. But far from possessing the clichéd Gallic cool that story suggests, in person Laurent has an almost childlike brand of animated enthusiasm, as well as a sure understanding of why she makes movies. As far as twenty minute interviews go, she’s relaxed, fun and passionate, flitting between heartfelt opinions on what makes great cinema and, more often than not, cracking jokes.
Dressed simply but sveltely in black, and with her blonde hair tied in a ponytail, Laurent is in a playful mood. When she is asked why she decided to take a role in Beginners, the new film by illustrator and filmmaker Mike Mills that she is in London to promote, she leans over and whispers “I don’t know” before breaking into a fit of giggles. But what might seem flippant soon gives way to the fierce engagement that has seen her recently move into direction. “I loved the script, and I loved the story”, she says, dispensing with her initial jokiness. “And I wanted to be part of an American independent movie.”
That last phrase is a loaded one, recalling as it does the sorts of ‘American indie’ films that have seemed to stagnate recently. Content to ape the geekish whimsy of leading lights such as Wes Anderson with little understanding of the emotional intelligence that made films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums so fresh, the past few years has witnessed a near unending slew of gimmicky, uninspired depictions of implausibly eccentric outcasts. Mike Mills’ directorial debut Thumbsucker, which featured a medicated teenager with the most babyish of habits, is a prime example, and Mills has taken six years to make his follow up, using the intervening years to return to the illustration and music videos that made his name.
Beginners sees depressed illustrator Oliver (Ewan McGregor) fall for Anna (Laurent), an enigmatic and implausibly beautiful French actress living in an LA hotel. Featuring Oliver’s childish doodles, a first meeting that comes whilst its leads are dressed as Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin, and a telepathic dog, it could easily be the sort of insufferably kooky love story that has become all too familiar. Yet unexpectedly Beginners is something of a triumph, and in its portrayal of Oliver’s father Hal (a wonderful Christopher Plummer), features possibly the most sensitive portrayal of homosexuality ever put onscreen by a straight director. Mills’ has confessed that this storyline, in which Hal announces his homosexuality following his wife’s death, is fiercely autobiographical, and it is the sheer emotional authenticity of its characters that allows the film to transcend the initially twee. The relationship between father and son acts as a counterpoint to Beginner’s central love story as, following Hal’s death, Oliver struggles to emulate his father’s happiness.
“Even when you read the script you could feel that it had a special angle” Laurent says, nodding at the suggestion that Beginners could easily have been wearisomely familiar. “It was not caricature, and I think it makes the difference. You could feel that it would be right, in a simple way, and that’s one of the most difficult things to do. I think it’s easier to make big scenes”, she says, holding her arms wide to illustrate the point, and making a blockbuster sound effect. The giggling comes back, before she gets serious again. “It’s really something to see through the characters and to talk about a fragile subject.”
That subject is people trying to accept the possibility of love, and how Hal’s late blooming happiness marks Oliver and Anna out as beginners in matters of the heart. “I think love is timing,” says Laurent. “They just meet at the wrong moment. She’s funny and light, and he needs that. He needs to fall in love with someone fresh, but it’s too soon. Anna is too obsessed with her career, she’s lost, and I think especially because she’s French [a point only added when Laurent was cast] there is the element of her being so far away from home.” She rejects the suggestion, though, that Anna’s lonely existence is like her own. “I don’t feel close to Anna. I can understand all the hotels and the unhappy stories of actresses but I don’t feel like this. It’s kind of a challenge because she’s so different, so complicated. She’s scared to be in love, and that’s interesting because I don’t know those feelings.” Indeed, it is Laurent’s sensitive portrayal of vulnerability beneath all the enigmatic cool that helps make her onscreen relationship with McGregor a convincing two-hander.
Mills’ decision to film Beginners in two distinct parts, and in chronological order, helped create a convincing emotional intimacy. “He started shooting Christopher and Ewan for two weeks. They had a break, and then I arrived in LA” she says, describing the shoot. “It was special because he did everything in order, so Ewan had just lost his dad. For him it was exactly like the script, and he was talking to me about Christopher. I think it was great to do it like that. For me it was like a documentary.” Ultimately, she says, “it’s the most real movie I’ve ever made”.
Narrated by Oliver, Beginners features montages of photographs taken at different points in its characters’ lives, and a dog that silently communicates with Oliver via onscreen subtitles. When Anna and Oliver meet (that Freud and Chaplin scene), she is unable to speak due to laryngitis, and communicates with him by writing on a notepad. The imaginative, non-verbal ways in which Mills expresses his characters’ emotions shows him bringing the playfulness of his music video and art careers to bear on the film, signalling his growth as a director. “It’s exactly the cinema I want to do,” Laurent says. “It’s not too real, and the imagination for me is the purpose of being a director, that you can put pictures in, and decide that the dog is going to speak. It’s cinema, its movies. I love that, and I was inspired when I was working with Mike. I’m crazy about the movie.”
Laurent obviously loves the film, and she certainly comes across as an actor taking roles that excite her. But it is also true that Beginners is indicative of her rising stock in Hollywood following Tarantino’s plucking her from the French art house scene for Inglourious Basterds, and it is not surprising that a currently under-wraps studio film with “an amazing cast” is on the cards. Also coming up is a World War Two film directed by Billy August (Les Miserables) in which she plays a Portuguese Resistance fighter which, she says referring back to Inglourious Basterds, means “I’m going to kill Nazis, again!”
Mostly though, Laurent seems to want to talk about what makes a good director rather than a successful actress, hardly surprising considering that she has recently made her directorial debut with Les Adoptés, adapted from her own script. “I wanted to copy him!” she bellows when asked if Mills had been an inspiration. “I wanted to be as nice as he is with the crew, to be as generous, to be a good human being. People want to be great when they have a great captain on the boat. He wears suits every day, because he says ‘I love my crew so I have to be at my best.’ I loved him so much for that.”
Tarantino represented filmmaking on an entirely different scale, but proved no less inspirational. “He had maybe 300 people [on set] and watching him was amazing,” she says, describing the atmosphere on the set of Inglourious Basterds. “Before one scene he would ask everybody to be on set, and he said what he was going to do during the day. He was like that after two months, not just the first day. He would be like “Okay guys, ready? Today we are going to shoot this fucking amazing scene!” And everybody screamed “Yeah!” Laurent is animatedly throwing her hands in the air, imitating Tarantino’s American accent, and like him she found her own method of creating a bond with the crew on her own film. “I did a video clip,” she laughs. “We put on a Notorious B.I.G. song and we had everybody in front of the camera. We were dancing on set at 9am. It was crazy.”
As well as promising what might be one of the year’s must-see movie outtakes, it is a recollection that leads her onto a serious point. “I made another movie after this, before mine, and the director was not like that. He was not a mean person but there was no communication, and it was a boring set. Everybody wanted to go home. What’s the point in making movies if it’s not fun?” It is a good place to finish and, you suspect, just about sums her up. A handshake, a knowing smile, and she is gone.
Beginners is out July 22nd