It seems a little wicked meeting debonair French film star Laurent Lafitte on International Women’s Day, given Australians will most likely recognise him as Patrick, the unmasked attacker of Isabelle Huppert’s computer game exec Michèle in Paul Verhoeven’s boundary-pushing Elle. When I mention the coincidence, he flashes the same devilish smile that made that villain so memorable and discusses the disturbing allure of that movie’s darkly comic exploration of sexual power.
“When I play a very dark character like that, I try not to reduce it to baddies or goodies,” he offers. “I want to make him real, whatever way he is, and so I tried to think that he was sort of a victim of his own compulsions, which for a rapist is not the obvious way of comprehending his personality. But I’m not interested about what the actor thinks of his character, you know what I mean?”
Surrendering himself to Patrick’s twisted, abusive worldview scored Lafitte a Best Supporting Actor nod at last year’s Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars. Here as a guest of the Alliance Française French Film Festival, he has just flown in after attending this year’s ceremony, where he was once again nominated in the same category for playing yet another odious man, Henri d'Aulnay-Pradelle in writer/director/star Albert Dupontel’s box office smash See You Up There (Au Revoir là-Haut).
Screening as part of the festival, it’s an adaptation of Pierre Lemaitre’s post-WWI epic novel, aka The Great Swindle. If Patrick’s evil is hidden behind a veneer of civil propriety, not so Henri. A maniacal captain in love with the chaos of war, he orders soldiers Albert (Dupontel) and Edouard (BPM’s Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) over the trenches and out into No Man’s Land, even after receiving word of the armistice.
The nightmarish opening sequence sees Albert rescued from the maws of death after being buried alive with a horse and Edouard losing his jaw as a result of an exploding shell, resulting in a deliriously painful extended stay in hospital and then a life lived behind elaborate masks. Pradelle goes on to profit from war even in peacetime, working a corrupt cemetery business.
“Pradelle knows he is a bad guy and he enjoys it,” Lafitte says. “It empowers him; he likes seeing fear in the other’s eyes. He tastes the threat, so that’s what makes him theatrical and funny sometimes.”
There’s that black comedy again, something that appeals to Lafitte. Normally he would avoid the source material when taking on an adaptation, but he had already devoured Lemaitre’s book when Dupontel called. Impressed by how the director condensed such a sprawling tome, he says its DNA was preserved.
“The contemporary resonance that it has, that’s the only thing that matters when you do a period drama,” Lafitte insists. “It’s about all the big contemporary figures that we are fighting – war, ultra-liberalism, ultra-capitalism, which is incarnated by my character.”
He loved working with Dupontel on what was, for France, a huge production. He says that being directed by an actor makes a big difference. “They know how it works. They know that what we are trying to achieve is precious. Not the actor… what has to be precious and protected on-set is the disposition that you have to organise so that the emotion can arrive.”
Lafitte says he learned a lot from working with Verhoeven, too, though notes he’s not sure the film would be made now, in this post-#MeToo world. “The lines between the rapist and the victim [in Elle] are blurred by Paul’s complex mind, but I think he is a really good guy and not a pervert. He’s so clever and sensitive.”
Another incomparable talent, Huppert bamboozled him on-set. “What is fascinating with Isabelle is that sometimes you don’t necessarily understand what she is doing, or you underestimate what it’s going to look like. When I watched it the first time, I understood. She knows so well what she has to do to get what she wants on the screen and she knows the camera. She is beyond naturalism. It’s somewhere else, like abstract art. It’s very cerebral.”
As for those consecutive nominations, Lafitte’s not letting them get to his head. “Two days afterwards, we’ve forgotten who got what,” he chuckles. I tease him that his answer may have been different if he had won either, eliciting a drawn out “nooooooo” and another impish cackle.
“I mean, when I go there, I want to go back home with the bloody thing. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but I want it. I’m not trying to look detached, but even for the Oscars I think, like, five or six days later you’ve forgotten. I’m more interested in the Cannes Film Festival [which he has hosted] because they give prizes to films which haven’t been released, so it really matters.”