On writing, directing, and being free
Italians have that specific temperament, a freedom in their emotions in which I recognize myself completely
September 8 was the last day of the 75th Venice Film Festival. A few days earlier, Say Who met with Lolita Chammah. The French actress attended the Festival to present “At Eternity’s Gate”, a film directed by Julian Schnabel. Willem Dafoe, the film’s lead actor, was awarded the Volpi Cul for Best Actor at the Festival. On the evening of the film screening, Lolita walked the red carpet dressed in a long pink gown designed by Alexis Mabille. We met her on the Hotel Excelsior’s iconic beach. Happy about how things went, she even admitted not wanting to leave this “beautiful dream”, and let us know she rediscovers her Mediterranean heritage every time she finds herself on Italian ground.
Tell us about your Mediterranean heritage. With your pale complexion and your auburn hair, you could have come out of a Tintoretto painting. What are your origins and how did they determine the woman and actress you are today?
My mother is French, my father has Italian origins. He had lived and worked in Italy for a long time. I myself feel very Italian because I learned to read and write Italian at a very young age. Even though I have always lived in France, I truly consider Italy as my second country. I really like Italian cinema, the great classics as well as the current cinema which remains very powerful despite the film industry’s struggles. Our origins, our history and cultural references determine who we become, and my Italian roots largely define the woman and the actress that I am. Italians have that specific temperament, a freedom in their emotions in which I recognize myself completely. So is the relationship with childhood. This summer, I was on holiday in Lecce (a very beautiful city in Puglia) with my son, and I was able to witness how privileged children are there. This is not an unhealthy relationship with the parents, on the contrary: childhood is an integral part of Italian culture, which is something that is echoed in my family as well.
“At Eternity’s Gate” is a co-production between the United Kingdom, France and the United States. What was it like working with international figures like Julian Schnabel and Willem Dafoe? How did the audience react to the film when it was first screened in Sala Grande?
Working with Julian Schnabel and Willem Dafoe was a great opportunity. Willem Dafoe is a very great actor, very generous as well. Shooting the two scenes I had with him, in English and French, was a pure pleasure. Julian Schnabel is a very singular character and I love him very much. He is a grown child with an attractive madness, somewhat offbeat. The audience did understand the film very well, precisely because it was singular and offbeat. It is a wonderful film about Vincent Van Gogh, but above all it is a film about the struggle of creating, about an artist’s being in the world. Van Gogh once said: “Normality is a paved road, you walk easily but flowers don’t grow there.” It is magical to present a film in a big festival like the one in Venice and I was very happy to take part in this adventure with so many wonderful actors: Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Niels Arestrup, and many others.
Is it your first time attending the Venice Film Festival? How would you compare it to the Cannes Film Festival, which you know well? You were notably a jury memeber for the documentary prize “L’Oeil d’Or” last year.
This is not my first time at the Venice Film Festival. I came here in 2004 to present “L’Intrus” by Claire Denis. I have a very dear memory of this moment: I came with the producer Humbert Balsan, a man I loved very much and who passed away. He called me his “Lolita” in reference to the fact that his name was Humbert, just like the narrator of Nabokov’s novel. I have a very special attachment to the Cannes Film Festival, everything is magical and crazy there, but what I appreciate in Venice is the softer, family-oriented, almost artisanal feel.
You are very busy at the moment. Can you tell us about “S’aimer quand même”, your play with Isild Le Besco and Élodie Bouchez ?
Back in May, we created a play at Ménagerie de Verre with Isild Le Besco and Élodie Bouchez. It is adapted from Isild Le Besco’s book “S’aimer quand même.” We created a piece between dance (with the dancer Nina Dipla), music, and literature by interpreting the original text in many different ways. Showing it in various theaters has been a wonderful experience, and we did present the project within literary festivals as well. Transversal projects like these are dear to me because they nourish our spirit and allow us to explore. At the moment we are preparing a film with written by Isild, which I will co-produce and star in alongside Élodie Bouchez. We developed a strong bond, and it’s always been a pleasure working with them because it’s a very human relationship. This job is so strange sometimes, it can be difficult too. Relationships are complicated and you have to be very solid to move forward. So the sweetness you feel when you find a “family” is very precious. Isild, Élodie and I trust each other and we have total freedom over what we create. Freedom is essential when you’re an actor. I need this.
You have been an actress since you were a child, and your filmography is quite substantial. You’ve been on television, on stage, and you’re preparing projects behind the camera. How essential is this to you? What are you next projects on the big screen?
My filmography and my career are strong because I have had the chance to be invited to participate in wonderful projects, to have lead roles be written for me, and to meet and work with wonderful filmmakers. I have an eclectic background, and even if auteur cinema remains at the top of my list, I have also had the opportunity to work in theatre, television, in very different fields. This may all seem so glorious from the outside, still I always fell a sort of permanent dissatisfaction and doubt, which is the case for many actors out there. I believe it is a strength as well. This state of dissatisfaction is essential to me because it drives my desire to create and my need to write. It is true that I am writing a film at the moment, but what has been driven me more urgently is the writing of a literary text soon to be published. I don’t know what to call it, but I felt this very strong desire to write and create in my own worlds. When you’re an actor, you’re forced to follow two contrary streams: on the one hand, you find yourself in this somewhat insane form of unconsciousness, that love of being directed, manipulated by someone else (the director). On the other hand, you need to escape to be completely in control of yourself. Writing allows me to express this need to exist by myself, to tell my story from my perspective, to escape from the different portraits others can make of me. Because at the end of the day, directing someone is only that: a portrait of yourself drawn to infinity. Also, though I may at times want to be guided, I sometimes need to have control over where I’m going and who I’m going towards. In the story with Isild and Élodie, there is something of that order, something that belongs to me.
“Rabbit Hole”, a play with Julie Gayet, on tour throughout France and at Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens as of January;
Interview : Irene d’Agostino
Portraits: Pierre Mouton
Lolita is dressed in Chanel