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Mister Lonely: Interview de Denis Lavant

By Louise Catier

Mister Lonely, the latest film by director Harmony Korine is now shown throughout UK. Discover our review and interview with French actor Denis Lavant.

The Film:
Mister Lonely is a very unusual, sometimes even strange film, which combines two stories, without apparent link between them.  The first story is about a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who lives alone in Paris and performs in the streets to make ends meet. At a show in a retirement home, Michael falls for a beautiful Marilyn Monroe look-alike (Samantha Morton) who suggests he moves to a commune of impersonators in the Scottish Highlands. Michael discovers there Abraham Lincoln, the Queen, the Pope, Madonna and the others preparing for the commune’s first gala. He also meets Marilyn’s daughter Shirley Temple and her possessive husband, Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant). Meanwhile, a group of missionary nuns in a Latin American Jungle soon sees a miracle happening when one of them accidentally falls from a flying plane…

Even if it could sometimes appear difficult to follow, for example to establish the link between the two main stories, a strong idea emerges from this film. It is all about human identity and the search of each person’s own identity. Even if pessimistic at times, this film is closed to the burlesque genre. The reason for this film to be seen is that it carries everyone to a supernatural world, never mind your understanding of its meaning, full of flying nuns and impersonators, who’ll surely allow you to escape from a daily routine.

This autumn, I met actor Denis Lavant, who plays Charlie Chaplin’s look-alike in Mister Lonely, when he was in London for the exclusive screening of the film as part of the London Film Festival. He told me about his own perception of this unusual film, but also about his character and plans for the future.

For those of you who are not familiar with, here is an overview of Denis Lavant’s extensive career:

Denis Lavant recently starred in the Berlin 2006 entry ‘Wild Camp’ (Camping Sauvage), directed by Christophe Ali and Nicolas Bonilauri. His other recent film credits include Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘A Very Long Engagement’ and Andrea Vecchiato’s ‘Luminal’. He will soon be seen in the upcoming films Philippe Ramos ‘Capitaine Ahab’ and Berkun Oya’s ‘Iyi Seneler’.
Denis Lavant is famous for one of his most admired performances as a legionnaire in Claire Denis’ acclaimed 2000 film ‘Beau Travail’. He  is also remembered as the hero ‘Alex’ of Leos Carax’ first three films: 1983’s ‘Boy Meets Girl’, 1986’s ‘Bad Blood’ (Mauvais Sang) and opposite Juliette Binoche, he played the fire-breathing vagabond in 1991’s ‘Lovers on the bridge’ (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf).
Finally, Denis Lavant describes himself above all as a theatre actor, and thus had memorable theatre roles in French productions of ‘The Seagull’, ‘Romeo and Juliette’ and ‘Richard II’.

The Interview with actor Denis Lavant:

France In London: What about your first meeting with the director Harmony Korine, how did it happen? It is said that when he wrote the character of Charlie Chaplin, he was just thinking about you to interpret this character, is that true that he wrote this character especially for you?

Denis Lavant: Yes, absolutely. I actually learnt that some time after we’d first met. I was very impressed to hear that, because I know that Harmony Korine wanted to meet me because he saw me in the films I made with Leos Carax. It means that he met Leos Carax, he saw his movies, or at least the three in which I played. And so I think that’s why he wanted to meet me and give me the role of Charlie Chaplin’s impersonator.

FIL: You don’t speak English, do you? Did this create difficulties for you during the shooting?

DL: Yes, it was quite awful for me. When I met Harmony Korine, I found him very sympathetic, but we actually barely communicated at first time, or we always needed the help of an interpret. I’d never wanted to learn English because I found this language kind of commercial and I didn’t find any interests in learning it.

FIL: And now that you have been confronted with these language difficulties, is there still no interest in speaking English?

DL: Not really, sometimes maybe. But I am, above all, a theatre artist, so the first language I am used to speaking is French. What I can say is that playing in English with English actors was, for me, the target of this film, especially during some of the trickiest scenes, for example when I had to speak while playing table tennis. I actually had to attend an intensive English course prior to the shooting.

FIL: What was your first reaction when you first read the screenplay? Did you accept this role immediately?

DL: Yes, immediately. I know the film can appear a bit strange and difficult to follow and to find its meaning, but it was what I liked in it. I love the fantasy in this film. For me, this film is about the dignity of the human identity, the search of people for their identity. This film show how the character of Mickael Jackson’s impersonator decide to go to this community to search his identity. That’s why I was very impressed when I first read the screenplay: How something that appeared to be just full of fantasy and disorganised, actually broadcast beautiful and strong ideas.

FIL: ‘Mister Lonely’ is also a dark film, quite pessimistic. Did you feel any loneliness during the shooting?

