Jean-Hugues Anglade talks about his inner-fiction, solitude and the landscapes of his youth. And a changing France …
I first met Jean-Hugues Anglade last August at the Festival Film Francophone d’Angoulême, where he was the president of the jury, and promoting his latest film Je Suis un Soldat, directed by Laurent Larivière. Jean-Hugues plays Henri, a bitter and cynical man who has a pivotal role in an Eastern-European dog-trafficking ring. Henri’s a cold, grey character, the kind of man who keeps his emotions as over-sized jumpers stuffed into a drawer that won’t quite close. Henri has a malcontent not dissimilar to his role as Eddy Caplan the troubled cop in the gritty TV hit series Braquo.
Jean-Hugues’s first major introduction to the Anglophone audience was in the 1986 cult-classic Betty Blue, where he played the passionate Zorg, Betty’s (Beatrice Dalle) boyfriend. Sensuality, sadness and a twisted energy became Jean-Hugues’s language, one he used to interpret roles in numerous films including the heist thriller Killing Zoe and King Charles IX in the much-lauded epic La Reine Margot.
Back in the summer, just before the Festival, Jean-Hugues was involved in the much-reported Thalys train attack en route from Amsterdam to Paris. Just a few days later he turned up at the Festival de Francophone d’Angoulême with his hand in a bandage, looking, understandably, a little tired. However Jean-Hugues remained full of charm and had a genuine interest in everyone he met: directors, fellow actors and the people in the town. At the festival I asked him if we could meet for an hour in Paris during the autumn to talk about his work and his inspiration.
Two months later, during our conversation in a brasserie in Saint-Michel, Jean-Hugues spoke with honesty and whimsy: the same enthusiasm of a young boy exploring the forest floor, and the sadness of not quite finding what he is looking for. I found this a reflection of Jean-Hugues journey as an actor, passing through an era colder and more cynical than the one of his youth.
HVK: Henri, your character in Je Suis un Soldat (I am a Soldier) is an intense and complex man.
JHA: He’s a very rude man and he is not likeable and not very sympathetic. He’s a very paradoxical man. He does a very dirty job, trafficking dogs. But it’s not just for himself: it’s for the family and people around him he loves. It’s illegal but it’s the only way he’s found to make money to support his family.
We live in difficult times right now. We have a lot of people without work. Millions of people in France don’t work, and it makes your future unpredictable. The perspective of the future is black.
When I was young in the 1980s it was not the same problem. There were not so many unemployed people in France. Now it’s 6 million. This makes the future very insecure and you can be in work and then out of work. There is always the same problem: how do you pay for everything? Your car, your house …
HVK: Henri’s reaction to this problem is illegal, but it is based on survival.
JHA: Lots of people live thanks to black money in France. And young people without work deal drugs. It’s because everything is expensive in our society.
HVK: At Festival Film Francophone d’Angoulême there was a screening of Betty Blue, which I hadn’t seen since I was seventeen years old. There’s a huge difference between the optimistic Zorg, Betty’s boyfriend (at least up until the point when Betty dies) and the pessimistic Henri. Symbolic, too, of the difference between a mid-80s France and France today, which for many people, is just about surviving. It’s a portrait of an economic change.
JHA: I was 30 when I shot Betty Blue. Today I am 60. Zorg and Henri are different guys. In Betty Blue we can understand the environment in the 80s, the economic situation and how young people were dreaming about their future. Today it’s much more cynical.
HVK: People are cynical about money, but also, perhaps, in their relationships. Today they are more cautious about how they connect with people.
JHA: The 80s came after a period of change and ‘flower power.’ I remember when I entered the Conservatoire in Paris it was 1975 and I was 20 years old. It was a very blessed period and time, because we were mentally different.
People were closer to each other and much less interested in money. During this time, it was not that difficult to live in Paris on a small amount of money. You could work in the theatre doing walk-on parts and earn enough to live on for the month. I am very grateful to the Comédie-Français (France’s state theatre) because they paid me properly. I had enough to live.
HVK: Betty Blue was such a big film for my generation. We watched it when we were teenagers. How do you think it influenced our view of romantic relationships?
JHA: It’s a mystery. I don’t know why people from all around the world have been so touched by Betty Blue. Just why this movie had such an … I’m lost for words …
HVK: Do you think it’s something to do with Zorg’s adoration for Betty?
