INTERVIEW: Coupling On Camera and Off; Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg Talk About "My Wife Is an Actress"
by Guy V. Cimbalo
(indieWIRE: 07.16.02) — “Never marry an actress,” Eddie Fisher warned, “they never stop acting.” This, of course, comes from a man who married three of them — Liz Taylor, Connie Stevens, and Debbie Reynolds. But as writer-director-actor Yvan Attal ably proves in his new film, “My Wife is an Actress,” Fisher’s is not a sentiment to be taken so lightly.
Although you’ve never heard of Attal, you probably know his wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg. The product of singer/lothario Serge Gainsbourg and actress Jane Birkin, Charlotte first gained notoriety at age 13 in a lusty duet with her dad called “Lemon Incest.” After her star-making performance in Claude Miller‘s “The Little Thief,” Gainsbourg quickly became one of France’s most popular actresses. Although her husband, Yvan Attal, has acted for over a decade, “My Wife is an Actress” marks his writing and directorial debut.
Attal didn’t have to cast far to find his subject. The film centers around the comic neuroses of sportswriter Yvan (Yvan Attal). As the title suggests, his wife Charlotte (Charlotte Gainsbourg) happens to be one of France’s hottest actresses. While Charlotte is at work on a film with the hunky, older John (Terence Stamp), Yvan indulges in fantasies of betrayal, unsure where the cinematic kisses end and the off-set bonking begins.
Despite (the real) Yvan’s protestations that “My Wife Is An Actress” barely corresponds to the (real life) couple’s (actual) married life, it is fair to assume that the film’s seeds grew from a very real and very ridiculous fit of jealous anxiety. indieWIRE sent Guy Cimbalo to speak with Gainsbourg and Attal about truth, lies, and the movie.
indieWIRE: Were you uncomfortable with the idea of making this film? There must have been some obvious hesitations.
Charlotte Gainsbourg: I so loved the script — that didn’t scare me. I was scared at what people would think — I thought maybe it would be taken seriously. I thought it was risky because in France I’m very private, I don’t like talking about my life, and I imagined that people would think that I’m now an open book. But as soon as we started filming it all vanished, because we were doing scenes that were simply not our lives.
Yvan Attal: I know Charlotte was uncomfortable, but I wasn’t, because I wrote the script, I shot the movie. Of course, people could understand the difference between us and the characters. I wasn’t scared about it. Charlotte was troubled because she didn’t know how to prepare the character. The costume designer came to me and said “What do you want?” and I said, “I want Charlotte, Charlotte’s clothes, her look, all of it.” I wanted to be real with all these little things. I think as a director you try to make believable what you show to people. I had more tools — our names, the title of the film.
iW: How do you develop a character that may or may not be you? Are you acting?
Gainsbourg: No, the character is close to me, except that I haven’t lived through those situations so it’s not completely me. But it’s true that when we were talking about the character I didn’t know where to begin, I was very frustrated, not knowing how to start, because Yvan just said that he wanted me. At the same time it was very enjoyable to be able to wear my own clothes.
And I was also scared because I could see that Yvan had a comical part, and his sister had a comical part, and I couldn’t understand what I was going to do inside this comedy. I thought I was going to have to play very serious. It wasn’t a question of being jealous of their parts, it was just a question of what was my place in that comedy. And it just appeared that the more sincere I could be the better it would be for the film.
Yvan wanted me to play very light compared to what I’ve done before. I can be very inhibited and complex, and he wanted me to throw everything away and feel free to have fun, but for me it’s very difficult to do that.
iW: Was there a sense that using your real first names could be pushing it too far?
Attal: I wanted to play on what is real and what is not real. In France, people know that we are together, so it was fun to play with that. When I kiss Charlotte on the screen, she’s my wife, and I’m really kissing her, but there is a crew — is it the same kiss as when we are together? Charlotte kisses Terence Stamp, I kiss another woman, those are real kisses. I think using my name, her name, I wanted to play with that, to think about cinema’s manipulation.
iW: In many ways the film is simply about jealousy. I feel like the film could just as easily have been called “My Wife is a Dentist.”
