How Maïwenn Became a Force of French Cinema
In her latest film, 'Jeanne du Barry,' the French actor and director portrays a woman as determined and resilient as herself.
Photography by Jody Rogac
As the world eagerly awaits Maïwenn’s sixth feature film, Jeanne du Barry, the director looks back at her career behind the camera and in front of it. A well-balanced, plainspoken artist, Maïwenn realized early in life that creative freedom is paramount, and ever since she has fought to get what she wants.
THIERRY CHÈZE You were five years old when you made your film debut in L’Année prochaine si tout va bien (Next Year If All Goes Well) opposite Isabelle Adjani, whom you played as a child two years later in L’Été meurtrier (One Deadly Summer). It seems, however, that your career really started in 2001 with your one-woman show, Le Pois chiche (The Chickpea), at Paris’s Café de la Gare.
MAÏWENN Just before the premiere of that show, the director, Orazio Massaro, assured me that it would be a rebirth for me. At the time, I found that a bit pompous, but he was right. The show helped me gain self-confidence, even if it has been regu- larly tested since then. At that time, I really had no professional ambition. I had ideas, of course – to design a line of clothes for pregnant women, to do photography, etc. – but each time, they disappeared as quickly as they came. And never for a moment had I imagined myself with such responsibility: writing a show or mak- ing films. But I realized, to my great surprise, that this profession could bring me a lot of love and that people could see themselves in what I was writing.
T.C. Is that what led you to follow up with your first short film, I’m an actrice?
M. Nothing was premeditated. When I saw that the one-woman show worked, I just thought that I would make a second, then a third, and I saw myself flourishing in that role. The producers, after seeing the show, told me that it would make a great subject for a feature film and suggested that I direct a short movie to try my hand at it. That’s how I ended up writing for the cinema, but it wasn’t a smooth process.
T.C. Why was that?
M. First of all, because I didn’t like making the short film. My producers had hired a team with great credentials. I felt like the class dummy who hadn’t done her homework. I had to follow their recommendations, and I was bored. I was just responding to the demands of others without listening to my own desires. Everyone had power over me and talked to me as if they were doing me a favor. I thought the result lacked imagination. At the same time, I was acting in Claude Lelouch’s Les Parisiens. There, I saw a totally free man, capable of adapting to accidents on the set. I understood at that moment that there are two types of directors: those who love life and use it for their films, and those who don’t love it and try to twist it to make it fit into their films. From that day on, I had chosen my side – the side of freedom, that of Lelouch.
T.C. Was it easier to impose yourself with your first feature film, Pardonnez-moi (Forgive Me)?
M. When I wanted to do it my way, my producers completely dropped me, with a lot of condescension, explaining that it was impossible. But you can’t ask artists to do what everyone else does. Otherwise, they are not artists! Since I couldn’t impose my wishes, I invested my own money from the show and my life insur- ance, and put it all into the film. Every evening after shooting, I wrote checks to pay for the food, taxis, etc.
I am still hurt by articles I have read about myself. I realized that I am too mainstream for the intellectuals and too intellectual for commercial cinema. Maïwenn
T.C. Did you realize that you had found your profession after the success of that film?
M. I think so.
T.C. But you had to wait for Polisse and its prize at Cannes and success in theaters to feel truly legitimate?
M. I am still hurt by articles I have read about myself. I realized that I am too mainstream for the intellectuals and too intellectual for commercial cinema. I don’t fit into either category. Behind all that, I felt a lot of jealousy after I received the award at Cannes for Polisse. I understood then that I really annoyed people. I was caricatured as a hysteric who arrived on set without the slightest idea of what she was going to do. It drives you crazy!
T.C. What are your favorite movies?
M. Comedies, mainly because the films I want to see again are the ones that make me laugh. The films of Louis de Funès, Francis Veber, etc.
T.C. And yet, you’ve never written a comedy.
M. I’ve scribbled a few projects, but each time, I stopped, thinking that there were more important things to talk about. Comedy for comedy’s sake doesn’t interest me as a director, although I do try to inject humor into my films.
T.C. Lelouch played a decisive role in your career, and you were a decisive influence for Emmanuelle Bercot, whose acting career took off when she won the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actress award for Mon roi (My King). How did you feel about that?
M. It was the film that I had the most difficulty editing because I had a problem with this character. I felt that there was a lack of empathy for her, which was confirmed by the first test screenings, whereas the script – about a destructive passion for a narcissistic pervert – had been written precisely for the opposite purpose. Then I got the idea to edit it in reverse, and it turned things around. When Emmanuelle got the prize, I felt rewarded through her – all the more so because I was inspired by her, because I wrote it for her.
T.C. Did the fact that you did not act in the film change anything in the way you directed it?
M. Until Mon roi, I thought I should give myself only unsympathetic roles because I didn’t think I could film myself lovingly. But when I was only behind the camera, I realized how much faster and efficient I was when I acted in my own films, and that I had to get over the comments of those who say that I love myself. Because that’s obviously not true. It’s the character that I love! And I am so inhabited by my subject and the character that I can’t help but play the role. But in doing so, I’m confronted with the contempt I feel for myself, until the editing process, when I have to look at my face every day.
