Interview with Fanny Ardant

- What made you want to adapt « Le Divan de Staline » (Seuil, 2013) into a movie, Jean-Daniel Baltassat’s novel?
FANNY ARDANT: In Le Divan de Staline, there was a concordance between my passion for Russia, my interest in the tragic era of the Soviet Union and the underground resistance it provoked. On the other hand, there was my love for Gérard Depardieu. I had found a role to his measure. In the story I wanted to tell, Gérard was going to bring his ambiguity, his knowledge of human beings, his taste for game and seduction, his brilliant intelligence but his vulnerability despite everything. 

- Where does your interest in Russia come from?
Since the age of 15, I have been passionate about Russia, its History, its music, its literature, its poetry. I started by reading the great classics, then the dissidents and the poets. And everything spoke to me in an extraordinary way. First the heroes like Prince Myshkin, the Karamazov Brothers, Stravrogin, Natasha, Anna Karenina, Oblomov, etc… and then I knew the poets, Pushkin, Yesenin, Osip Mandelstam, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva… Their spirit of resistance fascinated me. Their lives were already poems. Only in Russia that poets are assassinated because they are a threat to power. In the course of my youth, my studies, encounters, sorrows and joys, illusions and failures, they helped me to live.

- To what extent?
Through them I learned that the inner world is more important than the outside world, how to resist when everything was taken away from you, except your soul, living clandestinely in worlds where power, glory, power, money and domination have no hold on you.
Many dissidents during the tragic years of dictatorship survived despite the confinement or the persecutions by reciting poems which they knew by heart. They resisted in the dark in their own way.
At first I wanted to entitle my film And behind me, an empty cage in tribute to the Osip Mandelstam’s verses “… ahead of me, thick fog is swirling. An empty cage behind me.” Verse that I put at the end of the film.

- In the novel by Jean-Daniel Baltassat, Stalin, three years before his death in 1950, visited Bordjomi in Georgia at Grand Duke Mikhailovich’s former palace. Why did you not date the film and specify the place where the action takes place?
I wanted to relate a fable about the relations between power and art, what power creates in the one who exercises it and the one who undergoes it. I wanted to get away from the documentary, the truth interests me more than reality. During the location scouting, I sought an aristocratic dwelling. Every new authority is established in the signs of power which it has ousted. The Republic takes the castles of kind and aristocracy. The Bolsheviks requisition the signs of power and wealth.
I arrived at the Buçaco Castle and immediately knew that this would be the perfect setting. Since I wanted to tell a tale, this Blue Beard, with its battlements and towers of chivalrous legends, with gargoyles as in cathedrals, was exactly a place outside of any context. I wanted to tell the story in a unity of time, place and action. The gates of the castle open at the beginning, as “once upon a time” and close at the end of the story. Between tale and fable.

- You succeeded in recreating within this palace a heavy atmosphere, full of lies, terror, submission, humiliation and manipulation, peculiar to the Bolshevik universe.
I always want to oppose the individual to the group, to the party, to society, to common thought.
Society is represented here by the armed guards, the secret police, maids, cooks. All of them always move together as a mass, as a single entity, a way of symbolizing freedom in the face of enrollment, identity facing the group.

- How did Gérard Depardieu react to the idea of interpreting Stalin?
Gérard is curious about everything. He explores the paths he has not known. He trusted me because life is an adventure. He interpreted Stalin as he could play a Shakespeare character, with the ambiguity and complexity of enigmatic characters, monstrous but human, too human.

- Physically Depardieu doesn’t really resemble Stalin.
I did not want to make a documentary. The fact that Gérard looks exactly like Stalin was not primordial. The important thing was to be in the archetype, in the image of Stalin that exists in the collective memory.
Always to return to the fable, to the tale, it’s Stalin and at the same time, it is not the Stalin of the History books and documentaries.
I said to Gérard: Stalin speaks with a soft baritone voice and he always has a half smile like wild beasts.

- How does one direct Gérard Depardieu?
Gérard is an actor of genius. A complex, rich and unexpected nature. He enters the corridors of a character with what he knows and what he doesn’t know.
There are several truths. When you tell a story, you bring in the actors in a world that is yours, with your obsessions, your gaze on things and beings, which begins with them and ends with them. They play the game they are offered. I like the idea that one fights for a silence, a smile, a movement of the eyes or the hand, that the details are everything since everything has already been told.

