Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo has the distinction of being the only person from his country to receive an Oscar (for his 1981 work “Mephisto”).

His reputation as a filmmaker has always been tinged with political overtones. That reputation was reconfirmed with “Sunshine (1999),” a tragic tale of Hungarian Jews trying, and ultimately failing, to assimilate themselves in Nazi Germany. But his most recent Japanese release, “Being Julia,” concentrates only on the romantic and personal.

Based on a Somerset Maugham novella that Szabo says is a “must-read for anyone connected with acting, no matter how old or young,” the movie is set in 1930s London. The director believes its message still holds and continues to intrigue because it reveals so much about the acting profession and the nature of actors: “In many ways, nothing really matters to the actor/actress except their assumed roles. Acting isn’t their second nature, but their first. Which, of course, is what makes them so fascinating.”

During a promotion trip to Tokyo, the director talked more of the theater and the role of women on the stage and in film.

Had you always been fond of Somerset Maugham?

Actually, he was my mother’s favorite author. As a little boy I was always reading his books. Also, I come from a family of doctors and Maugham also practiced medicine before he started writing — this filled me with hope because I didn’t want to go the medical route at all. But among his books “Theater” was special. . . . Julia Lambert fascinated me because she was so genuine and fake at the same time. She was always performing and performing was what defined her.

You go for a lot of extreme closeups in this film.

Yes, I do. When I first decided to learn cinema work I asked myself what is more unique than anything else and I discovered it was faces, and facial expressions. The living human face is something that only the motion picture can express. Only film can chart the different emotions registering on a face. Photographs and portraits may capture a moment but they can’t show movement, they can’t show the gradual change of mood. Even in the theater one can’t be so intimate with a face because the audience is sitting so far away. To see how the light of love turns into jealousy . . . surely that is one of the reasons why cinema exists at all. The face is the real energy, the real communication force. To me, motion picture is energy carved by human faces.

Tell us about Julia. Was being an actress more important to her than being a woman?

Yes, ultimately the actress dominated the woman in her. And because her profession defined her whole personality, it was easy for her to grow insecure about her acting. And an actor/actress has only one wish: to conquer the stage or audience. So when Tom comes into her life, consciously or unconsciously she strives to win him over because really, it’s not so different to be successful with one man, from being successful with a huge audience. She instinctively knew that she needed new energy, a new source of inspiration and she used the love she felt for Tom to better her acting. She knew deep down, that whatever pain or joy the affair yielded could only reward her profession later. In this way Julia was a classic actress and a great one. She had no qualms about any of it. Everything she did was for the stage, the theater. That was her world, and the only reality that counted.

But Tom was the one who drew out the woman in her.

There I must disagree. He drew out an actress who wanted new horizons and a new challenge. Not that he understood that at all, he was arrogant enough to think she wanted him out of sheer love. Tom was an innocent, and in the end he was even a little bit of a victim. But that’s the downside of having a relationship with an actress!

Read the film review
“Being Julia”
Unbearable heaviness of being a woman

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