Elsa Zylberstein was in drama school when she first laid eyes on Claude Lelouch during a master class, and all she wanted was for him to look at her.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m such an actress for him’ and wrote him a letter when I was 18,” Zylberstein recalled recently in Los Angeles. “He said, ‘It’s going to take you ten years to become an actress,’ and I did “Van Gogh,” [with Maurice Pialat] very close after, but it was as I began my career, so he was looking at me like, “Oh my God, this girl…”
Yet Zylberstein can’t hide a devilish grin when noting 20 years later, she finally made it in front of the French filmmaking legend’s inimitable lens with “Un Plus Une,” an update of sorts of his most famous film “A Man and A Woman.” Once again searching for the delicate balance of the sexes that results in an enduring romance, Lelouch finds a ravishing pair in Zylberstein and Jean Dujardin, playing Anna and Antoine, a pair of French expats in India both unsatisfied with their current stations in life – her, the wife of a French ambassador (Christopher Lambert) whose unsuccessful attempts at pregnancy leads her to seek out Amma, a saint on the Ganges River, and he, a film composer who is thrown for a loop by the marriage proposal of his girlfriend (Alice Pol) and uses the cover of work on a Bollywood film for some soul searching. But before either can seek enlightenment elsewhere, they discover solace in each other’s arms, embarking on a torrid affair where the passion is abundant, but with the perspective of being older, so is the skepticism where this relationship will take them when the ones they’re already in are so unsatisfying.
Of course, this being Lelouch, love is the predominant emotion in “Un Plus Une,” not only between the characters, but in how the director feels towards them and in Zylberstein, he receives a radiant performance in return, conveying all of Anna’s complicated desires with a sharpness in her expressions that could cut through glass. With the actress’ preternatural poise, you can sense how Anna is unsettled by how strongly and immediately she becomes infatuated with Antoine while rarely displaying those emotions in front of him and even amidst all the wild things that the two encounter along the Ganges, partaking in spiritual rituals and immersing themselves in the culture, she remains the most captivating presence on screen.
Then again, that’s usually been the case, with American audiences likely first taking notice of her harrowing turn as Kristen Scott Thomas’ concerned sister in Phillippe Claudel’s 2008 drama “I’ve Loved You So Long,” though Zylberstein established herself long before in her native France as a versatile, spirited performer for the likes of Chantal Akerman and Raoul Ruiz. Exuding the same electricity off-screen as on, the actress reflected on the “life-changing” experience of working with Lelouch on the eve of an awards qualifying run for “Un Plus Une,” taking the initiative to pitch him the project and being required to be in character at all times as the camera was always rolling.
How did this come about?
[Jean Dujardin and I] were on a flight from Paris to L.A. and we talked about our desire to do a film together one day. We ended up talking about Claude Lelouch and we [both] said, “We’d die to do a film with Claude Lelouch. So I said, “I’m calling him when I land.” And when we land in L.A., I called Claude Lelouch and I said, “I’m with Jean Dujardin, and we want to do a film with you, a film like ‘A Man and a Woman’ in the ‘70s. We want to do the cousin of that one – far away, love story. Go!” He said, “Okay.” Three weeks after, we’re in his office and he had written the beginning of the film. It’s insane. The story [of making the film] is like a Claude Lelouch film at the beginning!
Was that an intimidating call to make?
No. Claude and I knew each other, of course, and he wanted to work with me and Jean as well, but when things are important for me, I just don’t think. I just go. I wanted it to happen and I just make it happen.
Since you asked him to write this film for you, were you involved in the creation of these characters from the ground up?
[Claude] wrote the parts for Jean and I, so it was inspired by us and we spent time having dinner, but then we got a big script. We brought ideas, but Claude’s way of working is that we have the story, but the creation is happening on set. It’s the whole mystery of cinema for me – I learned that with Maurice Pialat as well. [where] Claude knows how to look at you. [Filming] was nonstop every day and we were really [always] doing something special. We took trains for 20 hours, we took planes and Claude was always following us [with the camera].
What is that like to inhabit the character all the time?