T.C. Do you enjoy acting for others – Alexandre Aja, Michel Leclerc, the Larrieu brothers?
M. I need it! It reminds me that I can act without being my own boss. [Laughs] It gives me a lot of pleasure to enter the world of different filmmakers. But again, my reputation works against me. People are afraid that I’m going to take over, even though I want to do exactly the opposite.
She left school at a very early age, loved a powerful man when she was very young and was called a whore while she was with him. I have experienced all of that myself, so I understand what she had to fight against. Maïwenn
T.C. We recently saw you in Roschdy Zem’s Les Miens (Our Ties), for which you also cowrote the script. That was a first for you. Had you never been asked to do that before?
M. No, never – it’s unbelievable. It’s an exciting experience, especially with someone like Roschdy, whom I like and admire so much. I don’t know any better way to get to know someone than to write with him. And to do it with an actor and see him play each character is even more amazing. Because right away, the scenes and dialogue come to life through his creative lens, the one he would use on set. I would love to do it more often.
T.C. When you thought about Jeanne du Barry, the heroine of your new film, did you immediately want to play her?
M. I discovered the character in 2006, and since then, at regular intervals, I’ve gone back to her biography. I wanted to take on the role, but I felt that I couldn’t legitimately do it. In 2011, I spoke to an actor, whom I won’t name, about playing du Barry. She was enthusiastic. She was a friend, but she disappointed me in that context. Now, because of some bad experiences, I want to work only with people I admire in real life. You can introduce me to the greatest of geniuses, but if we don’t click, I can’t work with him or her. Once I’m editing, I’ll want to cut out their scenes! It’s like after a breakup.
T.C. Why did this character appeal to you so much?
M. Because she was reviled all her life. She left school at a very early age, loved a powerful man when she was very young and was called a whore while she was with him. I have experienced all of that myself, so I understand what she had to fight against. That’s why, once I got over the loss of the actor I was talking about, there was no question of anyone but myself playing her, even when my producer made it clear to me, as we worked on the financing, that it would be better to use a bankable actor. That would have made me suffer so much that I would have preferred to give up the film! With one exception, perhaps: Virginie Efira, who has the frankness and the personality to play Jeanne.
T.C. Jeanne du Barry was the favorite of Louis XV, and you chose Johnny Depp to play him. Did you have him in mind early in the process?
M. Oh, no! He arrived after many disappointments. For three years, I had been writing the script for a French actor I want- ed to use, whom I had, of course, informed about this. And when, at the end of those three years, I called to tell him I was sending the script, the conversation lasted exactly three minutes. He said that he didn’t even want to read it, without any real explanation. It was so violent. I then turned to Alain Delon. That was fantastic. He read the script the same day. I went to see him at his house, and he was incredibly generous. He was supposed to play Louis XV, but health problems forced him to give it up.
T.C. How did you bounce back after that?
M. I couldn’t imagine any other French actors playing the role. A friend who saw me when I was depressed suggested that I make a list of my international dream cast. Playing royalty isn’t possible for everyone. That type of character requires tons of cha- risma. I wanted an actor who would make me dream. I made a list of three. Johnny was second on the list because the first one seemed more accessible, but in reality, Johnny was my ideal Louis XV. When the first one refused, with no explanation, I was losing hope. Nevertheless, I emailed Johnny, and two weeks later, while I was in the desert in Algeria, his answer came, on a day when I was passing near an area where I could get phone reception. The next day, I flew to London to see him. When we met, I concentrated on forgetting that I was a fan and on getting him to talk about why he liked the script and the character. I thought his answers were vague, so I asked him if he had read the script. He said no, because he didn’t know how to read scripts, but that his right-hand man, whom he trusts completely, had read it and insisted that he play the role.
T.C. How did you react?
M. I liked his frankness! Afterward, on the set, it was complicated because the American method has nothing to do with ours. In the United States, the actors work on their role ahead of time and have a very precise idea of their character when they arrive on the set, whereas in France, it’s the director who shapes the character as he wishes with the actor, so it was entirely differ- ent. You could say we had a little culture shock. It happens a lot.
T.C. How do you feel before presenting the film to the public?
M. I am less afraid than I was in the past because my private life takes up more space, which helps me put things into perspective. But since I made Jeanne du Barry differently from my other films – in 35mm, with no improvisation and a highly precise cut – I am afraid for different reasons, as if it were another first film. So, I am afraid, but after five films, it’s good to get out of my comfort zone. People who like my movies may find it too academic, but I take full responsibility!
Maïwenn wears clothing by Bottega Veneta and her own earring throughout. Fashion by Marie-Amélie Sauvé. Hair by Alexander Soltermann. Makeup by Marianne Agbadouma. Manicure by Marie Rosa. Set design by Vincent Olivieri. Production by Producing Love.