Over the past decade, Mélanie Laurent has established herself as an accomplished film director. Yet four features and many accolades later, that fact may come as a surprise to many in the U.S. who still know her best for her acting — especially for playing Shosanna in "Inglorious Basterds."
But that's poised to change soon. Her latest film, an adaptation of Victoria Mas' 2019 novel "The Mad Women's Ball," is being made more widely available than any of her previous films, thanks to the reach of Amazon Prime Video. The film takes audiences inside Paris's Pitié-Salpêtrière asylum in 1885, where the spirited Eugénie (Lou de Laâge) is sent by her father.
And her next project is even higher profile: A studio produced adaptation of "The Nightingale," with Elle and Dakota Fanning playing French sisters during World War II.
Laurent spoke recently about her love of directing and actresses and the big year for female directors in France.
Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How did this book find its way to you?
Laurent: I just had my baby girl and I was asking myself, "What's next?" I really wanted to make a powerful movie with a woman. But I was like, do I want to make a feminist movie? Do I want feminism to be like the main theme of the whole project? And then (producer Alain Goldman) gave me this story and I was like, "Oh my god, it's feminist, but also it's a ghost story. It's about the oppression of women. It's about science, it's about death, relationships, love, friendship."
Q: Lou de Laâge starred in your second film "Breathe." Why did you go back to her for this?
Laurent: I just want to make movies with her every three years. She's very easy to work with and so talented and she's absolutely gorgeous. There is something magical about certain actresses (when) you film them. Lou has that magic of never seeing herself as beautiful, so she doesn't play beautiful. She's just beautiful.
Q: You go back and forth between acting and directing. Do you feel any internal pull to choose one?
Laurent: I feel like I'm more passionate about making movies because you have the control. Everything is about your imagination. I'm also extremely in love with my actresses. But when I'm directing a lot, I miss being directed. It's way more relaxing because you don't make any decisions.
Q: It does seem like there's a double standard for beautiful actresses who also direct, like when some dismissed "By the Sea" (in which Laurent co-starred) as a vanity project for Angelina Jolie.
Laurent: I was so amazed by her beauty and I was so amazed by her motherhood, the way she was talking about the kids and the way she was handled, everything. She had to be the boss on her own set, and she was extremely nice and extremely respected and respectful. And at the end of every day, I was like, "What a woman." I just hope for our babies and our baby girls that we are building that for them, a world where you can be whoever you want. I have a lot of journalists, and it's always from men, who ask like, "So you're doing this and this and this and this, what are you proving to the world? What do you want?" Dude, I don't know. I don't want to prove anything!
Q: Do you feel like there's a common theme in the films you direct?
Laurent: I don't even realize that I'm always making movies about women. I guess because I'm a female director and also because I love actresses. I love the way they work. I love the way they think. I love how they are so strong, so powerful. They are so much easier, it's insane. Like actors are definitely like actresses way more in the cliche ways we expect. I never had any problems with any actresses. And I love working with adaptation of books. I love being inspired from someone who's already inspired.
Q: What does it mean to you to have this kind of global release?
Laurent: I kind of love the idea of being released in 240 countries the same day, which never happens to me. The great thing about that is you bring a very French story to different countries and see how women are going to react to a subject like this. It's horrifying, but I'm pretty sure every woman from anywhere in the world is going to feel like, yeah, I know what she's talking about.
Q: It's been a good year for French female directors. You were on the jury that gave Julia Ducournau the Palme d'Or at Cannes and Audrey Diwan just won the Golden Lion in Venice.
Laurent: When we gave the prize to Julia for "Titane," she came on stage, she was very moved. She made a beautiful speech. And then she came in and she took me in her arms... and I said, "We didn't choose you because you're a woman." And she looked at me and she was like, "Oh my god, thank you so much for that because I had a doubt." I was like, "This is why there's still a debate here." When a woman gets an award, she still thinks right now that it's not for a good reason. And it's going to take a few years, but it's very important for us to win all those awards right now to make it normal.