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Jehnny Beth in An Impossible Love
Jehnny Beth in An Impossible Love

Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth on her scene-stealing new film role

The singer returns to her acting roots in An Impossible Love, Catherine Corsini’s moving depiction of familial trauma

The first voice we hear in An Impossible Love is a familiar one. “My mother began work at 17, as a secretary in a garage,” the narrator announces. “By 26, she had been at Social Security for several years.” On screen, we see Rachel, who’s played by Virginie Efira, but the voiceover is performed by Jehnny Beth, the lead singer of rock group Savages. It’s another 30 minutes into Catherine Corsini’s captivating drama when Beth’s character, Chantal, is born, and it’s a longer wait until Beth herself physically makes an appearance. In music festival terms, though, Beth is the headline name: in the third and final act, she storms the stage and becomes the main attraction.

Like Barry Jenkins casting three Chirons for Moonlight, Corsini deploys multiple actors to depict Chantal. Beth, then, is the Trevante Rhodes of An Impossible Love – the adult version of a character whose life we’ve been following for three traumatic decades. So when Beth does materialise, it’s the film’s defining moment: at last, we meet the woman whose intimate thoughts, confessions and dulcet tones we’ve been deciphering since the opening scene. Later on, when Beth unleashes a show-stopping monologue, it’s an outpouring of ferocious clarity, a years-in-the-making attainment of catharsis, an elucidation of what her younger selves were unable to verbalise. It’s surprising to learn, then, that it’s Beth’s first acting gig since 2009.

Beth is an actor-turned-musician-turned-actor. In 2005, she starred in Through the Forest under her real name, Camille Bertomier. In the ensuing years, she released two albums as half of John & Jehn, did another movie, and then formed Savages in 2011. “This desire to act that I had really early on, I put it aside to dedicate my life to music,” Beth tells me over the phone from Paris. Outside of Savages, Beth’s collaborators include Julian Casablancas, Bobby Gillespie and Gorillaz. Now, Corsini is part of that list.

“When I agreed to do (An Impossible Love),” Beth explains, “I was really in need of something different. I prefer to be in control of what I do, what I present, and when I do it. But after five years in Savages, I wanted to lose control, and offer myself to somebody else’s project and vision. You surrender control to the director. You surrender control, even in terms of your career, to the people who choose you, who want to work with you. It was relaxing and refreshing.” 

The film is an adaptation of Christine Angot’s 2015 novel Un amour impossible. It begins in the 1950s when Rachel, a lower-class admin worker, starts sleeping with a sexy, smooth-talking colleague, Philippe. Philippe offers Rachel a glimpse into an alternate reality: he’s travelled the world, comes from a wealthy family, and is played by Niels Schneider, best known as the heartthrob of Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats. “He had entered her life,” Beth’s voiceover declares. “She couldn’t see him leaving it.”

Yet the warning signs are there, not least the ominous title card overlaid during the meet-cute. “One day, you’ll wonder how you had such feelings for me,” Philippe whispers to Rachel. “And that will be a sad day.” It isn’t a line you wish to hear on any date, even if it is in a sultry French accent.

“Corsini is very much a feminist herself,” Beth says of this opening stretch. “There’s a definite message in the movie. The whole story is linked to the fact that this woman in the 1950s felt she had to behave in a certain way, and the man was the one who ‘knew it all’. Her lack of confidence was partly why the drama happened, and the fact she didn’t see (the abuse) – because she didn’t think much of herself.”

“I think most of it is very true, and happened, but as soon as you put it on the page, you transform it. Who wants reality? You want to be told a story” – Jehnny Beth

Despite the couple’s bedtime hook-ups, Philippe refuses to commit to Rachel – even when she gives birth to his daughter, Chantal. Their class difference, he insists, is too vast a chasm to overcome, and he temporarily vanishes from their lives. But what happens next isn’t easy to predict – unless you possess a decent knowledge of Angot’s background. In France, Beth tells me, Angot is a notorious celebrity (“as loved as she is hated”) whose childhood pain is public knowledge. But for my first viewing, I only knew of Angot as the co-writer of Claire Denis’s comedy Let the Sunshine In. So when the jaw-dropping twist arrived, it made me reconsider the entire first hour of the film. 

