The Best Actor winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival wasn’t a boisterous, awards-reel-ready turn from an international superstar, but a performance as modest and determined in emotional directness as the film it’s so amply supporting. It’s only fitting, then, that most talk about The Measure of a Man will center on Vincent Lindon, whose work makes for a perfect compliment to the Dardenne-esque drama crafted by writer-director (and frequent collaborator) Stéphane Brizé.
To mark the film’s U.S. release and celebrate Lindon’s other accomplishments, New York City’s Metrograph hosted a four-film retrospective — but, aside from introductions and Q & As, he wouldn’t have been seen too often. When speaking to the actor, he exhibited no ego when sharing a few blunt thoughts about viewing his own work while, in turn, complimenting the many people who help the films get onscreen. For more on that, why a performer’s job is so much easier when the camera is right in their face, and a comparison between actor-director collaborations and “speed-loving,” read on below.
The Film Stage: I’m talking to you as a retrospective of your work is being held at Metrograph. Do you think about your films and performances often? Is it strange to see, think, and talk about them again?
Vincent Lindon: No. I never, never, never think about the movies I’ve done. I can get crazy thinking about the movie I’m going to shoot, but, as usual, no. More than that, I’m sometimes… there are a few movies I love, but five or six movies that I’m very proud to be in but that I didn’t see. Because to see myself onscreen, sometimes it’s a real suffer, and when I see the movie — because the director wants to show the movie when it’s released, to know if I like it and how I felt it deserved the script that I read three or four months before — it’s really a pain for me to go there. So I go there, I see the movie, but I never see it again. For The Measure of a Man, I haven’t seen the movie since Cannes. It’s not possible.
The movie is for the other one — it’s for the audience. It’s not for me. I don’t know my secrets, and I know that the camera can come and get things of me that I don’t want to know, and I’m sure that I’m clever enough to be able to see who I am, and I don’t want to know who I am. Because if I know who I am, I won’t be able to be me anymore; if I’m not me anymore, I won’t be the actor I am, so I’m not going to shoot anymore. I don’t want to shoot a bullet in my foot. I do movies. It’s a real pleasure to be an actor, to work in the cinema business, but then, each time, I’m thinking about the next one and the next one, and that’s how I work.
For example, to go to the Metrograph: I am very proud, first, to have a retrospective, and, more than that, to talk with you, American people — in New York, in the United States — which is the dream of all the French actor. But when I come to Metrograph, I come there to speak with people or to make a Q & A, but I don’t go into the room two minutes before the end of the movies because I don’t want to see myself, and I leave the theater, when I present it, very quickly, because I don’t want to see the beginning of the movie. That’s how I live, and I think it’s natural. Since my first movie, since I was very young. Is that a good answer to your question?
Absolutely. Even with what you’re saying, are there performances you were proud of upon seeing the movie? Did anything stand out as being especially on-point?
Yes. I think Thierry, the lead of The Measure of a Man… I really like this man. I like his dignity, I like his view, I like how he’s a mensch. He’s very tough and very brave, so I like this guy. First of all, the thing that I’m very concerned with is the script. The character comes after. What I want in my life is to be in good movies. I want to work with good directors, to carry beautiful stories — even if the story is about a monster. If the script is well-written, that’s not a problem. And then after, I look at the character, and after I look at who’s going to direct the movie. But I’m quite sure that I prefer to do a very good script with a director who is young and maybe their first movie — because when you have a good script, you are obliged to do a good movie. But if you take the best director in the world and you give him a bad script, you’re going to try to push the script as much as you can, but you’ll never reach a good movie.
The story is most important. I never read a script and say to myself, “Do I like the character? Do I want to be him in real life?” That’s after I say yes to a director — or, if I say no, the problem is not there anymore. I just quit the idea of that movie and I go to the other one. When I like a script, when I like the story, it’s like a metaphor: if I like an apartment, then after I manage with where I’m going to put the kitchen, where I’m going to put the bathroom. “The bedroom is a little too small.” Yes, but it doesn’t matter because the living room is great. It’s another story, you know?
But what I need is to have a good relationship with a director that I admire and who is giving a beautiful story to the audience. That’s my job and that’s what I want to do. I remember when I was young, the best compliment I could get was: “I’m going to tell you something: I didn’t like the movie so much, but you are so great. You are marvelous in the movie.” I don’t care. That was good when I was 25. Now I just want to like the movie, because there is only the movie. I like the movie. This movie is fucking good. That means everybody’s good! Everybody’s great! So I’m proud of the movie, and then, by coincidence, I’m proud of the character I’m doing in these movies. Voila. How do you say it in the United States? Voila. [Laughs]
Being that you’ve made two other features with Stéphane Brizé, what’s just been said has me wondering about the evolution of your collaboration. How have you noticed changes?