- Stalin’s Couch is at first a plunge into the chimerical intimacy of the executioner. In his palace, at nightfall, Stalin lies down on the sofa – strangely identical to Freud’s one in London – and tells his dreams to his mistress, Lidia Semoniova Vodieva interpreted by Emmanuelle Seigner.
Stalin asked his mistress to bring him The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. Stalin often comes to this castle and he realizes that the couch on which he sleeps in his little office is very similar to Freud’s one in London. Stalin shows a picture of an English newspaper to Lidia and shows her the couch by adding “this is where the bourgeois perverts stretch out to debut their neurotic bullshit”. Stalin will be patient and Lidia will decipher his thoughts. From the beginning he lays down the law, he wants to know how it works, how Freud made them confess, extort their secrets from those bourgeois.
There is a mixture of scientific curiosity and taste for the cat and mouse game in Stalin, this pleasure of handling dangerous materials that can explode at any moment at the listener’s face. To hear Stalin’s secrets is to condemn yourself. And Lidia knows it.

- What analysis do you draw from his dreams?
In his first dream, Stalin confides to Lidia a childhood memory, the age of innocence. Even Stalin was a child. When Lidia asks him if the loss of innocence is inevitable, Stalin refuses to answer, this is the question we all ask ourselves, even the monsters. It is the inconsolable loss.

- And in his second dream?
He dreamed of his wife, Nadezhda Sergeevna Alliluyeva, whom he really loved. She committed suicide but the official version was that she died of appendicitis. Lidia knows very well that it’s a lie.
“It’s the archetype of the woman you’re afraid of. A woman who is free enough to die when she chooses to”, explains Lidia to Stalin for whom suicide is a betrayal. Not to be afraid of death is the supreme freedom on which no executioner can have a hold on. Lidia rubs this fact in Stalin’s face, about his wife and also about herself, she understands that her time is running out.

- Through Lidia, you realize a very beautiful woman’s portrait, interpreted with sensitivity and finesse by Emmanuelle Seigner.
I have always loved Emmanuelle. She is clear and mysterious, energetic and voluptuous. She can smile like a vamp and suddenly become a child again. She reminds me of the earth.

- You gave Lidia’s character more importance than she had in the novel. Why?
Lidia’s character allowed me to bring a woman who had believed in the utopia of the Bolshevik revolution to life, who had submitted body and soul to Stalin’s power, who gradually loses her illusions, sees the reality of the Red Terror, tacks, tries to float, understands that she is losing her soul, chooses to say no and decides to put an end to it.
If Stalin asks Lidia to bring him Freud’s book, it’s because he knows she is very intelligent. And, even if it’s a matter of making cheap psychoanalysis, she’s a worthy adversary. She’s able to discourse and understand that to pierce Stalin’s dreams and secrets equals to a death sentence.

- Precisely, at the same time appears Danilov’s (Paul Hamy) fate, ready to sell his soul to the devil.
Danilov arrives in a world of which he doesn’t know the codes and he believes he is the strongest. He represents the ordinary citizen, naïve, he wants to succeed, he’s ambitious, ready to compromise, not completely dishonest but neither a hero… He’s placed in an extreme situation: to portray Stalin. It’s an unexpected chance to become famous. Danilov represents the position of the artist facing power. If we start to compromise, to deny ourselves, are we not going to lose our soul and our art? Lidia asks the question: “And you, what have you done to lose your soul?” This is the eternal question we can all ask ourselves at every stage of our life.

- What do you think of his past?
At the death of his parents Danilov was adopted, as a child, by the Mukhina, a great sculptor of the Soviet Era who, her, really existed. She created the famous sculpture Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. She discovered in Danilov drawing skills and considered he could become the pride of the Soviet Union art. For her, he may be an example of the re-education allowed by the new communist society. The regime has made him a good Soviet.

- Throughout Stalin’s Couch, there is this cruel and perverse game around the salutary lie and the truth that destroys.
With cynicism Stalin reveals to Danilov his parents’ terrible end in the regime camps. Stalin laughs at this perverse dilemma. Will the truth bring forth a new man, determined to die to defend his parents or an ambitious cynic ready to compromise everything to succeed? Stalin has always established himself as the “engineer of souls”. This little time he spent with Danilov allowed him to bet on his opportunism and his desire to submit. The truth would have built Danilov’s dignity but would have meant arrest and death for him. Stalin’s cynicism (or of any arbitrary power) is to put the individual in the face of his own cowardice and his choices deprived of dignity.
Still to return to the relationship between Stalin and Mandelstam, it is the irreducible position of the poet that makes the dictator impotent. Mandelstam will surely die but he will remain eternal by saying no. Danilov pacts with the devil, with Stalin. He is manipulated and any pact with the devil, with power, ends badly sooner or later.

-In the film, you don’t hesitate to often use metaphors, especially around Danilov’s steel work and mirror effects.
Very young I was haunted by the notion of reflection, like a mise en abyme. What is it reflected in? To what, suddenly, one belongs by its reflection in a photo, in a painting, in a window, in a mirror? In one of the last scenes of the film, Stalin goes to Danilov’s workshop, discovers his reflection in the artist’s creation, turns violently as if he had seen a ghost, his ghosts, his acts, his murders? Even Stalin is afraid… And fear, as he emphasizes it “is the greatest enemy of man.”.

