She Was

She Was

Actress Vicky Krieps makes films that are searching for the meaning of this life; while she does the same. She has carved out a career with intention and integrity, subverting the male gaze, and experimenting with her own outlook on the world. After receiving international acclaim for her role in 'Phantom Thread', she rejected the traditional path and the role of Hollywood starlet to focus on thoughtful, impactful projects, such as 'Bergman Island' and 'Corsage' – for which she won the Best Actress Award at Cannes 2022 in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ category. In 'Corsage', Vicky plays a queen seeking release from the expectation of endless beauty, youth and patriarchal tradition. In conversation with Mia Hansen, director and writer of 'Bergman Island', she talks about telling stories in different languages, gender roles, expectations and freedom – all with a unique gentle boldness and always with the courage of her convictions.
Violet Issue: Violet Book Issue 18
Published: 2022/12/16
Updated: 2022/12/19
Elina Kechicheva
Leith Clark
Mia Hansen

Mia Hansen: I’ve written a few questions I wanted to ask you, Vicky, but I’ve written them down in French. I'll translate them into English, but maybe I’ll struggle. If I do, Vicky, can you help me with the translation? Actually, maybe that’s a good way to start with my first question to you.

You’re fluent and speak at least four languages: English, French, German and Luxembourgish. You've played roles speaking all of them, and I'm curious to know how you feel about it. Does acting feel the same when going from one language to another? When you play a role, do you feel you enter a different kind of mood or world? Do you have a language that you prefer using as an actress? How do you feel about your relationship to the different languages that you know how to speak?

Vicky Krieps: I think there’s a few answers. One is: yes, I do feel sometimes different when acting in different languages. German to me always feels darker, and more heavy, and maybe more sad. French is lighter. It moves, it's floating more. And then English is more straightforward. I think all three represent some part of me. Luxembourgish is even lower, even heavier. When I'm acting in Luxembourgish it feels like I'm a farmer ploughing a field. I use different registers, I think. And the other answer, which was something I was wondering myself, is: why am I able to switch so easily between languages?

I think, growing up, I always felt frustrated with language, with speech. I’ve always had a feeling that I can never say what I really want to say in words. That frustration now helps me, because I think I have settled myself into the place between the words. If I'm acting, I am most at home when I'm silent. All of the things I say when I don't speak, that's often exactly how I feel. So I guess silence is my strongest language. That's why it's easy to switch between words, because I don't attach myself to any of them.

Which language do you experience when you dream or when you think?

It depends what country I'm in and what I'm doing. So when I'm in France, after three days, it's all in French. My dreams, my thoughts.

It's interesting, because I really think that defines your acting in a way. This chameleon spirit, where you can go from one language to another, from one culture to another. You've also been shooting with a lot of women directors in the last two years. I'm curious to know, do you analyse the fact that so many women want to work with you? Is it pure coincidence?

I do think it is a conscious choice. It's my decision, but it's also the decision of these female directors. I feel that we are living in a changing era as women. One of the first things I felt when I was starting to do movies is that when—if you are an actress—you should be someone who looks after her physique, you're supposed to be good-looking. You don't drink too much wine in the evening because then the next morning you won't look great.

Acting as a woman comes with this whole package of becoming someone who's so super-aware of her image and like an angel, floating, and there to represent and to be there for others. And I remember feeling very early on, feeling disgusted by this. A huge rebellion came up in me and I started to rebel against it. 'Phantom Thread' was the first job that I realised, I remember feeling that I could refrain from seduction. When a scene is obviously about seduction between a man and a woman, there's these certain things you learn in [acting] school where, if you're performing or in castings, how you should flirt with or please a man. And I remember just not doing it. It was like a silent rebellion. I just stayed right behind the line that you would cross when you would start to seduce someone, if that makes sense.

Totally. I think there is something about you, a way that you have [where you can] not only be someone who's being looked at and desired, but also you can look at things through a critical lens.

It was very obvious to me when I was watching 'Corsage', the fact that although she is the one that everyone is looking at and analysing, observing very closely if she gets older, if she changes, if she does things the way she should… Although you play this woman who is being constantly looked at, you're also looking at the world around you and analysing them. That’s true as much for your character as for you as an actress.

