French cinema: Portrait of actor Denis Lavant
His unique physical style and his bewitching performances have made this legendary actor one of the most extraordinary and unusual stars of French cinema.
Asked about the casting of Denis Lavant in the main role of Sacred Motors, director Leos Carax said: “If Denis had said no, I would have offered the role to Lon Chaney or Chaplin. Or to Peter Lorre or Michel Simon… who are all dead. Praise indeed – and it’s not just Carax who is a fan.
In March of last year, The New Yorker film critic and French film expert Richard Brody has ranked Lavant’s performance in Sacred Motors, in which he plays an actor traveling through Paris in a white limousine, transforming from character to character, sometimes monster, sometimes victim, as the fourth best cinematic performance of the 21st century to date, declaring: “It (the film) delivers an extraordinary showcase of Lavant’s virtuosity and self-inflicted vulnerability, his moving tenderness and reckless ecstasies; his theatrical artifacts seem to be expelled from the actor’s soul to reveal the essence of his art – and the essence of cinema itself.
And this is how this strange acrobatic actor pixie, with his messy hair and his pockmarked face, is considered one of the luminaries of the world of theater, past and present. Given his penchant for the physique, it’s no surprise that as a young teenager, Lavant fell in love with the legendary mime Marcel Marceau. He studied panto and circus and trained at the Paris Conservatory with the famous Jacques Lassalle before embarking on a theatrical career, followed by a few roles in television films, including a small role in the 1982 version of Robert Hossein. Wretched. But his breakthrough came in 1984 in the directorial debut of Carax, A boy meets a girl. It was the start of a beautiful friendship, and Lavant and Carax worked together on Bad blood in 1986 and The Lovers on the Bridge in 1991.
It was not an exclusive relationship, however, and in 1999 Lavant played one of the lead roles in Claire Denis’ Good work. In 2007 he appeared in Mister Lonely, directed by Harmony Korine, having learned to speak phonetically the script because he does not speak English. A year later, he found Carax for the anthology Tokyo!. Their section of the film, called Shit, sees Lavant playing a violent sewer monster.
Last year you saw him as Silence the Idiot (Shakespearean style), in one of the most talked about movies of the year, The Night of the Kings, directed by Philippe Lacôte. A young man is sent to the overcrowded La Maca prison in Abidjan, where the aging and ill inmate-boss Blackbeard is ordered to tell stories for an entire night, echoing Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights. From Shakespeare to Chaplin, though renowned for his physical storytelling, Lavant is a tenderly understated actor who expresses the absurdity of humanity in every fiber of his being.
CV in 10 seconds: the life of a movie star in one take
Last name: Denis Lavant
Not: June 17, 1961 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine
Carrier start: As a teenager, he loved Marcel Marceau, the legendary mime, and was inspired to study circus and pantomime …
I know the face … Lavant has appeared in almost all of Leos Carax’s films.
Where will we see it next? He plays Silence in Philippe Lacôte’s film The Night of the Kings. He should also play in Blood burn, a Franco-Georgian gangster thriller directed by debutant Akaki Popkhadze, inspired by his experience of moving to a less than healthy neighborhood of Nice from Georgia as a child.
It’s not true ! In 2016 he starred in a 30-second film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos to accompany the song Identikit by Radiohead. He’s also the guy in the parka who wanders the middle of the tunnel in UNKLE’s Rabbit in your headlights video, directed by Jonathan Glazer.
From France Today magazine