Like in real life, between two friends. First, we didn’t know each other. I think we can love people only if we have a project. I think a project is very important in life. Everything can be a project. To divorce is a project, and to marry somebody is a project. To build a house is a project. To make a movie, to work, is a project, and it helps our relationship; it’s very important. So I didn’t know that guy before, and, the first time I met him, he came with a script and he said to me, “Here is a gift. I like you. I want you to be my hero in a story that comes from my heart.” There’s something very important when you meet somebody very important for the first time. It’s like when a woman says, “I fell in love with you. I don’t know you, but I’ve been watching you for a long time — and now, today, I want to tell you: I want to sleep with you. I want to go out with you.” You are always nice to those people; you don’t shout at them. You say, “Thank you. That’s so nice. I’m so proud that you like me.” And now you decide. So, with a woman, you speak, you go and get dinner, and then after you decide if you are falling in love, too, or not.
With a director, you have a script, and I loved the script. I loved the character of the first movie we did together, which is called Mademoiselle Chambon. I said to Stéphane, “I want to do it.” And then, after, we went to the south of France to shoot the movie for eight weeks. We were far from our families, and so after shooting, during the night, we got a lot of time together with the crew. Drinking, speaking about life, about everything, and then we become closer and closer and closer. After this project, the movie becomes a success. Success is another thing that’s very important for love, because success is like a speed for love: everything goes faster and faster because it’s like a dream team, and we don’t change a team who’s winning. So it becomes closer and closer. Then, after, we got lunch and dinner and we became friends. Not real big friends, but the beginnings of a friendship. Then he came back with a second script and we did the second script. We shoot the movie; it was another success. So, again, speed-loving. Boom!
And now we did a third movie, which is called The Measure of a Man, and we went to Cannes, where I got the prize. So now we are brothers, you know? [Laughs] It’s more than that, but we are very, very close. It’s something unusual. It’s something I realize in this business. It’s the same for you, in the United States. You can see someone like Martin Scorsese with Bob De Niro. They’ve done nine movies together. Like Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra; Errol Flynn and Raoul Walsh. I like that, and we have the same friends. It’s good because everybody’s changing. During those three films, our personal lives changed: one divorced, the other got married; one has another child. We keep going on the same road, and I think it’s very interesting. You get older and older and older, like everybody. So it’s a way, a piece of life, that we spend together.
You talk about the camera unearthing your secrets, and this movie sees you photographed pretty intimately. We can see creases in your skin, sunken eyes, the shifting of expression. Do you find yourself feeling especially different when being photographed up-close? I think also of Claire Denis, with whom you worked in Bastards and who really focuses on the texture of people’s form.
It’s a very good question because it’s going to be a bizarre answer, what I’m going to give you now. The more the camera is far from me, the more I feel naked. It’s more difficult for me because it’s like a spy. It’s like somebody who wants to rape me. Somebody is here, but he’s not allowed to be there. And there are directors who don’t understand that, who say, “Vincent, don’t worry. Be free. It doesn’t matter. Just do what you want. I’m very far from you.” So the camera is far, but the lens could be very, very close, so it’s like a paparazzi. The guy is far, so the sound is very present, and that’s something I hate — because I feel free but you’re not free. You’re like a horse: you can run where you want, but there are no limits. The frame: no frame. Like if you say to children, “Do what you want. I don’t care. Do you want to go to sleep at 12 a.m.? Do it. Do you want to eat cookies and sweets before sleeping? Do it.”
At times, it can get crazy. You’re like a horse: you don’t know where to run. The more the camera is near for me, the more it’s, like, in my neck, on my eyes — the more it’s me. It’s like a third arm. It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s so, so near that I can’t see it because it’s too near. It’s a new element of me, of the neighbor, and I think that the guy who’s holding the camera is so near me that he’s taking risks, like me. We are in the same boat, you know? We are in the same boat. Then you are two, so you’re not alone. So it’s okay. Then I can open my heart; I can open my mind. I can give my secrets. The camera’s so near that the distance to go from my brain to the camera is very short. It doesn’t give me any time to realize who I am, and then oh! It’s in the camera. Then we go next move and next move and next move, and I can pass into the movie without stopping and psychoanalyzing me.
So I like the way that Stéphane films me, and there is something very strange: in Cannes, a lot of people said to me, “It’s incredible, Vincent, because all the movie is really a close-up on you, and we feel Stéphane is in love with you. He’s so near, always your eyes.” That’s the best compliment they can give to me because it’s not in my eyes; it’s always in my back. So it’s the fantasy. They think that they saw my eyes, but they were in my back. That means they can be shooting on the back. If you really are the character, if you really suffer like him, it’s so strong that people want to go around you to see you in the eyes, even if the camera stayed behind. So it’s the story they say to themselves of what they think the film is. They didn’t see that. That’s all the world walking out the theater and thinking that they saw the character in the eyes, but it’s a fantasy. I hope my English is clear enough for the American audience to understand what I really want to mean, because it’s even complicated in French, for myself, when I hear myself answering in an interview — so I can imagine, in English, what the fucking mess it could be! [Laughs]