All the time! In the morning, [I wear this] pink thing [that’s not] my costume, and he’s like, “Fuck! I don’t care. It’s your costume now!” Because he wanted to film me and Jean at the station [in that moment]. But it’s very exciting. I don’t like to be in comfort when I’m working. This was not a film with trailers and [when a scene ended, it was] like ok, we’re done. No, you have to give your soul. When I was in the Ganges [River], Jean and I had like 15 scenes together and [Claude] wanted us to really be in front of each other, like tennis players [volleying back and forth]. He was a great partner and we were like two animals in front of each other. It was a great gift to be able to work with him like this and [within] minutes, the chemistry worked so well.
Was going to India always a part of the initial idea?
When Jean and I said we wanted to make a love story in a far-off place, Claude came up with the idea of India. It’s the best country for spirituality and mystery and it’s also a country of rational and irrational, which I believe love is as well. It was such a good idea because you feel everything’s possible. It’s a culture of myth, and of stories and a country of cinema as well. Amma, this goddess, was here, and she’s embracing you and giving you so much love — I felt blessed meeting her. India was a character [in the film]. A lot of those moments at Kumbh Mela [the mass Hindu pilgrimage], it was three crazy days and when we’re lost with Jean, we took the bicycle and we created the whole thing – Claude imagined it, but smoking with the guys [in the village], [these characters are] falling in love in a way in those moments. It’s like true life.
Was there a detail that helped you figure out who your character Anna was?
I figured out my character was traveling to India to meet her real parents – this was the whole story we built with Claude — and I ended up at the consulate because everything was stolen and I meet the consul. I’ve been married for two or three years, but I’m getting bored. And when you meet someone like Jean Dujardin, who’s bigger than life, how can you resist? And the whole idea of the film is you’re never protected through love. Even if you’re married and in love, you never know what’s going to happen, and when she meets this masculine – too masculine – man who has no rules, she just fell in love. It was very interesting to build my character on [the idea that] she’s lost. She’s going to see Amma because she cannot have a baby and she’s like so disturbed by [how she’s quickly infatuated by] this man. Claude wanted me to fall in love with him right away — he said, she’s fighting [herself] inside the whole time. That’s why he didn’t want me to smile. She’s at the age where she’s about to fall and that’s why her armor’s cracking. I wanted her to be lost, like she doesn’t know what she wants. [But when she meets Jean’s character] she knows — you know, a woman knows before a man sometimes, she’s very moved at this moment, knowing what’s happening and while she’s fighting the whole film, when they’re talking at this restaurant and he says, “You fall in love often?” She goes [quiet]. She’s already seduced.
Was working with Claude everything you thought it would be? You’ve worked with a number of legends over the course of your career – Pialat….
I’ve worked with Raoul Ruiz as well — great directors. And it’s always very important. They’re here on my shoulders and it’s very special. I’m obsessed with directors. I really want to work with Woody Allen one day and Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell… I’d love to dive into their universe and it’s all about fantasy — for Claude, I’m this woman and for another director, I’m someone else. I just did three films in France — one’s a big comedy [where] I’m blonde and it’s like hello! A totally different part, and I know I have a big range as an actress [where] I can go from drama in “I’ve Loved You for So Long,” where I have short hair, no makeup and flat shoes, to this next film, [“Les Têtes de l’emploi” where] I’m playing a woman obsessed with sex. What I really like is to do different things and to be seen by good directors is a pleasure.
[Working with Claude] was new in a way. I didn’t know how it would work because you cannot cut and say, “Go again with the scene.” It’s very alive. It’s like [the two of us here] talking, and then [Claude would] say “Stop” [when a scene would be over]. It’s funny I had the same feeling I had with Maurice Pialat. I dreamt the way he was filming actors and they’re not actors anymore. We’re like people. That’s what [Claude] has talent for, the way he looks at you, the way he’s creating the soul, the heart, the body – it’s not a film like boom, boom, boom. You feel like it’s floating — that he’s stealing everything from you. [The weight of acting] isn’t heavy anymore. It’s a documentary on Jean and I in India.
I was happy as well that [Quentin] Tarantino, who I love and adore his work, was crazy about this film. He wants to release this film in his cinema! I was with him in Lyon for three days a week ago, and I’m dying to work with him one day [too]. He’s so passionate about cinema, he just adored our film, so for me, that was a gift. It’s very special to be able to work with Claude Lelouch, which I had been dreaming of and with Jean Dujardin was an amazing partner and actor and it’s a very important film in my life.