Shape, story, movement

French actor Ariane Labed brings the strange beauty of Greek independent cinema to Hollywood. Photography by Spela Kasal, styling by Erik Raynal

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In a characteristically blunt scene in The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2015 film, a woman in a maid’s uniform gives a man a perfunctory lap dance. The scene is remarkably abrupt; the awkwardness of the two actors palpable. The almost affectless verité style, mixed with the surreal context of the film – the first half is set in a hotel-cum-prison for single people who, if they haven’t found a mate after 45 days, will be transformed into animals – acts as a strange sort of provocation to the audience. This is not a film that shocks, but gradually unfolds, almost in the manner of a Greek tragedy. The audience, in the dark of the cinema, follows the actors on a path with no hope of return.

The maid is played by French-Greek actor Ariane Labed and remains one of the film’s most intriguing presences, a character who gradually reveals a tragic hopelessness. Labed is a familiar face to anyone who has stayed abreast of Greek cinema in recent years. Born in Athens to French parents, she went to Paris to study, before returning to Greece in 2009 to perform in Argyro Chioti’s production of Goethe’s Faust at the National Theatre of Greece. “I arrived in Greece exactly at the moment that the crisis started,” she recalls. “I was amazed by the reaction of people – they just continued to do theatre, film and performance like crazy. After studying in France it was incredible to feel all this energy in Greece. I was supposed to stay for nine months, but I didn’t leave for three years.” 

The cinema that began to emerge in the wake of the crisis, dubbed the “weird wave”, coalesced around directors Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari. The pair worked together on Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, nominated for an Oscar in 2011, the year after Tsangari’s first film Attenberg had won two prizes at the Venice Film Festival, including best actress for Labed who played a socially awkward woman whose understanding of the world comes from the nature films of the eponymous (but mispronounced) David Attenborough. “I was contacted by Tsangari who was casting the film,” says Labed, “and I told her that cinema wasn’t my thing, but a good friend convinced me that I should meet her. It just made sense because she also came from a performance background. During the shoot I met Yorgos Lanthimos, who offered me a part in his next film, Alps.” Lanthimos and Labed are now married. 

Labed’s commitment to performance and dance is visible in the films she has made with Tsangari and Lanthimos, which seem closer to Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty” or Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater than to the established language of Hollywood. “I had this sense that cinema was psychological as a form, rather than physical,” says Labed, “but I realised you can do it any way you want! There’s a moment in Attenberg where the two girls are walking and dancing, and it’s a moment that gives a breath to the rhythm of the film. These films play with the fine balance between how you express things with your body and how you express things with language.” Perhaps the most important influence is Robert Bresson: “I loved how choreographed Attenberg was, down to where you put your eyes, how you turn your head. You see the same in Bresson’s work. It brings something very moving and very touching to the film.”

To date, Labed has worked with a variety of directors: “I’ve done proper French ‘auteur’ movies, which is ‘the right thing to do’. The truth is, I have a problem with French cinema. I’ve been trying hard, but it’s not very exciting. However I’ve worked with Philippe Grandrieux, who is a visual artist, and I can really connect with him. But we have to be honest, it’s not the nouvelle vague anymore.”

Perhaps, then, it’s not as surprising as it may at first seem to find Labed starring in one of 2016’s biggest blockbusters, Assassin’s Creed. “When you work with people you admire, you feel like you belong to their world and understand their language,” she explains. “To move from that and work with other people is always difficult, so sometimes it’s easier to jump to something completely different. Honestly, the fact that Assassin’s Creed was directed by Justin Kurzel made a huge difference. I have huge respect for him, as well as for the other actors. It was also very physical, because it was an action movie and I had to become an action hero.”

Labed’s talent hasn’t been lost on Chanel, for whom she is a friend of the house. For her, clothes offer the actor interesting obstacles: “Costumes are very, very powerful. I did a movie where I was a mechanic in a boat and wore blue overalls. You put them on and the way you moved, the way you breathed, the way you were, changed so much. It puts you into a shape, a story, a movement, which is a gift in a film – and in life, fashion has the same logic. In The Lobster, I decided to wear a watch that belonged to my grandmother. I wore it upside down because in one of Godard’s films, a maid did the same – and I loved it.” § 

All of Ariane’s clothes and accessories are from Chanel pre-fall 2016Text: Thomas Roueché / Hair: Gilles Degivry at ArtList Paris / Make-up: Anthony Preel at Airport Agency using Lancôme and Chanel / Videography: Grégoire Dyer / Photography assistant: Falko