It’s rare for celebrity actresses to roll their own cigarettes. But when I meet Vanessa Paradis in midtown that’s just what she’s doing––twisting the tobacco and licking the paper like a pro. It’s a gesture that speaks to the French singer’s independence and poise. Despite news of her imminent separation from long-time partner Johnny Depp, Paradis’ music and acting career has never been better. As she tells me after the smoke, “each day is a new day.”
That question of past lives and fresh starts is very much at the heart of Paradis’s new film, Café de Flore, which opens in New York Friday. Directed by Quebecois cinema-savant Jean-Marc Vallèe and named after the infectious (and oft-remixed) melody that unites the sprawling story-lines, Café feels like a new-age romance-cum-thriller. (Think The Double Life of Veronique meets Babel and/or The Ring). What stands out in an otherwise cluttered film is Paradis’s performance as an embattled single mother raising a child with down syndrome. The stubbornness of her character’s love is electric––with echoes of Bjork from Dancer in the Dark or even Paradis’s own Baby-Daddy from Depp’s early work in Benny and Joon. (So much time together and Depp’s gonzo weirdness was bound to wear off on her.) Like other unhinged heroines, her performance alternately wrenches your heart and rattles your nerves.
Your new film Café De Flore packs a punch. There’s this new-age romance running through it, but the film also has the feel of a horror story. What drew you to the project––and your role in particular?
It was the feeling I got when I read the script. It was so suspenseful, I was literally out of breath when I was done reading it. I got caught up by the lives of all these people and I knew wanted to be part of the project. As far as my role, I loved how complex it was. Usually you play either the bad guy or the good guy––but she’s both! She’s both a beauty and a monster, driven by love and protection for her child.
How was it working with Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallèe?
I was a big admirer of Jean-Marc’s work beforehand and I wasn’t disappointed. The guy is just brilliant––I mean really brilliant. He wrote, directed and edited this movie almost like a musician. He’s a drummer, keeping the rhythm; but he’s also playing a melody. When he directs you he gets the emotions he wants you to play, he gets them them on his face. I used to just listen to, almost copy, Jean-Marc. Minus the Québécois accent![Laughs.]
Did being a mother yourself change the way you played the character?
As a mom I understand the gut feeling that my character feels. The love you have for your child is such a powerful thing––you feel it deep down in your belly. The fact is that you’ll climb mountains, you’ll do anything for your child. So in that way I could totally relate, although I thank god I’m a different mother. [Laughs.] But the story of her child is also different. When he’s born, she’s told that he is only going to live 25 years. In the ’70s people looked at him like he’s a monster. So the pressure on this woman is really strong. She’s trying her best with very little. In an emergency situation you might make a wrong turn––as she does.
What was it like working with a young actor who has the same condition that his character?
I can’t make a general point of view on working with actors who have down syndrome. But I can say that this little boy is a diamond. He’s super smart and super funny. And super sharp. I know that he made me better. We had to improvise a lot and all of us –– even the crew––were on-guard. It gave a lot more instinct to the scenes. And from that came the grace. There was something very pure, very true and strong to our scenes.
The film seems to be about the power of first-love––whether it’s between a mother and her son, or between teenagers.
Really? I think it’s about love in general, not just first love.
Yes. But it’s also about the power of the myth of love––of soul mates and how there’s only one person in the world for you. Is that a myth that’s had power over you?
Of course I believe in the power of love. But now the stamp “this is your soul mate”––I don’t like that idea; it seems worse than a marriage-stamp. In life we get used to everything, and when you get used to someone you’re like “Oh, this is my soul mate.” And then it stops being powerful. I believe in the present moment and I also believe in wanting something to last. But to put a name or a stamp on something––it means you already know the answer. And why would you read the end of the book if you know the end? But of course then you fall in love with somebody and think, “This is it!”
The film also asks how you can move on from love and yet still care about the other person. This seems to be a huge question that everybody has to deal with in life.
Absolutely. But you have to deal with it in friendship too, in any kind of love relationship. When you love somebody you have to think of that person first––whether it’s family love, friendship, or a couple.
And how are things with your twin loves of cinema and music?
I’ve been sharing my life and work between music and cinema for a long time now. You know, at my age, I can’t play everything but the roles I do get offered are really interesting. I think the parts I’ve been offered in the last three years are more beautiful than ever. As far as music, I’m also almost done with my next record, so I’m thrilled. I’m really happy.
This new record, is this a new direction for you? Can you tell me about it?
It’s not even mixed yet. I recorded it in Brussels, there’s a great studio over there. I worked with the singer/producer Benjamin Biolay. He produced a record and he wrote a few tracks. It was great to record away from your life, I was completely emerged in music.
I actually lived in Brussels. How do you like the city?
I love it. I love the people that live there. It’s very easy-going, very laid-back and relaxed. The city is so beautiful if you like architecture.
Have you worked with Biolay in the past?
No, this is the first time. He’s an amazing songwriter as well as lyricist. Which is rare to be so talented at both. And he’s also a great musician. He comes from a very classical background playing trombone but then taught himself piano and guitar. We worked really fast together. On this record there’s strings and horns, but it’s not busy––I wanted it to be there in a simple way.
The last question I have to ask because my editor is Canadian. Did you go to Canada for the Genie Awards? Were they very welcoming with you?
I didn’t go to the awards but I went to the Canadian premier. Everybody is so welcoming! I’ve visited Montreal for years now and each time I’ve had an amazing trip. There’s something similar to Brussels there. The people are warm and open and down-to-earth. You don’t feel any fake-ness. And they got the killer expressions.