DL: Yes it is a pessimistic film. But I didn’t feel lonely. It was even one of the films during the shooting of which I felt the least loneliness. The atmosphere during the shooting was indeed really warm, first because the actors were all very nice, and also because we were disguised all day like insane people (laughs). 

FIL: In one scene, your character’s wife, Marylyn Monroe’s impersonator, tells you that sometimes you looks more like Hitler than like Charlie Chaplin. What do you think? Did you play more Hitler or Charlie Chaplin?

DL: I actually felt like I played a character. I started with looking at myself, to find what I had in common with the comic character invented by Charlie Chaplin, not Charlie Chaplin himself. I found in him some similarities with my face, my physic, and also with my ability to play acrobatics and pantomimes. And then, I also appreciated the character of Chaplin, the spoiling of his image or its exaggeration. The way it was also a caricature in life and how awful he became. That’s why Marilyn says that to him. But what is surprising too is that, when I was preparing for my role, I also used the DVD of ‘The Dictator’ in which there is a documentary showing a parallel between Hitler’s rise, his access to power and Charlie Chaplin’s carrer. And it showed how the character of Charlie Chaplin, who was wicked in his first comic films became more humanist. And how Hitler also built his character, with his moustache and the way how all his public appearances were directed. He was also kind of an actor. Except that, in Hitler’s case, it became a craziness because there was no more separation between the human being and the representation. On the contrary, Charlie Chaplin had this cleverness to show that his character was a character and when he got rid of his moustache, he was a normal human being, a director and an actor.

FIL: But your character is also quite sensitive and he sure love his wife, we can even see him cry. Maybe he is not as devil as we all think?

DL: Maybe he loves her, but still. For me he portrays the human craziness. He could be called a ‘narcissistic pervert’ (strong laugh). He actually could be both sincere and awful. And what is interesting is that all human beings are quite like that. I mean, there is no pure gentleness and pure badness, everyone is situated between those to extreme points. And my character is closer to the awfulness, he likes making the other suffer. He is also very jealous.

FIL : Are you a ‘narcissistic pervert’ ?

DL : I hope not (laugh). But I think that everyone has impulses, that fortunately he doesn’t develop. Everyone can be schizophrenic or paranoid or a narcissistic pervert. And as an actor, I can appreciate that very well (laugh).

FIL : Director Harmony Korine said you are one of his favourite actors with Buster Keaton, Humphrey Bogart and James Dean. What do you think of being compared with such actors?

DL: The three of them, it’s a lot! (laugh). I really appreciate Buster Keaton because he was above all a burlesque actor, such as Chaplin, and I was really inspired by them. I admire them a lot. I also started by playing without speech, that’s why I feel really close to them. I started only later to work on theatre texts.

FIL: You have played in lots of theatre pieces. Did this film, with the show of the impersonators and their fancy dress, remind you of the theatre?

DL: Yes absolutely. This film was a great show. And, as for me, I am above all a theatre actor, so I really enjoyed it. I play for the cinema quite rarely and have an important role in a big film only every two or three years.

FIL: It is said a lot that you are a ‘physical’ actor, an actor that plays a lot with his body. Is that true?

DL: That’s true. I agree with that, but in the same time, as an actor, I think that an actor has always to be physical, when he plays for the theatre as well as for the cinema. It is part of the mise-en-scene, of the play, an actor can be either physically restrained or exteriorise a lot, it all depends on the style of each one. Maybe I am more physical than the average (laugh), but I admit it. It is part of my pleasure. I love dancing, I love all my body to play. For me, a role isn’t just a face and a voice, and the great actor that I admire are those who use their body to give a shape to their character, for example Marlon Brando, whose acting has so much style.

FIL: What could you tell us about your plans for the future?

DL:  This year, I have also played in a film by director Merzak Allouache, which was a great adventure as it took place in the Sahara desert and I played a fashion photograph. What I really enjoyed is that it was a more ‘normal’ role given to me, less extreme than the one I had in Leos Carax, Claire Denis or Harmony Korine’s films. I have played a lot of extreme characters, often marginal, so it was the occasion for me to have the experience of a film dealing with a more conventional day-to-day.   Apart from the films that I’ve already finished and should be soon released, I am also going to Japan to shoot my fourth film with director Leos Carax.



08/06/2013 - Isabellehardr a dit :

I'm a fan since Mauvais Sang, love this actor and wish i meet him someday because i have the feeling we have a lot in common.

01/06/2011 - psychonaut_23 a dit :

Denis Lavant is one of our greatest actors! Perfect in Mr.Lonely! But in my heart he will always be spitting fire in Pont-Nuf

06/05/2010 - zg-Miller4072 a dit :

I liked your site.


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