She’s the patient secretary aiding the paralyzed editor of Vogue to write his memoir in Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly;” the conflicted, self-absorbed daughter of Catherine Deneuve in Arnaud Desplechin’s “Un conte de Noël;” André Dussollier’s sympathetic wife in Alain Resnais’ “Les herbes folles;” the courageous headmistress in Florian Gallenberger’s wartime drama “John Rabe.”
She’s Anne Consigny, one of France’s most distinguished character actors and the star of some of the most critically-acclaimed French films of the past five years.
Her classical French beauty and delicate features are, by no means, indicative of the complex characters she has taken on throughout her thriving career. In her best films —“Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé,” “Un conte de Noël,” “Rapt” — her quiet features ultimately prove misleading, concealing pools of contradictory emotions matched by unpredictable actions difficult to fully grasp. The search for, and dealing with, that strange thing called love is what defines her often conflicted screen persona.
Confounding expectations with nearly every role, Consigny has rapidly made up for the many years she struggled to attract directors’ attention, earning three César nominations in the last decade.
I met Consigny last year at the Alexandria Film Festival for Mediterranean Films. Calm, self-effacing and convivial, her luminous beauty is augmented with embracing warmth that makes her all the more lovely. Her passion is contagious, and when she fervently discusses her latest collaboration with the legendary Resnias, which began filming last month, you realize you’re in front of a typical actress: An established performer with the spirit of a young artist enthralled with her art and collaborators.
The 48-year-old Consigny wanted to become an actress from the age of nine. By the age of 16, she enrolled in the school of theater in Paris and a year later, she became the youngest actress with the school’s company.
In the following years, she acted with different theater companies, performing in festivals and dabbling with directing. Then for nearly three years, she stopped receiving roles.
“I told myself I’m not an actress anymore, maybe this is not for me, maybe I should find another job,” Consigny said.
Around the age of 20, she started auditioning for a number for films, but directors were reluctant. “They [auditions] were always disastrous. My agent told me, as an actress, I was unfashionable.”
She returned to school, this time to study law. After finishing her degree, she went back to theater where she finally found success. Film directors consequently sought her out.
First, it was a small part with Desplechin in “Playing In the Company of Men” (2003) then with Philippe Lioret in “L’équipier” and Olivier Marchal in “36 Quai des Orfèvres,” both in 2004. It was her role as the tango instructor embarking on a romance with a middle-aged reclusive court official in Stéphane Brizé’s acclaimed “Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé” (Not Here To Be Loved, 2005) that proved to be her big break.
“My life changed immediately. Bit by bit, I stopped auditioning. Directors started to send me scripts,” she said.
Asked if she was disappointed to be cast early on in small parts, she replied in the negative. “I didn’t dream of getting big parts. I was content with getting those small parts. The reason why I was depressed is because I wasn’t even getting those small parts at first,” she explained.
Her next film was Schnabel’s Oscar-nominated “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007), the film that marked her real international breakthrough.
Her role as Claude Mendibil, the secretary assigned to aid Mathieu Amalric’s locked-in syndrome-stricken Jean-Do to write his memoir through blinking his eye has been a challenge. For the entire duration of the film, the audience sees the world exclusively from Jean-Do’s subjective perspective; the inner monologues provide us with details unoffered to the external worlds and thus the other performers who essentially had to deal with a still face throughout the course of the film.
“Mathieu was not on the set,” Consigny said. “The camera was there and we had to react directly to it.”
“Was it difficult?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “It was…funny.”
“Every day, it felt like we were on a summer camp,” she added. “Julian constantly kept pushing us on the set, and we didn’t have the dialogue when we went in. He gave it to us while we were shooting. The whole experience was unusual. I didn’t know what he would work with in post-production. I thought he had nothing. I felt I didn’t really work, I didn’t do anything.
“But then I saw the film, I was stunned. He made the movie out of moments he stole from us,” she smiles.
“Julian is very spontaneous, like his paintings. We improvised a lot, although the script was very structured. Mathieu was given a monitor with our feed and he had to react to that and provide the voice-over that you hear in the film.”
After “Diving Bell” came Desplechin’s hugely acclaimed Palm d’Or nominee “A Christmas Tale” in the following year. Contrasting in tone, sentiment and vision to Schnabel’s film, “A Christmas Tale” is an intense, Bergman-like chamber piece about a dysfunctional family making a life-changing decision over one Christmas holiday.
Consigny received her second César nomination for her role as Elizabeth, the insecure, self-centered elder daughter vying for the love of her ailing mother, played by screen legend Catherine Deneuve. The result is Consigny’s finest performance to date.
“Desplechin is one of the best directors in France. I was very, very impressed when I read the script. It was a big part; it felt like a big mountain that I had to climb. The work though was simple. Desplechin is very focused. His set is always quiet. He directed us where and how to go there, and we had to go there through his way. We had to be on the same level of his. We had to be deeply concentrated.”
“It’s like the opposite of Schnabel,” I said.
“Exactly,” she replied. “I never thought about it this way, but yes, it’s true.”
In a film populated with deeply conflicted characters, Elizabeth comes off as the most troubled of the three, even more than the firebrand young brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric in his second collaboration with Consigny).
“I think I came to understand Elizabeth after I watched the movie,” Consigny said. “There’s a scene where Catherine Deneuve is lying in bed, sleeping, and her husband, the father (Jean-Paul Roussillon) is standing right next to her with his eyes fixated on her. That’s when I realized that the movie is about a wife and a husband who love each other too much, to the extent that they have no room for their children to share this love. Perhaps it’s unhealthy when the parents are so much in love because they have no love to give to their children.
“Elizabeth is probably a victim, a woman who’s been deprived of her parents’ love.”
“Did you sympathize with her?” I asked.
“When I saw the movie, I really hated her,” she replied. “I thought she was whiny and self-indulgent. I don’t like people who feel they’re victimized.
“I later saw the documentary that Desplechin did about his family. I didn’t realize his father was an orphan. His mother died when he was a baby. In the movie, you can see that his father’s not suffering too much, but you can tell there’s a sense of suffering hidden somewhere. So, maybe he did actually pass this suffering, this sense of loss, to his children. And maybe all three children inherited this sense of loss subconsciously. “
Her next film was a cameo role in Jean-François Richet’s blockbuster crime saga “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1” starring Vincent Cassel. “I only did it because I wanted to meet Vincent Cassel, but I actually didn’t like the movie,” she admitted. “I think it exploited Mesrine’s story for commercial purposes. Vincent Cassel was great but I don’t think it was enough to have made a good movie.”
Check the March 14 issue of Daily News Egypt for the second part of the Anne Consigny interview.
Anne Consigny with Mathieu Amalric in Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”