- We also find this phrase which recurs as a recurrent theme at key moments of the film: “To look at oneself is to strive to see the invisible of the soul that must be reborn in order to understand the truth”.
This sentence I read in a novel by Chrétien de Troyes. I manipulated it a bit. When we look at ourselves, we stop and see beyond our physical appearance, we see this other who lives in us and is born of us and of our acts.

- The cinema session scene is a very evocative episode of Stalin’s personality.
Staline aimait les westerns américains, les hommes solitaires qui chevauchent pendant des heures dans les plaines illimitées.
Sans doute, s’identifiait-il à l’homme seul face à un destin à accomplir.
Stalin loved American westerns, lonely men who ride for hours on unlimited plains. Undoubtedly, he identified himself with a man facing alone a destiny to be accomplished.
In the films to be watched, Captain Dovitkine (Tudor Istodor), the projectionist, offers a German film, The Blue Angel by Sternberg, the take from the war, after Germany’s crushing. It’s an artistic choice. Stalin likes this Red Army captain. He lets himself go and begins to watch this film. But very quickly, Stalin identifies himself with the Professor ridiculed by his lover (Marlene Dietrich) and her beau. Stalin can’t bear this image which brings him back to his own jealousy with regard to the complicity between Lidia and Danilov. He’s furious that someone can make fun of him behind his back, he punishes all those who have amused themselves by contradicting or ridiculing him.

- Despite the fearsome General Vlassik (François Chattot), Poskrebyshev (Xavier Maly), Stalin’s private secretary, Varvara’s character (Luna Picoli-Truffaut), the chambermaid is particularly interesting.
She is in fact an infiltrated agent of the MGN. Lieutenant Machkova reveals her identity to Lidia when she comes to arrest her.
Varvara crawled into Lidia’s private life by pretending to be a maid. They had time to talk, to confide, even talk about love songs. “In your big black eyes, I lost myself, I wait for your look with a suspended heart”, sang Lidia at the moment of the arrest after saying: “It’s the last hope that we abandon, surviving.” Through the character of Varvara-Machkova, I wanted to show that in this society, this twilight century, everybody plays a double game, one is a victim and an executioner, one hides and one lies. Varvara is not cruel by taste, she’s part of a system. She’s both tough and vulnerable. Reading to Stalin Pushkin’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan as Lidia used to, she feels that once in the front line, she will be in danger.

- Stalin is an executioner who also likes to garden while thinking about power, he handles the pruning shears as if he was cutting heads!
Stalin draws a parallel between nature and the Great Purge, and emphasizes that “nature is made so that everything ends up being corrupted. Diseases even attack what was purged and scoured in depth. The World is nothing but a wound in perpetual remission.”

- Music holds an important place in Stalin’s Couch. Why choose Shostakovich’s chamber music or Lady Macbeth’s aria « Vieni! T’affretta »?
Shostakovich represents for me the artist who struggled and survived in spite of terror, who left nothing of his genius to please. It’s said that he always expected to be arrested and that his suitcase was ready under his bed. The quartet no. 8 in Ut minor takes place throughout History, as a threat and a consolation.
Stalin listens to Lady Macbeth’s aria who summons the powers of evil to respond to her husband’s ambition: to become king. Callas has in her voice the madness of dreams and the terror of visions.

- You who love so much symbols and signs, you put in Lidia’s hands the cover of a disc by the pianist Maria Yudina at some point. Who was she truly?
Opponent to the Soviet regime, converted to the Orthodox faith, she was admired by Stalin! Maria Yudina is an extraordinary woman. It’s said that one evening Stalin heard Mozart’s Concerto No.23, performed by Maria Yudina. He had loved her interpretation so much that he asked to have the record. The record didn’t exist. In the night the pianist and all the musicians of the orchestra were awakened to record this work. And at three in the morning, the record was brought to Stalin. To honor her talent, Stalin offered her a sum of money. She replied that she thanked him and that she would give everything, up to the last ruble, to the poor and “I will pray for all the sins committed against the Russian people.” Stalin didn’t worry her. She has never been to the Gulag. Later, at the time of Khrushchev, she is put aside but every time she plays in public, the concerts are crowded. When the audience demands an encore, instead of playing the piano, she rises and recites the poems of dissident poets. The public doesn’t understand what she says, she no longer has teeth, but everyone hears what wants to be told.
The portrait of Maria Yudina is like a recurrent theme in Stalin’s office. As the thread of this story between the power that corrupts and the struggle to remind intact.

Interview made bv Emmanuelle Frois