Yes, I agree. It's funny, because I know exactly what you mean—and I would totally agree—but when I’m doing it, it feels more like I refrain from an action that I'm supposed to do, that comes with being an acceptable woman. Which is that I have to come out of myself, meet the other, and please. I have to go and please. I have to go and check if everyone's happy. Is everyone fine? I think this is something women have been doing over centuries, if they're an actress or not. Even at home being a mother, caring for others, looking after others, thinking it's our job to look good for others. You know?

Sometimes when I'm in public events, I smile internally, not externally. It feels like I’m daring to not come out of my core, that I'm just inside of myself. I think this is something that was exclusively enjoyed by men in the past. Men were always standing there inside of themselves. Cool. Smoking a cigarette, and the girl would be like, ‘Oh, hello, what's your name?’ It’s the game we were all playing. And I allowed myself to just not play it. It’s actually fantastic to see what happens to the power dynamics, the energy, you know, in a room when you refuse to do that.

That leads me to another question about 'Corsage'. It's an obvious question, and I'm sure you've been asked it a hundred times, but I'm curious to hear you speak about how much you identify with your character Sissi and what the film says about her particular destiny. And what does it tell us about our destiny as women?

I think it's probably my most personal film. It's personal because in the film, I allowed myself to free myself from the obligations you have of being an actress. In the way I portray her, I acted in ways more radical than I did before, because I felt she was so unsympathetic. She’s not nice—she’s complicated and dark.

One of the things I enjoyed so much in the film was the fact that she was not sympathetic, and not meant to be. She was not nice to everyone. Importantly, she was not only filmed as a victim. I mean, due to the situation that she's in, she could be, but she can also be tough. She's not warm. That makes her complex and that, to me, is what makes the film very moving. This is a real human being and she is not a fantasy.

That's what I wanted to achieve; but doing it, I really thought it would never work. I was so sure that no one would like this film. Many times in the past people have told me, ‘Vicky, you look away from the camera too much.’

But here, I really felt I was going further into the role. I am a very sympathetic person myself, [but] I tried to really stick with Sissi’s anger and stick with her darkness. What made it feel so personal is that I have always felt that my body is something between a prison and a burden, you know. I'm a woman, so I’m reduced to my body. When you grow up, as a girl, they tell you, you can be who you want to be—as long as you control your emotions, because that's what makes women weak. You must control your emotions.

But when I was turning 13, the paradox I found was that my body was suddenly evoking emotions in other people. These emotions apparently were so strong that they couldn't hold back from touching me or grabbing me or looking at me. I always felt that was very unfair. I felt like I was trapped in this situation where my feelings apparently had to be tuned down, so I'm not a nuisance. Yet on the other hand, my body has become this thing that I'm identified by. I'm sexy, or I'm a mother, or I’m a saint or the horror. I could so relate to this in Sissi—that she’s trapped in this castle and in this corset and in her time. It felt like her body was her own cage, you know.


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"If I'm acting, I am most at home when I'm silent. All of the things I say when I don't speak, that's often exactly how I feel. So I guess silence is my strongest language.” - Vicky Krieps

I think for many generations, women have felt guilty because our methods of working, of creating, are often more led by emotion. It’s less brain-led. Men come in and they have this plan: this is who I am, this is how I work, this is how I write my script. And in our movie, the woman has to accept actually, no, I can and I will do it my own way. I will find my own story in my own way and in my own time. It’s such a strong message, I think, and the right time to speak about this. I feel that in 'Corsage' the same thing happened. Marie accepted her vulnerability saying things like, ‘Don't ask me why I want modern elements.’ ‘It doesn't feel right to take this old chair. It doesn't look good.’

The way I'm acting also came out of my feelings. I wanted to do it this way, and I wanted to dare and do it the way I want to, and not to have to explain myself all the time. Marie did the same—she followed her intuition, writing the script and then re-writing it as we were filming. She had these ideas of making a room [we were filming in] smaller, and people were all like, ‘Why do you need to do this? Now? This is crazy.’ You know? But she followed her instincts. And I think the strength of women directors is that combination of intellect and emotion.

I was very impressed that she had been writing it on her own. It's a big period drama, yet it's modern and personal and treated in a very singular way. It's a big film with a lot of locations, but it’s also crystal-precise. I really enjoyed it a lot. I think part of what made me feel close to the story is the fact that she wrote it on her own. It’s quite impressive for a film with such scale, right?

