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Amalric’s mind’s-eye view

by Kaori Shoji

Mathieu Amalric is best known outside France for his role in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” but in his own country he has been one of the best-loved actors since the mid 1990s.

He was handpicked by director Julian Schnabel to play the part of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle France magazine who suffered a stroke at the age of 43 and wrote his autobiography using just his left eye (the only body part he could move as a sufferer of Locked-In syndrome) to blink out words.

Amalric says in many ways this was the most difficult role he’s attempted. “Because so much of the story is told through the camera lens, functioning as the left eye of Jean-Do,” explained Amalric from Paris during a phone interview. “I think many other actors would have balked at the idea. But I felt the ‘camera-as-man’ approach was best to tell the story of Jean-Do. It turned out to require a lot of restraint — and for me to curb my acting ambitions to get to a point where I really wanted to know and feel what Jean-Do had gone through.”

What was it like on the set? Can you describe some of the methods used?

When I did the voice-overs, I always did so to a camera lens and not face to face with anyone. This was strange, like talking to a jacket without a man in it. There were also many scenes in which I went into a little room with a trick window and I would talk into the microphone while the other cast members acted outside. I could look out the window and watch them, but they couldn’t see me. I would then get some idea of the distance that separated Jean-Do from the rest of the world.

What did you think of Bauby’s book?

In the book, and in the movie, the main pivotal theme was a deep and inherent trust in life. Jean-Do really had faith in life. In effect, this faith was our launchpad; we took that as the starting point for everything. All the ideas that we had while filming came from that.

Were you familiar with “Locked-In syndrome” before the movie?

Yes I was. In France, we call it accidente de la vie (accident of life). The only thing I can say about the syndrome is that I had the chance to study it, and act it out on-screen. I hope I was able to convey the reality of it, even to a small measure.

Did this role alter your life in any way?

I learned to be more aware of my body. I had taken my body completely for granted before. Now I think about it every day. For one or two minutes, I devote my thoughts entirely to it and remind myself what a miracle it is to be able to move my arms and legs and have everything function.

How do you view the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby?

I don’t think his life stopped when he had the stroke, I think he became more of what he was. He had always wanted to write a book and his illness gave him the opportunity to do that. If he had gone on being editor for Elle, who knows if he would ever have had the time? Also, Jean-Do was extremely attractive to women and a born playboy. You can see from the movie how good he was at convincing every woman he knew that she was the most-loved. All the nurses and therapists fell in love with him. Even in that state, he was able to affect people, to move them and leave something of himself behind.