Ex-model AMIRA CASAR is now an actress, one of France’s best. ALEXANDER GORKOW spoke with her in Paris about European pride, love, and the intellectual swingers’ circle.
ALEXANDER GORKOW: Amira, can we talk about Europe?
AMIRA CASAR: Sure. But why about Europe? Can I have a cigarette?
Of course. Your father is Kurdish, your mother Russian …
… but that’s not interesting, I’d like to … and it doesn’t directly involve Europe, does it? But if you wish, we Europeans have to …
You, in turn, grew up in London and Ireland, and at the age of fourteen, you first came to Paris, at Helmut Newton’s request …
… I think, we Europeans have to …
… And the movie in which you are now starring, Peindre ou fair l’amour, is French, as French as it could possibly be.
You think so? But please, what is so French about it? It’s about love, it’s about growing older. That’s hardly a genuinely French subject.
A married couple of a certain age moves to the countryside and slips into a ménage à quatre with a blind painter and his beautiful lover. They talk about art and love and …
… and of course they fuck and …
Exactly! I mean, only the French could come up with that, a story about intellectual swingers, no?
Excuse me, such experiences happen in the best families, including, I’m sure, those in Germany. And it’s not a story about swingers. I must protest!
Let’s say, a story about swingers for the elite. For the arte audience, no?
To me it seems like a Caspar David Friedrich landscape. These two couples are at the mercy of the elements, the elements of love, of nature. They realize that they are small against these elements. The movie is serious and funny at the same time.
“I have only one life, so I want to work with good people.”
It is indeed a weird balancing-act between comedy and tragicomedy.
But mostly it’s comical. It doesn’t explain anything. The characters that are thus exposed, Sabine Azema and Daniel Auteuil find themselves in a sort of burlesque. What’s so French about that?
The way the story is told. This permanent meditation on one’s own life.
Ok, maybe that is French about the movie. But an independent American filmmaker would also have made a different movie than a director working for a big, dreadful stateside studio company.
Why are these studio companies so dreadful?
Because the world is awash with their trash, maybe that’s why. I think that’s why.
Ok. Then let me ask: you are one of the most prominent faces of French auteur cinema. If you could get, say, 15 million dollars for a role in a stupid American movie …
Stop! I’ve had these offers. Loads of money. And I’ve always refused. I could prove that. I have it in writing.
Why did you refuse?
Because life ends at some point, and then you’ve made movies that are complete shit. I have only one life, so I want to work with good people, like the Larrieu brothers, as I have now done in Peindre ou fair l’amour, or like Catherine Breillat, or the Quay brothers.
Sounds like an endangered species.
Well, that would be moralizing and self-important, wouldn’t it? But it’s something different, it’s self-interested. I definitely want to make movies that I will learn from, I want to work with people who will walk hand in hand with me for a great story. It was you who was talking about Europe.
It’s a European question of principle?
Yes. I think there is such a phenomenal supply of creative people in France, Germany, Spain, and England. It is regrettable how much room our consumer culture makes for the Americans. I’m not anti-American. We all know how many great directors and artists the US has. But we in Europe should preserve our culture more proudly.
We in Germany have difficulties with the term “pride.”
I know. But I’ve shot in Germany, and I’ve met many young people in Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin, or Munich who didn’t seem so encumbered anymore. They did their work with great love for their culture, including an explicitly German culture. In Dresden, by the way, I was not proud of my English roots, which I also have and of which I am proud now and then. I had a hard time speaking English in that beautiful city. We all should stop acting around the Germans as though we’d always been absolutely wonderful, morally speaking.
And yet pride is …
“Attention: Ich ärinnere mich. And: Ich bin ein Kind där Ärde. Are you a child of the earth? Ich stehe auf där Ärde. Yes. No? Correct? Die Ärde ist schön. No?”
You don’t have to call it pride. Let’s call it appreciation – or love. Look at your German stage – the theaters and museums in Munich, the stages in Berlin, Ostermeier, Castorf – a diversity that is unique in the world. Look at your literary history, Fontane’s Effi Briest, and what a fantastic director like Rainer Werner Fassbinder has made out of it, I mean, that’s something to be proud of, isn’t it? Yes it is. You have to love this art, and you have to defend it, and you have to defend young filmmakers in Europe against the formidable power of money that force-feeds big productions from America into our movie theaters. Don’t you think so?
It’s like you’re electrified!
High voltage, I know, I’m sorry. I was already like that as a child. I’ll come down in a moment, okay? Be lenient with me, please!
As a little girl, you came to Paris from London with nothing but £100 in your pocket, right?
That’s right. That’s not a legend.
And you worked as a model.
That’s right again. And I refuse to apologize for it.
But why should you? You worked with the greatest.
For a long time I had a problem with it. You can imagine why. Now don’t give me that hypocritical look!
Because people who work as models are supposedly superficial, of course.
But I don’t mean it in a hypocritical way. You can work as a model with good photographers and at the same time be an ambitious actress working with bad directors. Yet you obviously did everything right.
Thank you, that’s very kind of you, and yes, I no longer have any problems with it. I’ve worked with Helmut Newton, with Karl Lagerfeld, with Juergen Teller, who I admire, so why should it be a problem? Can I please have another cigarette?
Your lighter reads, TRUST THE GIRLS. I find that extremely funny. Do you trust the girls?
No, no, of course not at all.
Then why do you traffic in pro-girl propaganda? You’re a feminist!
It’s a female friend’s lighter, I think. I must have put it in my pocket; it doesn’t mean anything.
Well, I wouldn’t be so sure that it means nothing when you put something like that in your pocket. You’re blushing, too. You’re a feminist. Or your alleged friend, she’s a feminist!
I think …
Or she likes women. That would also make sense. In any case, you’ve shown up here with this very lighter!
Where were we?
So I made a clean break with my modeling career and went to acting school. Ten boys and ten girls were selected from thousands of people at a public acting school: I was one of them. I made my way.
Do you have children?
Why would you ask that?
I don’t know either. When someone makes their way with an iron will like yours, children don’t fit into their life, do they?
God, you’ve hit a point. So, no, I don’t have children. Do you think I’d be a Nazi mom?
Excuse me? Why would I think that?
I think I’d be a bit of a Nazi mom. My child had better not dare to be anything but a genius, that kind of thing, you understand?
Once children are there, you love them even when they’re not geniuses. You seem passionate to me. So you would love your child especially. And neglect your career. So much for Amira Casar.
I would love my child very much – and entrust the father with his or her education, instead of neglecting my career. Do you know Thomas Bernhard’s plays?
Well, speaking of pride and beauty and so on. We played Heldenplatz in acting school, and I mean, sure, he was Austrian, not German, but it’s the German revenge, and when I meet Germans or Austrians who say that their language is not beautiful, then I ask them to read Thomas Bernhard and to listen to this music that carries his language and his humor. Thomas Bernhard is a big star here in France.
What is it about the sound of the German language that amazes an actress?
These great consonants of course! This zick-zickrucke-zücke and what have you. That’s great. When a good actor speaks this language, it is singularly clear and beautiful. Because these consonants give the vowels a beautiful and clear, a disciplined frame, in which they can swing. When you read Heinrich Heine, you’ll notice that! And these beautiful-sounding words. Die Liebe.
But as it is today with Fassbinder, it was with Heine for a long time: these artists are celebrated abroad but almost completely forgotten in their own country.
Well, it is up to all of us and up to you especially to work against that.
Do you speak any more German?
Attention: Ich ärinnere mich. And: Ich bin ein Kind där Ärde. Are you a child of the earth? Ich stehe auf där Ärde. Yes. No? Correct? Die Ärde ist schön. No?
That’s to say, you are firmly grounded? You don’t flutter around?
I don’t mean it in the sense of groundedness only, though, but also, uhm …
Metaphysically! Exactly! Do you know Gustav Mahler’s Lied von der Erde? It ends with the “Farewell.” That’s the most beautiful thing ever cast into music. You can wipe me up from the floor after that. It’s a fucking killer!
I get it, the great European and metaphysical traditions.
Canaletto’s paintings, his paintings of Dresden on the basis of which the city attempted to…
… and to complete the picture: Jeanne Moreau recently crowned you, extolling you as the outstanding actress of French cinema.
Yes, imagine that!
What can come after that?
After that you feel honored and keep on working. She exemplified it in her own life: work, work, work. And only with those you think are the right people. Fuck money. No?
I’m about to have a European-culture flash. And yet you’re right: we should preserve our culture, even our goddamn melancholy. You’ve convinced me, from now on I fight with you – side by side!
But why “goddamn melancholy”? Now what is that about?
In Germany it lurks behind every door.
Man, be proud of that. Just consider for a moment what great art has emerged from it! By the way, I never felt that in Germany. When I think of Germany, I think of kind people who open all doors. I think it’s only the Germans who see themselves in these dark colours. And not even all Germans. But you do. A very gloomy view to have of yourself. And then such a funny lighter. You are a comedian.
Let’s not talk only about Germany. You grew up in Great Britain. What do you miss?
Take the clichés and you’ll know what I miss: the politeness, the queues that form as soon as two people wait for the same bus, and yes, also the humour.
When you fly from Munich to London, you want to start hugging people in Heathrow.
No, I do, for example. These nice faces, everyone’s friendly while squeezing you for astronomical amounts of money.
You’re badmouthing Germany again. Perhaps you are yourself more cheerful in Heathrow!
You think so?
Yes. And the way you look at people, that way they’ll look back at you. But maybe you also have a bit of a point: I mean, when I come to London from Paris, I get a humor shock. I wouldn’t have gotten a foot on the ground here in Paris without very loyal people – but laughter is not one of the obvious characteristics of the French. People here prefer to think it all through once more. But that, too, is Europe. In our art, we are constantly working on one grand manifesto, aren’t we? Think only of the films and books by Catherine Breillat, who I admire very much.
And who is again and again charged with pornography.
Yes, what nonsense! Catherine is working on a grand manifesto. What’s at issue is our relation to our bodies, to sexuality. And art’s freedom from censorship. I believe, by the way, that there is an interesting contradiction inside European culture, in theatre, in film, in art, and even more in music.
“Do you think I’ll be reborn as a gay boy? As a reactionary gay boy? No, drop the reactionary thing! But a disciplined gay boy, that’d be neat.”
Burning passion on the one hand – and this Nordic discipline on the other! Just take Gustav Mahler or Ingmar Bergman, and Thomas Bernhard of course. And this very disciplined aspect, I think, it is sometimes this Nazi-like aspect to me …
Shall we rather say, reactionary aspect?
On the one hand, I’m a big fan of the whole madness about discipline and politeness, in England for example. On the other hand, I find everything about super-gay European culture absolutely gorgeous: opera, Cecil Beaton, Quentin Crisp, the great Fassbinder, Oscar Wilde.
Alright, now you’ve got me completely confused.
Do you think I’ll be reborn as a gay boy? As a reactionary gay boy? No, drop the reactionary thing! But a disciplined gay boy, that’d be neat. And you as a feminist.
I can’t go on.
Ok, let’s have another cigarette then.