HVK: You have this big love for Betty. It is unconditional and without criticism. Men may see the film in a different way, but for women you are like a modern-day Prince: no matter how crazy she gets, you still love her.
JHA: (looks surprised) Even if she’s crazy?
HVK: Yes, even if she’s crazy. In my mind your love for Betty forms the visceral connection that some women have with the film. Of course, for men it could be something different. Quite possibly the allure of Beatrice Dalle.
JHA: Betty Blue was beautiful, aesthetically speaking. In terms of the images, the music, the piano. And, of course, the characters: there was such a sensuality and physical attraction between them.
The attraction between Betty and Zorg can happen in normal life. You can have a situation between a woman or a man or someone you love so deeply, in such a strong way. It can happen very fast with someone you love.
HVK: I understand you were in a relationship with Beatrice Dalle off-screen?
JHA: (blushes) We were very young. Only once in my life have I been in a situation like this. Everything was confused between fiction and reality, because we were practically living in the same place where we were shooting.
We were living in this bungalow on the beach, just a short distance from the same bungalow Betty and Zorg shared. I remember I had a big German Shepherd with me at the time. It was a very special shoot. It was magic. It was the beginning of my career and I was not aware of everything that can be cruel in this job. I was innocent. We were like children. For Beatrice it was the same.
HVK: Zorg has enoromous energy in the film.
JHA: (laughs) I was young!
HVK: When I was a teenager we watched Betty Blue when our parents were out. It educated us about sex.
JHA: Many people said this to me. The guy who directed Je suis un Soldat saw Betty Blue, despite his homosexuality and despite not having permission from his parents.
HVK: The eighties was an era when cinema could teach teenagers about sex and intimacy in a positive way, as something that was closer to a real experience, yet still erotic. Today pornography is the educator, which is more cynical.
JHA: Yes, you’re right. Things have changed so much. It’s like the issue of becoming an actor. I meet lots of young people who want to become actors and you can see that sometimes it’s not a real passion.
Young people ask me ‘What do I have to do?’ So I answer: ‘Try to enter the Conservatoire (CNSAD) which is the best dramatic school.’
And they say, ‘Ah, how long does it take?’ I say ‘It takes 3 years. And there is a big audition, with two or three levels. There are so many people who want to try to enter the Conservatoire.’
And they say ‘Ok, so it’s a lot work.’ And I say, ‘Yes, it’s a lot of work.’ And then the young people want to know if it’s easy to find work afterwards.
Most young people are interested to make films for the wrong reasons. They speak too early about money and glamour and fame.
This was not our goal at all when I started out. It was so vital to succeed in entering the Conservatoire. It was the main event to give meaning to my life. From 1,000 students they had to choose 24, and I was one of them. It felt amazing.
So you can imagine how it was for a guy like me who came from the provinces. I was born in Deux-Sèvres and after that my family moved to Tours, in the countryside. At the time it was very unusual for someone like me to succeed in entering the Conservatoire.
Now, if I meet a guy who wants to become an actor, it’s different. He asks me,‘Could you give me some contacts?’ He wants to get connected with an agent right away.
HVK: Did your family support you becoming an actor?
JHA: Before I entered the Conservatoire they were very concerned. And they asked me to be reasonable and to think about another job. But once I was given a place they helped me a lot and were very positive.
They are very gentle, even though they don’t know the details of my professional life, because it’s so far away from the life they know.
HVK: I know the countryside near Tours and Deux-Sèvres very well.
JHA: Really! You’re married to a French man?
HVK: No, an Englishman! We go to the Charente a lot, and also the area around Tours. The countryside there is very affecting; it forms certain thought-patterns in your head. Makes you see things in a new way.
And so I was wondering how the landscape you grew up in influenced you as an artist? Your performances are very generous, but contained as well. A see-saw between a positive energy and a brooding darkness.
JHA: Yes. (A big pause) The environment in which you grow up is very important in terms of your education. There are half positive and half pessimist elements, which composed my environment.
I have always been a lonesome guy. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was mostly alone because I was the one boy in the family. I have two older sisters. My father was a vet and not at home much. So I grew up and my personality is that I am very solitary. I felt lonely and sad when I was a boy, and that feeling stays. It’s a …
JHA stops talking and listens for a moment. Someone in the Brasserie has turned on some Blues music.
I do love Blues music and I’m learning to play the guitar. I was just listening to the sound.
