French Connection

The biggest regret and the biggest dream for Yvan Attal, a charming contemporary French film star, are not at all connected, surprisingly, to his career on screen. "The truth is that I love music very much, and my biggest regret is that I'm not a musician. To tell the truth, I'm more excited by and enjoy music more than watching movies," says Attal, currently nominated for his second Cesar Award for his role in "Rapt," directed by Lucas Belvaux.

"I think that creating music is easier in comparison to film. If you want to express yourself, you can't simply make a movie, but you can take your guitar or sit at your piano and express whatever's within you. And so I'm really sorry that I'm not good at [performing music]," he says, in a telephone interview from his home in Paris. "I'm working on it, I'm trying to improve. When I have free time I sit with a guitar and lose myself in music for hours on end, but I'm aware that I'm not talented, and I won't become a professional musician. [This music] is for me alone."

Attal was born in Tel Aviv in 1965, to a Jewish-Algerian family that had immigrated to Israel three years earlier. "When Algeria received independence, [my parents] had to leave, like all the French, and they decided to come to Israel," he says. When Attal was three, his parents went to try their luck in France. "I grew up here in France, but I feel very close to Israel, and I visit as often as I can to see my aunts and uncles and cousins."

Attal had his career breakthrough while still a student in acting school. "I took part in a play," he recalls. "In 1989, a casting director saw me and gave me my first movie role in Eric Rochant's 'A World Without Pity.'" Attal won a Cesar for Most Promising Actor for that role.

Two years later, on the set of another Rochant film, "In the Eyes of the World," Attal met the woman who would become his partner, actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. "We've been together ever since," Attal says. "We aren't married, but we've lived together for 19 years." The two make their home in Paris where they are raising their son Ben, 12, and daughter Alice, 7.

'I exist in my own right'

Attal, who became widely known abroad for, among other films, "Anthony Zimmer," directed by Jerome Salle, has recently begun to direct in addition to acting. "Sometimes it's difficult to be an actor, not only because of the work itself, but because you are working opposite directors and you must trust them. Perhaps because of this I wanted to direct as well and create on my own," he says. "I worked as an actor for many years, until I understood that I wanted to direct, and so I wrote my first film and directed it."

Which do you enjoy more?

"Both, I think, but they are very different experiences, and I like them for different reasons. When you love film, you want to do everything, and it's reasonable to assume that if I weren't color-blind, I'd try to be a cinematographer too."

In the first film Attal directed, "My Wife is an Actress" in 2001, he cast Gainsbourg in the role of the hero's wife. "It was very easy for me, because when you direct and you film a particular character, you want to love her, and for me it is easy to love my wife," Attal says. "It's a real pleasure to work with her, not only because I love her and admire her as a woman and an actress, but rather because I can spend time with her and that's the most important thing in the world, no? To spend time with the people you love."

But the movie deals with a couple's jealousy.

"True. Look, because of all the attention lavished on an actor, at a certain point in time if you aren't in a good place, if you are weak, if the couple is not in balance, it is very tough on the relationship. I imagine that's the reason so many couples in the entertainment world split up. You have to manage to find balance. She's got a career and I've got a career; I don't need to complain even if I think she's more successful. I exist in my own right as an actor and director. But the film also deals with the fact that acting is really strange work. You spend all day acting as if you love the person playing opposite you, spend entire days naked in bed with an actress you don't know and it's very strange to return home at the end of the day and say, 'Hello, my dear wife, what's for dinner?'"

"The line between reality and acting is likely to become blurred," he adds. "In order to say 'I love you' to an actor or actress in a convincing way on screen, you must look into their eyes and find the strength to say it. That is, you have to get the thought into your head so it won't be a lie, it won't be only make believe. And so it is easy to fall in love with the actor or actress in front of you. When you spend your time with a beautiful actress and you're naked in bed, it's hard not to feel desire for her. It's as if your [real life] relationship is in danger all the time, and you have to fight this, and understand that it's your work, not reality, and not fall down."

Complex identity

Attal says that as an actor and director he's influenced by films he saw in his youth, and which he took to heart. "American films of the 1970s and 1980s by Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma had a strong influence on me. When you are growing up, you're like a sponge. You see many films and you have a lot of questions about the world, about life, your feelings, and often you find answers to these questions in movies."

His complex identity as a Jew and a Frenchman born in Israel has permeated the roles he's chosen throughout his career. Attal played a young Israeli Mossad agent in the 1994 film "The Patriots," and also took part in Steven Spielberg's "Munich" in 2005.

Unlike many other actors, Attal does not hesitate to express his thoughts on political subjects he cares about. Three years ago he defined himself as a Zionist in an interview on a French television show. "I was promoting 'Munich' and the topic of Israel came up. You have to remember that I was a guest on a show seen by many people and which tries to be provocative," he says. "I had to take a stand and say that I did not agree with the image of Israel created in France, with the way the conflict is portrayed here, and the way it has been turned into a Jewish problem. Because for the French, there is no difference between Israelis and Jews. They can't even understand that Jews have differing opinions about the conflict and want to find a solution.

"At that time the situation of the Jews in France was very difficult," he continues. "I couldn't go anywhere without hearing people talk about the conflict, about which they of course knew nothing, but which became an opportunity to talk about Jews. It turned into racism. It's a way of thinking that can be aimed at Muslims or Arabs or foreigners tomorrow. It's a dangerous path.

"And suddenly this propaganda against Zionism began. It was said that if you are Zionist then you are opposed to peace with the Palestinians, and I wanted to say that you can be Zionist and support peace. Suddenly a situation was created that, because of the conflict, you could question Israel's right to exist. People started to say that Israel was not a legitimate state. It reached the stage where for some people, Zionism became a synonym for fascism. So I said: 'I am a Zionist.' A Zionist and I also support an independent Palestinian state. You can be Zionist and support a neighboring Palestinian state with its own identity, and honor and independence - these aren't contradictions, it was important for me to make this clear."

Attal was recently invited to serve as honorary chairman of the Israeli Film Festival in Paris, which will take place next month. "I'm a French director and actor, but I was born in Israel and feel close to it. I'm delighted whenever we can build a bridge between France and Israel, and enjoy being part of this," he says.

"The festival, now in its 10th year, attracts more than 8,000 viewers every year. Some are from the French Jewish community, but there are also movie lovers who have no direct connection to Israel or Judaism," festival director Charles Zrihan points out. "Many films," he says, "most of which will not receive wide exposure to the French audience, are not only screened but many times lead to professional dialogues that rise from the groundwork the festival provides." Among the films to be shown this year are "Ajami," "Phobidilia," "Five Hours from Paris," "The Lonely," "Eli and Son," "Walls" and more.

Zrihan says that one of the festival's goals is to foster further cooperation between European and Israeli filmmakers. The rising interest in France in Israeli projects has not gone unnoticed by Attal. "The truth is that I have dreamed for a long time about working in Israel," he says. "I would very much like to find a project as an actor and work with Israeli actors, who I think are excellent, or work with an Israeli director. The problem is that I'm not really Israeli, I don't speak Hebrew like an Israeli, but Israeli films are very interesting right now and I'd be happy to work on such a project. I don't know how yet, but I will find a way. If no director approaches me, I think I'll try to find a subject and make something myself."