“Directing this opera changed my life”
Mélanie Laurent was at the Venice Film Festival to present her opera Les Larmes d'Eugénie. An ambitious project that she describes as a personal artistic upheaval.
By Cristina D’Agostino13 septembre 2022
On the terrace of the Gritti, overlooking the water, facing the incessant ballet of vaporetti and gondolas crossing each other without ever touching, the glow of the Grand Canal is intense on this Venetian morning. The Mostra was marked by the premiere of a strange, zany film, the cinematographic UFO that is both black and pop, by director Noah Baumbach. At a table, Mélanie Laurent discusses the final preparations before the performance of her opera produced by Cartier - also a main partner of the Mostra -, scheduled to take place "all'aperto" on the stage of the recently renovated Teatro Verdi. It is not the first time that she surprises with an opera. The previous version of Eugenie's Tears, with a committed environmental theme – with overfishing as the underlying theme of this ecological tale - had already been performed on the stage of the Comédie de Genève last December. This time, the text has been rewritten to offer an all-female stage ensemble dedicated to the mermaid's song. The music has also been reworked, unsettling, even experimental. The discovery will come from the rock version filmed in VR that Mélanie proposes this time with the Israeli singer and songwriter Asaf Avidan. The film, immersed in the oceans and then facing the visual and vocal performance of Asaf, is an emotional punch that leaves the audience speechless. Mélanie Laurent is an artist who knows how to use all mediums and play with all arts. Music, writing, cinema, from Demain to the Bal des Folles, to Les Larmes d'Eugénie, she takes audiences along and awakens the senses, to delight the spirits in the causes to which she is committed. Interview.
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Are you nervous a few hours before the first performance?
Not really... The whole idea of this opera is to constantly reinvent it. The first live part offers a more experimental performance, and the second part showcases the artist Asaf Avidan through a story that I wanted to shoot entirely in virtual reality.
Which was more exciting to create: virtual reality or live performance?
Virtual reality is a medium that came to me, more than I consciously sought. Shooting in digital was not an obvious choice. There is something ancient that lives within me in the way I want to make films. But one day, I described a feeling and a desire that, without knowing it, was close to this medium.
What was this desire?
I dreamed of making a documentary about women (editor's note: the film Mother was shown at Expo 2020 Dubai at the Women's Pavilion). I wanted to feel a great closeness with them. I wanted to give them a child's point of view, to look at them from a low angle and feel enveloped by them, as if in a bubble, in total intimacy, almost cut off from the world. It was, without knowing it, a description of virtual reality (VR). It was a real discovery. This second VR proposal of the opera Les Larmes d'Eugénie that we are showing today is the opposite of the first version that we created last year. While the first part was poetic, baroque and childlike, very close to the original written version, this is a very rock-and-roll proposal. I wanted something very stylized, in the symbol, without it being obvious.
On stage, what do you want to offer that VR does not?
On stage, the proposal is completely experimental, with instruments that are both ancient and very figurative, like a Cristal Baschet for example, a piano with crystal keys on which one plays with wet hands to make the notes vibrate. A choir of five women, whose text has been rewritten to be exclusively female this time, and a mermaid embodied by an artist who is not an opera singer, but who, for my part, sings and performs much better than any opera voice I have ever heard. She is a very young actress with whom I performed last winter. She dazzled me on the set with her vocal qualities.
Would you be tempted to make an entire film in VR? The Mostra has dedicated a festival to it for a few years.
No, not for a one-and-a-half-hour movie. On the other hand, virtual reality is interesting in more ways than one. It has been used in therapeutic care for a few years now and it works wonders to alleviate the pain of palliative care, for example. This technique, which is widely used in hospitals, allows patients to better endure treatments, especially for children, by offering the brain a way to escape, to disconnect from reality. By taking it visually elsewhere, to other worlds, it is a bit like leaving the body. This idea of relieving someone of their pain by taking them elsewhere through images has always appealed to me. With Covid, people were very lonely or still isolate themselves a lot today. There is an apprehension to go back to theaters, to be surrounded by people. People have lost the habit of sharing an emotion, collectively. Does this prevent us from seeing films and moving the public thanks to the platforms, no, I don't think so. And I would even say, fortunately, these platforms exist. We all have that urge to go away and engage in great journeys, but we can't all afford it. VR is a way to do that.
