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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Actor Noémie Merlant: ‘Women have been taught to see ourselves through other people’s desire’ | Film

The French actor Noémie Merlant is in demand these days – especially since 2019, when Céline Sciamma’s acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire massively boosted her international profile. When I talk to her on Zoom, she’s rushing between two films, on her mobile in a car travelling from one shoot in Brest in northern France to another in the Pyrenees.

Despite her busy schedule, and the distraction of having just lost her bank card, Merlant is focused enough to talk with enthusiastic intensity (and no, she’s not driving the car) about Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District, which is released in the UK next month. The film is something of a departure for the 69-year-old director, who is often associated with crime dramas (A Prophet, The Beat That My Heart Skipped). It’s about young people in a multiracial Paris, and the 21st-century digital economy of passion: dating apps, instant hookups and webcam sex. And given that he’s often considered a very male film-maker, this feature notably adopts a very female perspective; it’s co-written, in fact, with Sciamma, and the writer-director Léa Mysius.

Merlant doesn’t see any contradiction between the film and its director’s age or gender. “Jacques observes – he’s curious, he talks to people, he has real empathy, so he’s completely able to get it right about young people, about women. The film is spot on about today’s codes of lovemaking.”

Her character is Nora, a Sorbonne student who finds herself out of sync with the big city. Merlant has described Nora as “someone who’s unconnected, in a world that’s moving too fast”. She adds: “She’s not connected to herself either, maybe because women have trouble connecting. We’ve been taught to see ourselves through other people’s desire, to respond to their desires before thinking about our own.”

Nora gets mistaken for, then develops a fascination with, an online sex worker, a cam girl, played by the rock musician Jehnny Beth, of post-punk band Savages. The two women’s virtual relationship, Merlant says, is as real as the other more immediate liaisons depicted in the film – “More real, even, and more erotic, although it’s never physical.” Although she didn’t research the cam sex phenomenon, Merlant says: “I’ve fallen in love with people on screens before I’ve ever met them, so I can understand it.”

The sexual directness of Audiard’s film is a far cry from the stately, simmering tensions of the 18th-century drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, in which Merlant plays an artist falling in love with the woman she is commissioned to paint. That film is important, Merlant says, because it’s about all the female painters whose stories have been erased from history, and because it depicts an equal relationship between artist and model. “We talk about muses, but it’s usually a woman inspiring a male painter or director, and it always goes in one direction. This film shows a creative act that’s shared, that goes both ways. It’s about two people taking the time to look at each other.”

Born in Paris, Merlant grew up in Nantes, where both her parents were estate agents. At 16 she was scouted as a model – the beginning of a successful career that worked for her up to a point: “It made me more confident, it allowed me to travel, but it also left me feeling dispossessed of my own body – I always felt as if it belonged to other people.”

Then, when she was 18, her father read about the Parisian drama school Cours Florent, and encouraged her to study there. “It was a revelation. Suddenly I felt a lot more alive – everything was possible.” But the transition to cinema wasn’t easy. “People see you as an object, a model who wants to get into the movies: ‘Hey you, model – know your place.’”

Nonetheless, Merlant, now 33, made her screen debut in 2011, and for a long time tended to be cast much younger than her age. Throughout her 20s, she played adolescents in crisis. Her filmography covers quite a range: costume drama; period farce; interactive films with her former partner, director Simon Bouisson; and 2020’s all-out bizarre Jumbo, playing a young woman gripped by erotic passion for a 25ft-high fairground ride.

Last year, Merlant drew criticism when she played a transgender man in the French film A Good Man. Several trans people working with its director, Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, encouraged her to take the role, while Céline Sciamma advised her against it. Merlant says she now understands the issues better than she did. “The film isn’t in any way voyeuristic, it’s very positive – but I can see how a cis viewer could look at a trans man, see a woman playing him, and see it as just a disguise, as spectacle.”

In Cannes last year, Merlant premiered her first feature as director, Mi iubita, mon amour, a Romanian-French love story inspired by her meeting Gimi Covaci, a young Romany man, who co-wrote and co-stars. Initially financed by Merlant herself, the film has a certain gauche breathlessness, but is manifestly sincere about her commitment to the Roma community, which she came to know through working in Paris with the charity Romeurope.

Merlant is planning further features, including a female-focused thriller that she hopes to direct this summer. She is also about to start editing a documentary about her family: both her sister and her father are disabled, the latter following an injury, and her mother is their carer. “It was something I wanted to share, not just because they’re my family – it’s the harmony between them that I really wanted to communicate.”

Noémie Merlant with Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Noémie Merlant with Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Photograph: AP

Which actors inspire her? She doesn’t hesitate: “Cate Blanchett – she’s always been a key reference for me. I like to rewatch my favourite scenes of hers, sometimes right before I shoot a scene myself – not to copy her, just because it gives me energy.” In fact, Merlant has just acted in English with Blanchett, in an international production called TÁR, which she’s not allowed to talk about yet. But working with her was “mind-blowing… and of course I never told her what I’ve just told you!” she laughs.

Merlant’s latest film, One Year, One Night, about the Paris Bataclan attack, premieres in Berlin tomorrow. She admits she was nervous about taking it on: “I wasn’t sure if we were ready to hear that story yet. But I always believe in talking about things, telling a story rather than keeping it under wraps.” The film touched a nerve with her, she says, because only two days before the events of November 2015, she and a group of friends had been sitting outside the Carillon, the cafe where one of the attacks took place. What’s more, it was just as she was about to start work in Heaven Can Wait, a film in which she plays a teenager recruited by Islamic State.

Her performance in One Year, One Night promises to be characteristically supercharged. Its director, Isaki Lacuesta , tells me: “She’s the best actor I’ve ever worked with – she has a level of control that I’ve never seen.” The intensity of some of Merlant’s work may blind one to her range: Jacques Audiard, who got her to watch Woody Allen’s Annie Hall before shooting Paris, 13th District, says: “She’s a fantastic comic performer.” However, there’s no mistaking her seriousness, commitment or sense of responsibility when she talks about her ethos as an actor. “For me, cinema is about showing the world to itself. But once you realise that films mostly show only one aspect of things, that a whole range of experience isn’t represented, that’s a huge problem. Then it becomes political.”

So now that success has given her greater control over her career, what makes her choose a particular film?

“Lots of things. I like it if it’s engagé – committed – but it doesn’t have to be political; it can be committed to a certain aesthetic, a different way of seeing things. As long as it takes me somewhere else. As long as there’s the chance to take risks.”

  • Paris, 13th District is released in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on 18 March, with previews in selected cinemas on 14 February

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