Friday, 23 March 2012

Spiritismes: An Interview with Elina Löwensohn

Image: Martin Parsons/Fohnhouse

“I was a Romanian vampire…”

Appearing in four of the films in the Spiritismes project, Elina Löwensohn is the definition of multi-faceted. A favourite of Hal Hartley, she has appeared in an impressive array of projects, from Seinfeld to Schindler’s List. When I got to speak with her she had her hair up in a Helena Bonham-Carter-challenging do, and looked every bit as much the elfin and beguiling creature that one sees in her film roles. Her warm approachability and friendly laugh, however, set her far apart from her sometimes detached and unemotional characters. I began by telling her how much I love her 1994 film Nadja, in which she plays the titular vampire. Fortunately, it seems that she does too, and she posed for a picture bearing a suitably ‘Nadja’ expression. Udo Kier appeared, and I noted that this put two of my favourite vampires together. “I did a vampire too!” she called to him, “I was a Romanian vampire!” (Mr Kier pointed out that this made sense, as Count Dracula was Romanian, to which Ms Löwensohn noted that Nadja was Dracula’s daughter).

I had to check the pronunciation of her name (which is actually just as it looks), and she admitted to being a fan of Udo Kier too. Our conversation finally got around to Spiritismes, and how she had become involved in the project: “It is thanks to the casting director that was working with Guy Maddin, and also Guy knew the work I have done so he was immediately very open to meeting me. And eight years ago, in fact, I wrote him an email because I wished to be cast in his films. I even said to him in the email with my ego – which I have never done to any other director – ‘I would be perfect in your films!’ He never answered. However, when I met him this time he remembered that I wrote to him years ago. It’s funny, he didn’t forget that – I’m very happy to finally get the chance!” And was she angry that he hadn’t replied before? “No! No. But I did write to him because when I saw the films I thought that this is exactly the sort of universe I would feel very comfortable in”.

Her unique style certainly fits well with Guy Maddin’s vision. Originally slated for two days, she ended up doing four. “Probably because he’s happy with what I’m doing, I don’t know” she noted, charmingly self-effacing. Before our interview I had watched her working some magic on Udo Kier against a rather psychedelic back-projected forest while Maddin called requests from the other side of the screen, and a gaggle of tourists snapped away from all sides. Elina was entirely unfazed by these conditions, though: “I love it! The Pompidou Centre…okay, it’s nice that they support this sort of work – I think it’s great – but what I love is the universe [Guy Maddin] creates, and everybody’s inventing constantly, and it’s almost like a work in progress. This to me is not like the classical, conventional type of filming. I think that Guy Maddin might work more specifically but in a similar way in his feature films, and this is what I personally love!”

Elina Löwensohn in Nadja

I had to bring the conversation back to Nadja, and her memories of it. I noted that it was quite a while ago now (the film was released in 1994). “It is! I’m getting older…I’m getting old in fact! The major thing…the director of photography was taking such a long time to prepare the shots, and it was just impossible, and then I realised how beautiful everything was. The fact that we shot only at night, so we felt like vampires. The invention, the freedom – the independent scene of that time, which I have not met again later on, because it was Michael Almereyda, Hal Hartley, and that changed with the years”.

“Hal was my beginning…”

Elina in Amateur

How was (and indeed is) working with Hal Hartley? “He saw me in some plays, we did Theory of Achievement, and that was the first film I ever did. And then I did Simple Men. So Hal is my beginning…I admire what he is about, and I’m extremely grateful to have begun with someone like him - because at the time of course, we never realise when we do a project if it’s going to be written in history or not. But both him and Michael Almereyda, these films – even though Nadja is not known in France, it has become a real cult film – represent a period of time in cinema that today almost is nonexistent. Or maybe it’s existent with people like Guy Maddin, who are doing in a similar way, inventing and having the freedom to invent and create cinema.”

Elina works not only in different genres, but also different languages – “because I moved around”, as she put it. The last film I saw her in was Lourdes, released in 2009. Her performance, as a nun suffering with cancer, is particularly affecting. I asked if she had had any experience of the religious side of things before making the film. “No…It was maybe the sort of conviction, an extreme conviction in something spiritual, and the fact of the double sides of when we really wish for something spiritual and good and yet because of the extremeness of it we become tough ourselves. The one thing that disappointed me about this film – I don’t know if you realised it – was that it was not my voice. I did it in French, and they changed my voice. I was in the Order of Malta [in the film – Ed], and they were afraid that people would be confused about me having the only accent in the film and that God would punish someone with an accent…isn’t that wild?! So this was why they considered that it would be better to have it homogenous. But it’s okay…it was a very good film, so this is why I didn’t do a lawsuit or things like that”.

Elina in Lourdes

“This is what excites me…”

How many languages does she speak? “I speak Romanian, English, French – Romanian the worst. When I did, years ago, The Wisdom of Crocodiles, very different from Nadja – I didn’t personally like it…but people liked it so I don’t want to take it away – there I did the English/French, but usually I’ve not been asked because either I do it in French or English and it’s not necessary that they come over. Now more and more I do films in France.”  
I asked as a final question if she might have an ethos as an actress. “No…even though I might have more of an expressionistic or minimalistic type of nature to the acting, even though I never forced it or looked for it. It’s really simply the script, and wishing to plunge myself in the unique universe of an auteur, if that universe exists. If not, I just do my job and I get paid a certain amount of money (when I get!) for certain films that I don’t care so much about. But for those I care about, this is what excites me and what makes me give over.”


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