Saturday, 3 December 2011

Andre Wilms Talks About Acting In Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre

The trick to great acting? Do nothing


MONTREAL - Film is notable for its ability to feel real – to take us into a situation and give us the impression we’re living it – or to sweep us away into Hollywood-style fantasy. But there is a less-celebrated strain of cinema that goes in the opposite direction, toward surrealism.

The work of Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki falls into this last category. His latest film Le Havre is an oddly endearing, shrewdly comic drama about illegal immigration set in the French port town. Where most any other director would milk the tale’s torment for everything it’s worth, Kaurismaki has his cast play it straight, delivering life-important lines as if they were reading the phone book. It’s classic Kaurismaki, and it works like a charm, injecting offbeat humour into the most serious situations and bringing the narrative to another place by consistently defying our expectations.

“He hates emotion,” said André Wilms, the French actor and Kaurismaki regular, in a sit-down interview during the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “He wants it to be very reduced, (like) Buster Keaton. He says, ‘Play it like an old gentleman. Don’t make me crazy with your actor tricks.’ ”

Le Havre posits Wilms as Marcel Marx, a solemn shoeshine man who hides a young African refugee (Blondin Miguel) from the authorities, while his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) lies sick in the hospital.

Wilms could almost be said to be non-acting for most of the film, as he shuffles from scene to scene with a grim look on his face – not seeming to want any part of his own heroism, but unable to avoid it and, most importantly, unable to not do the right thing.

Some actors might be frustrated by such constraints on their expression, but Wilms couldn’t be happier.

“I have to say, he’s the only great director I’ve worked with,” he said. “He’s a real genius. And I totally agree with him. I see (actors) playing really intense, real suffering and everything, and I am bored. Okay, suffer – I don’t give a sh-- about your suffering on the screen. Less is more. It’s very difficult to do nothing; to cry is easy.

“I try to make my job as humble as possible.”

If Wilms is deadpan in the film, he is outdone only by fellow Kaurismaki veteran Outinen, who takes her monotonous delivery to outrageous extremes. She won best actress at Cannes in 2002, for her role in Kaurismaki’s The Man Without A Past, which also took the festival’s coveted Grand Prix as well as the Ecumenical Jury Prize

“She understands Aki,” Wilms said. “She’s very grave … She doesn’t speak a word of French. She learned (her part) all by heart, phonetically. I worked with her for hours and hours.”

Wilms’s own history with the director goes back 20 years, when he was cast in Kaurismaki’s only other French film, La vie bohème, after being sent to a rather unusual audition.

“It was two in the morning in Paris in a bar,” Wilms said. “He was sitting behind two bottles of white wine, three beers and a bottle of vodka. He sees me coming in – he’s very big, like a bear. He said to me, ‘Oh, you have a big nose, you can smoke under the shower. You have sad eyes; you are hired. Okay, let’s talk about something else.’

“He never saw me act. He didn’t know anything about me. We became friends. I don’t know, he’s a bit like (a character) in a Western – ‘Let’s do it, and don’t talk about it. And don’t ask me questions, please.’ ”

Kaurismaki approached Wilms for his latest project wanting to make a film about a serious subject, immigration, but also wanting to do something with a lighter tone.

“He said, ‘I only make depressed, dark films; nobody wants to see them. Society is so dark and apocalyptic, we have to make a comedy. And I will make two happy endings.’ It’s his kind of comedy. And a fairy tale, but the red cap (Little Red Riding Hood) has to eat the wolf,” Wilms said.

Shooting in France was an obvious choice, given the country’s immigration issues. It also brought Kaurismaki closer to some of his greatest influences – classic French directors Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir and Jean-Pierre Melville.

North American film fans may be reminded of Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley, directors whose works are marked by minimalism, humour and a playful affection for the absurd. But while comparisons provide orientation, Kaurismaki has made his own distinct mark on the world of cinema – a unique vision, at once insightful and ironic, that changes our ideas of what a film can be.

“Aki is a bit apart,” Wilms said. “He’s an outsider who makes his own world … He doesn’t like the whole (mainstream movie thing) – wow, fast, camera always moving, explosions – he hates this. He calls these popcorn movies, and says, ‘I don’t want to be a popcorn director.’ But he is okay. He’s much more a poet than a filmmaker.”

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1 comment:

  1. You have a very interesting blog. I'll certainly visit very often.
    I agree: on camera, less is more. You have to be physically but not emotionally low-keyed.

    I also have a blog where I write on acting and anything else related to it. I was visiting blogs looking for people who could be interested in following me. I think you might be interested in what I write. If that is so, I'd be happy to have you as a follower too, leaving comments and sharing feedback whenever you have some.

    Again, great blog.

    All the best,
    Jay Paoloni,