The turning point in Paris-born Noémie Merlant’s career came after starring in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), the Céline Sciamma film for which she earned her second César Award nomination. That lesbian drama suddenly opened French cinema up for Merlant and made her one of its hottest stars. “It changed my life, as a human being and as a woman,” the 34-year-old actress says now. She’s in the suite of a downtown Berlin hotel, where she has just returned from a quick cigarette between interviews.
Merlant has a lot to talk about. She’s on a hot streak, with roles in Isaki Lacuesta’s One Year, One Night (which premiered at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival); Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District and Todd Field’s Tár, which was nominated for six Oscars; the actress is holding her own against Cate Blanchett. Her new movie, The Innocent, Louis Garrel’s fourth film as director and screenwriter (Two Friends, A Faithful Man), will debut on April 5, and her movie Les Âmes sœurs, directed by French master André Téchiné, comes out later this year.
A few days ago, Merlant won the César award for best supporting actress for her role in The Innocent (third time’s the charm, they say), Garrel’s film about second chances. The script interweaves the courtship of a recently released prisoner and a woman, who has doubts about her recently widowed son (Merlant plays the young woman who encourages him). She might be seen as the positive side of Lacuesta’s dark film, which, the actress says, “talks about facing trauma, but also about love, communication and art.”
The movie tells the story of a couple after the Bataclan attack; it is an adaptation of the book Paz, amor y death metal (Peace, Love and Death Metal), by Ramón González, a Spaniard who witnessed the terrorist massacre at the Parisian club on November 13, 2015. “When the attacks happened, I was at home, in the 12th arrondissement, which is right next to the neighborhood where the [dance] hall is located. I didn’t understand anything; I couldn’t believe what was happening. I remember feeling very scared,” Merlant recalls.
“Just two days before that, I had been sitting on the terrace of Le Carillon, another café that was attacked,” she continues. “The Bataclan is a very popular place; Parisians and people from abroad go there. It is a symbol of music and art, a place where we share our lives. The victims included 29 different nationalities, with all sorts of religious beliefs, from all social strata and age groups. Everyone can identify with the victims. It was horrifying. One can’t describe the terror of not knowing if any of your family members or friends were there.”
Now, she has only words of gratitude for Lacuesta. “He is an incredible filmmaker. And a wonderful human being who seeks truth in life, in small details and in the complexity of emotions. And he can reflect all that on screen. To me, he’s a poet. Also, he makes you feel very comfortable on set. He always cares about the crew. He doesn’t mind stopping a shoot if he notices that you’re not feeling well, and that’s rare among directors. A lot of them just want to keep going no matter what.”
In a subsequent interview, the Catalan filmmaker returned the praise. “When we started she far exceeded my expectations. It’s a shame that the audience can’t see what she’s like in every shot. She’s always connected. She’s unbelievable; I’ve never seen [anything like it] before. I remember, in one of the first rehearsals, she started crying impressively and I started recording because I thought she got into the role in a special way. Then I realized that she could do it whenever she wanted. Working with her is one of the most terrific experiences I’ve had as a director.”
Born in Paris’s 15th arrondissement, Merlant spent her adolescence in Rezé, to the south of Nantes. She studied classical and contemporary dance and took singing lessons. “As a little girl, I wanted to be a singer. I was fascinated by Céline Dion,” she confesses with a touch of embarrassment. After high school, she worked as a model, but she ended up being disgusted by the work. “When I was younger, I thought about studying business administration, but I wasn’t sure what it was all about,” she says. “My whole family works in the commercial sector, but I didn’t know what to do.” At 18, her father convinced her to enter the Cours Florent acting school (just like Isabelle Adjani and Audrey Tautou) and she discovered her vocation there. “At first it was difficult, because I didn’t want to consider any other job option: [it was] either that or nothing. As time went by and things didn’t work out as I hoped, I even considered becoming a real estate agent, like my parents, although I didn’t like it at all,” she says.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Her big break came in 2019 with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. “As a result of that, I was offered many more roles, which is essential for an actress to choose her path. I’m aware that not everyone is this lucky, that’s why I take all the offers that come to me very seriously,” she explains. “For me acting is a kind of continuous therapy. It helps me to understand myself and others better. Actually, what happens to you when you get into a role is magic…the choice is not always easy and sometimes I make mistakes. But acting has allowed me to meet incredible women filmmakers like Céline Sciamma and Mélanie Laurent… for me, they are great role models for storytelling, which has inspired me to become a director.”
She is referring to her debut feature, Mi iubita, mon amour, which premiered at Cannes in 2021, and to a thriller she has in the works. Until then, she can be found humming along to C. Tangana, who has a small cameo in One Year, One Night. “I didn’t know him, but I can’t stop singing his songs now, I love them! Although, truth be told, I have no idea what they say.”
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