Interview with Emmanuelle Devos for JUST A SIGH

Leading lady EMMANUELLE DEVOS talks to us about the family business, Gabriel Byrne and being French…

Outside the Westbury, the young girls are getting restless. The top-hat-and-tails bouncers (it’s that kind of hotel) won’t let them in. At the back, it’s even tougher. The door has been locked. 
I didn’t realise that French actress Emmanuelle Devos had that kind of rabid following. Which of her movies, I wonder, could have inspired these young Irish teens into such a frenzied loyalty that they’re willing to stand out in the cold Dublin November wind just for a glimpse of their idol? 
Perhaps it was 2001’s Sur mes levres, for which Devos picked up a Cesar award for Best Actress? Then again, it could be the highly-acclaimed Read My Lips (also 2001), or The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), or A Christmas Tale (2008). There are so many to choose from, Devos having been one of France’s most popular actresses of the last 20-odd years.
To be honest though, I think the kids outside might be here for someone else. Miley Cyrus is apparently in the building. If you listen very carefully, you can hear the vibrations in the walls.
“I’m not sure what that kind of fame could bring you,” says Devos, when I mention her fellow Westbury resident. “Does it make you feel better about yourself? Make you feel as though you’re in some way a winner? I always think fame gets in the way of good work.”
Once fame kicks in, you’re Elvis. And everything you do, you do it as Elvis.
“Exactly,” laughs Devos. “That poor guy never had a chance in the movies. Unless he was playing Elvis, of course. That, he did very, very well.”
Emmanuelle does movie pretty darn well too, something that may have been planted in her DNA long before she ever decided to join the acting profession. Both her parents are actors, Marie Henriau and Gilles Cohen spending more time on the stage than in front of a camera during their daughter’s formative years. Cohen is a familiar face to cinema-goers though, starring in the likes of A Prophet (2009), The Beat That My Heart Skipped and the recent arthouse hit The Nun.
“I don’t think there was every a moment where I thought, okay, I’m going to do what my parents do,” says Devos. “It was just something that was always there, and it felt very natural to me. I was never worried either about being in my parents’ shadows. I always planned on being more successful than they were…”
Devos lets out a laugh.
“It’s important for your children to try and better what you’ve done. It’s the first rule of evolution.”
Make your parents jealous.
“Yeah. Make sure they know who’s boss.”
Having worked with director Jerome Bonnell before, on 2007’s Waiting For Someone, Devos’ part in Just A Sigh was especially written for her. Flattered? Or, like Gene Hackman and The Royal Tenebaums, a little miffed that a director reckons he knows how to write you?
“I was flattered, of course,” says Devos. “The last time we worked together, it was really an ensemble piece, so, this was a chance to work very closely. This character is very different to the last film, and, of course, she’s ‘different to others I have played. I don’t think any filmmaker really wants to repeat themselves, not unless it’s integral to an ongoing story.
“So, yes, I was very flattered that Jerome would write such a wonderful part for me.”
Devos’ wasn’t the only tailor-made role in Just A Sigh. Having met Gabriel Byrne at a Scottish film event some years ago, Bonnell wrote the male lead in Just A Sigh especially for the Dublin actor. A sweet, melancholic film, Just A Sigh deals with two strangers on a train finding in each other the possibility of a new beginning.
So, how was it working with young Gabriel?
“Gabriel was just as charming as I had imagined,” smiles Devos. “I think he was also very flattered to have this part written for him, although it took him a few days to say yes. Maybe he was in shock? The fact that Gabriel is Irish and I am French adds to the sense of the exotic and the unknown for our characters. It meant this was a very easy part to play.”
Talk turns to the strong identity French cinema has forged. To the point that it’s quite easy to slip into cliches.
“I would say the same for every part of the world,” nods Devos. “We have our stereotypes and cliches, just as Ireland has, or Italy, or America. You have to be aware of them, but you also have to be true to yourself, and to your nature.”
Is French cinema particularly healthy right now?
“I think I always feel as though we’re in crisis, and then, later, I realise that we were doing fine. I think you always feel that your latest work is not as good as the earlier stuff, and, as an industry, French cinema feels that way all the time. But every era throws up some wonderful films.”
There are indeed many, many wonderful French films down through the decades. So, final question, young Emmanuelle – name one great Irish film. Just one.
“Oh, let me think…”
A minute passes.
“Is that David Lean film, Ryan’s Daughter, an Irish film.”
Not entirely, no. Shot here, a few Paddies got involved, but, not truly an Irish film.
“Well, then I’m not so sure. Although I did love that film about the crazy policeman in the West of Ireland. I love going out to Kerry and all along that coastline, so, when that film came out, I just loved it. So crazy, and set in one of my favourite parts of the world. What was it called?”
The Guard.
“Ah, yes, The Guard. There you go, a great Irish film. Knew I could think of one…”

JUST A SIGH hits the IFI and selected cinemas on Dec 6th

Words: Paul Byrne