Maïwenn is little known in the United States, but in France, she has made an indelible mark on the world of cinema. Most Americans remember her as the seductive, singing alien, Diva Plavalaguna, in Luc Besson’s cult classic, The Fifth Element. However, her future acting and directing endeavors have indisputably eclipsed this small role she played as a teenager. As a director, she has a remarkably intuitive gift for creating masterful scenes that are powder kegs of emotion – with the fuse often lit during the first frame of the movie. The pacing, the chemistry and the fluidity – there is a preternatural authenticity. Over the past ten years she has directed four feature films and one short. Her most recent films Polisse (2011) and My King (2016) – the latter of which will be released next week in theaters – have won her critical acclaim and a multitude of highly coveted nominations. These accolades include, but are not limited to, the Palme d’Or, the César for best film, best director, and best screenplay. Her film Polisse won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Her latest film, My King, starring Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Bercot (who won best actress at Cannes for her role), is an incendiary, piercing tale of love and loss and disillusionment weaved together with tender humor and joie de vivre. We had the chance to sit down with the French Actress turned Director to ask her a few questions about her unconventional upbringing (which includes bringing fistfuls of collected change to see movies at her local cinematheque), the joys and the trials of being a movie director, and some of the techniques that she employs in her films.
Bowie: What do you think about the movie industry in Hollywood, as opposed to Paris?
Maïwenn: I don’t know if I’ve spent enough time here to form an opinion. In Paris we always hear about people in Hollywood being all about money and superficial things. And I’ve met really interesting people. Very free-spirited people. So, I don’t get all the things that people say, but maybe I haven’t spent enough time here.
Bowie: I read that you had wanted to be a standup comedian at some point, and there are a lot of hilarious moments in Mon Roi, despite its being a rather tragic film. Has humor always been a part of your craft?
Maïwenn: Not really. I did a show, but you couldn’t call it standup comedy. It was a show that was both funny and dramatic, but I was never trying to be a standup comedian. But all my movies are a little bit funny. I like to treat dramatic situations with funny dialogues. I like to mix both for balance. I have a passion for funny people, actually. If I could spend all my time with funny people - even if they’re silly - I would do it.
Bowie: They’re the best people.
Maïwenn: Not really, but they make me laugh.
Bowie: You’ve made several movies now, but I’ve read that you started writing Mon Roi about a decade ago. Why did it take so long to put it into motion?
Maïwenn: First of all, I was feeling much more than I do now. I needed to have many experiences before doing this film; as a woman, as a director, as a mother, as a friend – everything. And I think it’s really much easier to do a dramatic story first, then a love story. Because in a love story you have to start with happiness. I didn’t want to make a movie about love and have it stop when they’re fighting. I wanted it to stop when they love each other. And to do that, I needed a lot of experience. François Truffaut says – whatever, I don’t care about François Truffaut, but he says - “les gens heureux n’ont pas d’histoire” (happy people don’t have stories to tell). And it’s true. If it’s a couple, and they’re happy for two hours, I can’t make a movie out of that. So, each year I kept saying to myself, “I’m still not ready to do this movie.” I needed to create distance from my own life experience. I needed to be emotionally independent.
Bowie: Your lead character suffers a knee injury, and her therapist says that it might be the result of some kind of psychological trauma. Do you believe in this theory, and have you ever experienced such a thing?
Maïwenn: I would believe it if I had to. It depends on my mood, and it would depend on what kind of injury I got. But not especially. But the book exists and I was so inspired by the whole thing about the knee. The thing is that I spent 10 years writing the script and when I presented it to my writing partner, Etienne Comar, he said, “I don’t see the movie. I don’t see the point.” And then a few months later I told him I found an idea to help us move more quickly through the story. It’s about the knee, so we can jump back and forth throughout the ten years of the relationship. Otherwise, without the accident, I didn’t know how to explain why we were jumping ahead from time to time. And also, I like the idea of creating a puzzle, so that we start the movie with the knee and we don’t know where we’re going. Also, I wanted to give myself a challenge in the narrative writing process, and I wanted to make it difficult to understand, so that it’s a bit like a thriller.
Bowie: Your movies are packed with emotion and life. Do you have a technique that you employ to imbue your films with that much drama?