Attal: I didn’t want to make jokes about the movies. I was among that element, but it wasn’t really the point. I directed a short film that is basically that scene in the cafe, so the first time I thought how can I make an hour and a half from six minutes. The guy in the cafe says a movie’s lovemaking is for real, because I want to defend myself as a man with my wife, I’m saying no, it’s fake, it’s movies.
And it was those things I thought that could be developed, maybe this guy in the cafe is right. That’s what I wanted to explore — what is real and what is not when we make movies. Because we are used to watching movies in which they’re naked, and they kiss, but this is not something scandalous, and maybe the stupid guy in the cafe is right, that’s strange. And as an actor, when I spend my day naked in a bed with another actress, pretending that it’s fake, but it’s really real, I’m really naked, she’s really naked, I’m really kissing her, I really touch her. At the end of the day I go back home, with my wife and my child and pretend that nothing special happened during the day. It’s a very strange situation, that’s really what I wanted to say in the film. It could be “My Wife is a Dentist, ” but the job would not be right, exactly.
iW: “My Wife is a Proctologist”?
Attal: There’s actually a scene I decided to cut where we go to the maternity ward to see my sister. At one moment my brother-in-law and I are in the corridor, out of the frame. The camera stays on the two women and they talk about the gynecologist. One of them maintains that this gynecologist is used to it, but the other thinks that a man is a man. Perhaps the sequel could be “My Husband Is A Gynecologist.”
iW: How difficult was it managing this meta-film when at the same time it was your first experience writing and directing?
Attal: I think it’s difficult to make a film, even if these aren’t the circumstances. For me I think it was easier to be the main character. I realized that when I had to shoot scenes without me, I was really anxious about them, I didn’t know when to stop, I could shoot and shoot and shoot. When I was in the shot, I felt maybe it was OK or maybe it was wrong, but I couldn’t think too much about it. But maybe for the next one, I will just direct, I don’t know. Of course maybe it was very difficult for the other actors, I wrote it, I had everything in my head. For the others, I imagine that they worried that the director wasn’t really focused on them.
iW: Was it actually fun to make this film, or was it an exercise in discomfort?
Gainsbourg: It was fun, but at the same time, Yvan is a very hard judge. He knew exactly what he wanted, so I thought he was very hard to please. Also I was very tense on the shoot, because I was terrified that I would deceive him — I was putting all those pressures on myself. What taught me more was watching him, because I never saw an actor as free as he was. Of course it was his film, so he had nobody on top of him saying “Do this, do that.” But he was doing the acting and the directing with such an energy at the same time that it was a pleasure to watch.
I hope I’ll consider my next part having learnt from this one. Letting go of things and not being afraid of being ridiculous or over the top — I think that’s the main thing for me to work on.
iW: Were there any moments where you felt it just didn’t work?
Gainsbourg: In some of the scenes he cut, I was going much further with Terence Stamp, there was a scene where we were making love, but in a very trashy way, and it was supposed to be funny but I didn’t feel it was funny.
For certain things I was worried that it would make me look terrible, and Yvan had to reassure me all the time that I wasn’t. I had a scene where I was harsh with my assistant, and I thought “Ooh, what a horrible actress.” Really stupid. In the end I didn’t worry about it but there were little things I worried about.
iW: The film feels very different from the bulk of contemporary French cinema. How conscious were you of the tone?
Attal: I made the film I wanted to do. Also because there is a part in English, maybe it’s a bit different. Also, my influence is in a lot of American directors — Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, George Cukor.
Gainsbourg: French cinema is doing very different genre — from cinema du auteur to very broad comedies which I don’t like but the public seems to appreciate. But it’s very good for our cinema. It’s nice that we have all these different films. When “My Wife is an Actress” came out in France, very often people said it doesn’t look like a French film, that it has more of a British tone to it, which I find very flattering.
iW: So in the end, has the film changed your daily life?
Gainsbourg: Not at all, I thought that maybe people would ask me really personal questions because I’ve shown more of myself, but it’s a comedy, and people understand that it’s a game we play. Nothing’s different — the only thing that’s really nice is that before people only talked to me about “The Little Thief” or “Charlotte and Lulu.” Now they talk to us about this film, which is nice.