So, near where I grew up in the Loire we have forests and castles. We have a lot of history and beautiful autumns. It’s half beautiful and it can also be very melancholic, because the colour of the sky often changes, and so your mood changes too. And sometimes you have a positive vibration and sometimes you can be a bit depressed too.
In my youth the sky and the land created different moods. Sometimes I felt very alive and full of energy and happy to live. Other times I was very nostalgic and melancholic and I wished for something big, a different future that could be far away from this area.
HVK: The woods are particularly special. They do more than create a mood. They connect us to something else, some kind of focused energy. If we can channel this ‘connected’ feeling into our work, our relationship and our passion in life, then we are fortunate. In a way, nature feeds us, forms us and helps us give to other people.
JHA: For me it was the question of how the woods smell. And so many things interfere with that smell. I should write about the woods and my youth. There were two realities for me when I was growing up. There was the normal reality and there was something that was ‘beyond,’ that existed beyond my regular reality.
I was 15, 16, 17 years old and I didn’t know how to explain this feeling I had inside. I should try to explain this ‘double feeling’ by writing about it. The feeling was very strange. It was a kind of fiction, a fiction that I wanted to enter, a ‘second level.’
I’ve felt like entering this fiction throughout my life. This ‘second level’ – it’s the level I’ve been practicing now for 40 years each time I enter a character. There is this moment when you cross into something new. Even if you are aware of the lines you have to work with in a basic way, like a student for many weeks before the shoot begins. At the moment when the camera rolls there a new birth. It’s the same feeling I experienced in my youth, when I wasn’t a professional actor. I still have a relationship with that early feeling.
If you are able to frighten people on screen, if you are able to move people, that’s proof you are able to accept another kind of reality. People want to go on a journey with you.
HVK: How would you describe the essence of your performances?
JHA: There are two opposites in me. I am always going back and forth. I am one thing and then I am the opposite. There is a very rational way of seeing life and a totally poetic way of seeing life. An unrealistic way of seeing life, perhaps. It’s very bizarre. I act that way, too.
I can seem fragile, but I can be very strong. I can be tender, but also very rude. It is this contrast that made me want to play Henri in Je suis un Soldat. The director wanted me to be very rude, mean and tough. Not to show human sweetness or nostalgia. At the end of the film we understand Henri has experienced a kind of redemption. We shot the film from the beginning of the script, so it was a natural step-by-step process towards his brokeness and redemption.
HVK: Can you remember a specific moment when you decided to become an actor?
JHA: During that period when I wanted to be away from where I was growing up, I went to see all the movies by the Nouvelle Vague directors. I felt very moved leaving the movie theatre. And one day I remember coming out from a Claude Sautet movie called Vincent, François, Paul et les Autres … I decided, ‘Ok, this is what I am going to do. I want to get involved in that kind of world, and become an actor.’
HVK: And then you went on to act in Sautet’s film ‘Nelly and Mr Arnaud’
JHA: It was a good movie but I was disappointed with the experience. I met Claude Sautet and he offered me the part, but I was a bit disappointed about the character. I was not excited about doing it, but I accepted it because it was Claude Sautet. I had just come out from La Reine Margot, which was such a crazy and exciting experience for me, and Killing Zoe too. I was very happy working on these films. But when I did the Claude Sautet movie I was a bit depressed. My dream was to have a powerful and main part. It was a disappointment.
HVK: How did the success of La Reine Margot in 1993 make you feel?
JHA: I had a very positive energy. 1993 was a high-paced year. I was very happy, not because of my private life, but because I had a big energy. It was an electric year for me. My Jimi-Hendrix year. I was suddenly ready, and I could go far. Now it’s different.
HVK: How is it different?
JHA: I’m not as happy as I used to be. I have more sadness in my life. I have two beautiful kids, but it’s different. That’s why it’s very interesting to give me work now.
I did Braquo which is a very successful TV series, but now it’s finished. We just made season 4, which will be out in January 2016. Braquo took me 5 years and I wanted to quit this character, so we finished it.
I was very happy on the Je suis un Soldat set. It made me realise I want to go back into feature films and play characters who lead normal lives and exist in today’s society.
I have a big energy for social realism and would love to work with Michael Haneke or Jaques Audiard. This is why I’m not shooting right now. I’m waiting for offers that could be interesting.
Helen Van Kruyssen, January 2016