Maïwenn: It’s the writing, the actors, the cinematography, etc. It’s really all connected, and maybe it’s just my personality. I like when it’s intense. I like when it’s excessive. And I like when the energy is a little bit close to hysterics. So, I try to transmit a sense of oppression to the actors. And I like when we laugh and we cry. I like when we don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Bowie: You’ve said that you know all of these characters in your personal life, but you don’t judge any of them. However, is there one character in the film that you relate to the most?
Maïwenn: Yeah, her [Tony]. Of course.
Bowie: And you mentioned that Vincent Cassel had a long list of critiques when he first read the screenplay. Can you give an example of one of his critiques?
Maïwenn: Well, he had a problem with the first part when they meet and they fall in love. He thought it was too sentimental – a chick flick.
Bowie: What do you get from directing that you can’t get from acting?
Maïwenn: Ah good question. The love from the audience is really different. I feel love and respect from people in a very different way. As a director I feel they respect me intellectually, and as an actress they might like me or even love me, but it’s a lot more superficial. When you say you’re the director it’s like “Oh, okay. Respect.” But it makes sense because directing is so much more difficult.
Bowie: And you have to be more demanding of yourself as a director.
Maïwenn: You know when you’re on the set as a director, every fifteen minutes someone comes to you to tell you about another problem that you have to deal with. That’s your whole life for ten weeks. It’s like – oh we don’t have the set anymore, or the actor isn’t free anymore. So, you have to find another set in ten minutes. Or an actor is late, or he’s on drugs, what do we do? It’s always like this.
Bowie: That’s a lot to manage.
Maïwenn: And also to deal with the whole crew on the set, usually they’re all men, and usually they’re all older than me. So when you’re the boss and you have to tell a bunch of older men what to do, believe me, it’s not easy to deal with them. And it’s not just because I’m a director, it’s because I’m a woman.
Bowie: Yes, so even though women having been taking on executive positions and hiring men…
Maïwenn: It’s in the blood!
Bowie: Yeah, the psychological shift is still so difficult for them. Is it different promoting a movie in the U.S. vs. France?
Maïwenn: Yeah, it’s different because of the language, so it’s hard to find exact words in English. But also, the people don’t know me here, so they don’t start the interview with any preconceived notions. In France I have such a bad reputation that everyone says, “Oh Maïwenn, she’s crazy. She’s hysterical. She’s crazy.” So that when they arrive, they’re already shaking like, “ahh what’s gonna happen?” So, I have to expend a lot of energy to tell them that I’m normal and nothing’s going to happen. But with journalists I’m not very generous, because I don’t like to analyze my work, and they think that I don’t analyze because I’m being lazy. And I keep saying that it’s not in my nature to do that. I don’t know why I’ve done this movie. I’ve just done it. And I think that all my answers are in the movie. I don’t want to dissect myself to find all the answers. So sometimes I can give a very short answer and I can feel their frustration.
Bowie: In the film she was reading La Vie Devant Soi (The Life Before Us). What was the choice behind that?
Maïwenn: I like the title.
Bowie: It’s very appropriate for the film.
Maïwenn: And I like the book as well, but I chose it because of the title.
Bowie: And the watch that he gives her in the film, is that the watch you’re wearing?
Maïwenn: Yes! It’s my watch that I put in the movie because I like it so much.
Bowie: Yeah, it’s beautiful. What was your artistic background? Did you have artists in your family?
Maïwenn: Yeah, my mother, my father also kind of, but we were a really bohemian family. Very hard times. No money at all. They were cultured, but they didn’t know how to transmit it. They never really taught me how to communicate.
Bowie: And when did you discover film?
Maïwenn: My mother thinks it’s because of her, because she’s an intellectual. She’s a cinephile, but when I was living with her I couldn’t stand all the movies she was watching. It was so boring. So I started watching movies on TV, and then I started ditching school and one day I went to a cinema in Paris and I had collected all the change in the house to buy a ticket. And the guy saw me counting all the coins to buy one ticket and he told me, “Starting now, any time you come to this cinema, you’re never gonna pay.” So I started going every day and it changed my life. And I want so much to say thank you to him, but I don’t how to find his name. I asked a girl at the box office once and she said she didn’t know where he is, so I never got to thank him.
Maïwenn's newest film, My King, opens in New York on August 12 and in Los Angeles on August 26. text and interview by Summer Bowie. photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE