Creative Companionship: An Interview with Pascal Greggory
Pascal Greggory has been acting in French cinema and theater since 1975, with André Téchiné’s The Brontë Sisters (1979) first bringing him success. New York’s French Institute Alliance Française is currently in the middle of a retrospective of his films, called “Unsung Eros,” running through the middle of December. To American audiences, his work with Eric Rohmer, particularly Pauline at the Beach (1983), may be his most impressive. However, he has gone back and forth between acting in large, mainstream productions (Luc Besson’s The Messenger , the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose ) and films by more independently minded directors like Serge Bozon, Virginie Despentes and F. J. Ossang (whose retrospective at Anthology Film Archives overlapped with the start of the FIAF series). They also presented his performance Ceux qui m’aiment (2018). Based on the letters and other writings of his late partner Patrice Chéreau, it examines the director’s philosophy as an artist. While one might expect some insights into their personal relationship, Greggory and dramaturgist Anne-Louise Trividic avoided that subject to focus entirely on Chéreau’s work. The production is quite bare bones, with Greggory reading from paper onstage in front of a photo projected behind him. But given that Greggory repeatedly acted in films and plays made by Chéreau, there’s ultimately something personal about this portrait of the man as director. I interviewed him the day after he performed it in New York.
Did you have a say in the selection of films programmed at FIAF or their concept of “Unsung Eros?”
I asked for a couple of movies that I would’ve loved to have shown. They couldn’t get their hands on copies of some of them.
You’ve acted in one music video, Diam’s’ “Ma France à moi.” I found it interesting as a piece of filmmaking in the way the music cuts in and out and keeps rising and falling in volume. Were you attracted to playing this angry character who seems like the archetypal National Front voter or, if it were an American video, Trump voter?
What I wanted mostly was to work with Diam’s. She came to me after seeing Zonzon (1998). I don’t like French rap very much. I like her, first of all, because she’s a woman and her lyrics are very subtle and well thought out. The character is very extreme and right wing, although not necessarily part of the National Front. That wasn’t what attracted me to him. I wanted to break a TV.
There’s a very stylized quality to 9 Fingers (2017). It’s a film steeped in references to other films and books. Did that affect your performance and approach to your character?
When one is acting, it’s very important to have lots of references on hand. The dialogue and script were already so literary. The script stood out on its own. All I had to do was learn it, to play this mysterious, strange character. What inspired me most was discussion with the director, F. J. Ossang.
Besides Patrice Chéreau, Eric Rohmer is the director with whom you’re associated with most. How did you meet him, and how did your relationship evolve from 1980 to The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque in 1993?
I was very young when I met him. There was a friend of his named Gerard Leconte who had worked with him. He put me in contact with Rohmer. He was very easy to talk to and get along with. I brought a photo and talked with him for half an hour. He put the photo in a drawer. He wasn’t interested in the picture but wanted to talk with me. The first professional relationship I had was a play he directed, Catherine de Heilbronn (1980) by Heinrich von Kleist. I played the count of Strahl. Pascale Ogier played the lead female role.
How long have you been performing Ceux qui m’aiment? When did the idea for the performance come to you?
I’ve been performing it for eight months. Ever since the death of Chéreau [in 2013], I’ve been grieving so much. I was trying to find a way to end the grief and reach the final stages. One morning, I woke up and said “I will gather all of Chéreau’s texts and make a play out of it.” I’ve performed it at least four or five times so far. The next one will be in Marseille, then in Paris and the Théâtre de Lyon.
When I saw it, I was surprised that it’s entirely about Chéreau’s work as a director. From the concept, I expected it to address your relationship with him, although he mentions you several times. I also thought there would be a back-and-forth, including your letters as well. Why did you decide to focus totally on his life as an artist and exclude your life with him as your partner?
Because I am a prude. I found his ideas on his work and his relationship with actors more interesting than his ideas on our relationship. That’s only interesting for him and me. We had many correspondences and communicated a lot. It might be my French Protestant leaning coming out, but I cannot picture myself saying anything more intimate than the words I say. The letters he wrote to me were not only emotionally affective but also linked to the work. The poem at the end is linked to Queen Margot (1994). It’s not a tribute to Chéreau. If it were, it would’ve included plenty of photos of him and his shows, and put up videos. But the one thing that motivated Chéreau was his work. What I wanted to bring forward with the audience was his relationship with actors. I understand that it might be frustrating because I did have a very close relationship with Chéreau.
It’s not exactly frustrating, but it’s not what I expected, especially because the program notes, which I don’t know if you wrote, refer to you as his muse. It’s relatively rare for men to refer to being muses to other men. When women are muses to men, it’s a submissive position. When women act in their male lovers’ films or model for their paintings, they sometimes get victimized or at least don’t get to speak for themselves. Without knowing much about your relationship with Chéreau, I have the sense that wasn’t the case.
I didn’t write the program notes. I realized when I read it that maybe “muse” wasn’t the right word. I wasn’t the only muse. I was an actor whom Chéreau enjoyed working with and whom he found difficult to get a performance out of. A muse is a romantic concept, and Chéreau wasn’t a romantic person or an idealist. He was above that, in a way. It was a working relationship, but obviously a companionship. Since we shared our lives, it can go both ways. A muse isn’t really a working relationship. Working with Chéreau was more of an actual collaboration. Yes, I brought a lot of inspiration to him, but he gave it to me [too].
Beyond your acting, are you a cinephile yourself? Do you have any ambitions of directing a film?
I’m most interested in seeing a director’s first film. That’s usually their best film. That’s something I took from Eric Rohmer. It interested him most to see what would come from a director’s debut film. So I see a lot of debut films and a lot of regular films as well, plus old films at the Cinémathèque [Française]. But you have to be brave to be a director, and I’m not a brave person.
“Pascal Greggory: Unsung Eros” continues at FIAF through December 18.
Header image courtesy of Elena Olivo of FIAF.