You and Marie share the same thing, in that the two of you are very bright, intelligent, and you are women. It's hard being those things sometimes. Sometimes, she’d be standing there on this huge set saying ‘no’ to people. I could see what they were thinking. ‘How dare she? How can she stand there and say “no”’. They would never even dare to think that if there's some big famous old man standing there on set. That’s the truth. I could see you struggle, too, saying, ‘But this is how I want it to be. I told you that this is what I want to do. Why are you constantly questioning it?’ I know other women directors who are not so successful yet who have the same problem. The producer will constantly go back to them and say, ‘You have to rewrite everything.’ It's crazy how often women are questioned in their choices.

I do find that it's something that takes years to learn. To be able to carry that weight of other people’s expectations and not be too intimidated by it. When you're in front of actors, of producers, the whole thing is heavy. It's economically weighty, but also in terms of human relationships, it's a lot to deal with. And sometimes you just wanna hide and disappear and be very small. That's how many young, shy women like me react. I still don't know where my strength comes from. I can see that she must have been very courageous to make that film and to carry such a big production. Especially because it's not a commercial film. It's a film that is a portrait of a woman who suffers, you know, but in a very particular way.

Yes. Well, I think, like you, she's able to persevere. Perseverance is a big subject in 'Corsage', and it’s something I think Sissi is embodying in the movie. But you know what, maybe it doesn't have to be so hard. Maybe the system is not our system, and that's why we suffer. Why not say the [filmmaking] system could change?

Yeah. We need more women managing things.

I can hear your child in the background. I have so much stuff I have to do in a day, in a normal day; everything is so full.

Constant running. Talking of kids, have your children ever asked you to be in a film just to please them? Because my daughter, when she was younger, she would ask me if I could make a film for her, a film for kids. I wish I could do that, but I can’t really choose what I write about. The inspiration comes the way it comes. So I could never fulfil that desire of hers. But I thought maybe if I was an actress, that's something I could have done. What about you? Have your kids ever expressed the desire to see you in this or that part? Is that something you would consider?

If she was really strong-willed about it and saying, ‘Mom, I would like to see you in this children's film’, or whatever, I would totally consider it. She wanted to be in a movie herself, and she was always asking me. I was quite skeptical at first, but I didn't want to block it either. Who am I saying no to her, when I'm doing it myself? I love what I do, so I can’t tell her not to, but I was trying to keep it away from her a little bit to, you know, to teach her to not just take any opportunity.

I wanted her to understand that if you make a movie, it's difficult. If you make a film, there's long hours, you don't have much to eat. It's not this perfect world that she sees through me.

But through you, she can also see all the difficulties, I'm sure. Because she's been waiting [on set] with you and she's seen how difficult it is sometimes, how much you must wait patiently. So she knows about it actually, right?

Yes, she does know about it. We made a short movie [which she was part of], which was the best way for her to get a glimpse of being with people who don't have money, but who do believe in something. And they all come together. These 30 people come together for this dream, really believing in it and working on it. That's what I wanted her to see. Movie-making really comes from the idea that someone has a desire or a vision so big that a hundred other people will follow, even if you don't have cash.

I think one of the reasons why we’re both a little skeptical about letting our kids become actors, or worried, is because it's obviously a very difficult job. One of the reasons is that, especially for women, how hard it gets when you grow older. So many actresses have been talking about this recently. We’re lucky in France; here there are more and more parts available for older women, and it's not like before where the career of an actress would stop at 40, but still… It’s difficult to age as an actress.

How do you feel about getting older? It’s very integral to Sissi’s experience. People are obsessed with her beauty, and they constantly look at her face trying to see if she’s getting older. We could view Sissi as a metaphor of what it is to be an actress, too. Did that connect you to your own anxiety about ageing? Are you relaxed about it? Are you anxious?

I'm daring to not be anxious about it. I’m taking the liberty of staying out of seduction roles, and I’m taking the liberty as a woman to not be anxious about getting older. I just don't see why I should chime into this craziness. It's stupid. We are all getting older. Why should it be more difficult for a woman to get older? If I can't be an actress, then I will do something else. I'm a being of multiple facets, like we all are, and I'm not in any way less capable of living my life just because I'm a woman. Maybe I'm even more capable. I have two children at the same time as being an actress. If I can be an actress and I can have two children at the same time, what else can I do? Where's the limit? I think we put the limit on ourselves. I'm not anxious about getting older. They can leave me alone with that whole discussion.


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