What are the limits of virtual reality in your opinion?
I am very worried, should this medium deviate, that virtual reality could become a video game to which we would be addicted, anesthetizing our desires, and cutting us off from the rest of the world. However, that the Venice International Film Festival, the oldest in the world, is open to VR, as it is to streaming platforms, demonstrates one thing: its openness to emotion. If we cut ourselves off from this emotion, we are missing out on something. Yet, I am convinced that VR is not the future. As long as there are Hollywood blockbusters, but also many small miracles of pure cinema, in independent films, which engage audiences and generates results, the magic of cinema will exist.
Cartier has been very involved in the artistic production of your opera. What does it mean for an artist to be in co-creation with a luxury house?
It changed my life... Really. It gave me the freedom to do what I had secretly dreamed of doing for a long time: creating an opera in virtual reality. I even had a hard time expressing it, out of fear, out of embarrassment that it would look too big, at least on paper. Everything has changed since then. I met new artists, I went on a world tour to make a documentary about women, also co-produced by Cartier. We went to explore culture clashes, to debate with women to find out about their lives. We had to find a way to express the subject freely, while respecting the right balance between visions and ways of life. I knew the rules of the game so as not to shock. That was not the point, by the way. I never think of cinema as a way to provoke. On the contrary. I like to go into the greatest feeling, as universal as possible, to touch all audiences.
How did the meeting with Cartier happen?
The house had chosen me as an ambassador a few years ago. I was able to observe the work of the brand "from the inside". And it was during lunch with Cyrille Vigneron, its CEO, that I was able to discover a man who loves, sees, listens, and reflects on an incalculable number of subjects, who places very few limits on creativity, but who gives all the necessary means to bring it to fruition and who knows how to gather talented women around the brand, like Khatia Buniatishvili and Amira Casar, for example, and who all happily spend time with each other outside the brand to continue the magic. I don't think there are many other similar examples in this industry. For the Womens' Pavilion at Expo Dubai 2020, the work was very intense and rewarding for two years, despite Covid. While the world was standing still, my world was opening up. While everything froze, I had never been so creative. The more the projects multiplied, the more they nurtured each other, even though they were often very different.
As for your ecological commitment, what solution do you see for raising awareness? A new education system?
Everything is about education, that's a fact. This summer has been a revelation of global warming for everyone. We've been talking about it for ten years. Today, everyone is living it. It is now a question of adapting and mending wounds since it is an irreversible process. For our children, we will have to create new schools, new jobs, give them new choices. I am sure that there is something to do. Like the graduates of Polytechnique or AgroParisTech, refusing the diploma to change the world in a different way, it is a true awakening. The small steps of the hummingbirds are certainly changing the world, but we must now move up a gear. We have just reached our extremes, so we need to create a movement with comparable power. I'm very interested in creating a new model, which would include art, education, ecology and regenerative agriculture. But I can't talk about it yet, because I'm waiting for an answer. I will say more if the light goes green. But I've certainly been working on it day and night for two years.
Your next film, which will feature Isabelle Adjani, Adèle Exarchopoulos and yourself among others, will again be about women. What do you want to say through this action film?
I start shooting in a few days (Editor's note: shooting began on September 5). It's a female action movie, inspired by a very rock & roll comic book, offbeat, funny, with a real tone, written by three men, but revised by a woman. The purpose goes far beyond the simple action film. Above all, I want to film women's relationships, in a love-friendship relationship without any sexual allusion. I want to talk about love and sisterhood between these women of action who jump, run, like in a real movie of the genre. But the intent is above all to symbolize women’s empowerment today, who do a thousand things at a time in one day. It's about filming the daily life of modern women and questioning the place of men is today. And I haven't found any answers yet.
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