“Angot’s anger really spoke to me, and it’s something that I have,” Beth admits. “It’s more than anger. She’s trying to seek the truth. She’s a fighter, and there’s something very strong in her not letting other people define her. I didn’t feel I needed to copy her; I just needed to evoke those feelings that she had. I like her humanity, even if it’s twisted and strange.”

In An Impossible Love, Beth both does, and does not, depict Angot. “The name was changed,” she adds. “They had tried different actresses for the role, and they were not satisfied, because the actors were trying to play her the way we know her publicly in France. And maybe I have more distance to it. Also, all this happened before Angot became the writer we know now, before she released L’Inceste, which was this very powerful book that made her famous in France.”

To prevent an impersonation, Corsini forbid Beth from meeting Angot until after the shoot. However, Beth was allowed – and encouraged – to rehearse with the other iterations of Chantal. “They looked at pictures of me when I was younger to find them,” Beth says. The considered casting means Chantal physically and seamlessly evolves into Beth as an adult, while Rachel – played by Efira throughout – remains handcuffed to the past. Late in the film, when Rachel learns of Phillipe’s abuse of power, there isn’t an EastEnders-style confrontation; the mother instead stays silent, unsure of what to do or say. “In movies, when dramatic things happen, I’m always amazed how they manage to speak to each other,” Beth notes. “In this film, it happens the same way it happens in life – it takes years and years of work and effort and pain until (Chantal and her mother) are able to have this conversation that frees them, that makes them close again. It’s not a soap opera. It’s not trying to sell you a dream.”

Angot’s work draws on her life, but it’s a mistake to describe her novels as “autofiction” (“she would hate you for saying that!” Beth exclaims). Has Beth also experienced Savages listeners combing through her work for autobiographical cues? “In music, it’s poetical, so we have more of a distance,” she says. “There’s always room for people to interpret what you’re writing about, and being not really conscious that what you’re talking about has actually happened. When you’re talking about fiction or fantasies, it’s something that could have happened or not necessarily have happened. There’s a whole history of musicians and lyricists who have talked about their pain and despair, and then everyone’s surprised when they commit suicide, because we take their lyrics for granted. We just think they are lyrics.

“Angot definitely plays with the material of her life, but it’s also inspired by a true story. And she’d like to keep that mystery intact. I think most of it is very true, and happened, but as soon as you put it on the page, you transform it. You have to style it. And styling, in a sense, is a lie. It masks things and puts light on other things. It’s an art form. But who wants reality? I don’t think an audience wants all the facts. You want to be told a story.”

As for her musical background, Beth’s command of the stage comes to the fore in An Impossible Love. Since so much of the drama revolves around repressed emotions and bottled-up secrets, Chantal’s body language frequently contradicts her own dialogue. “When I act, I want to use my body entirely, so that it’s not just the head,” Beth explains. “And that experience and knowledge of my body I gained from being physical on stage. Savages is such a heavy band – the physical release is really intense, like doing sports. You have to eat certain foods and be careful with your sleep, otherwise you can’t do the show.”

Beth plans to add more credits to her IMDb page, but “unless something crazy happens”, it won’t be in the near future – she’s too busy prepping a new album. In the meantime, An Impossible Love is bound to spark lively post-screening discussions when it reaches UK cinemas this month. Beth witnessed a few herself at the premiere in France. “It was so interesting to see Angot so passionate about how people would take it,” the actor recalls. “I ran with her to see the people coming out of the movie, to see their faces. She stopped people to ask what they felt.” And the film, she’s satisfied to say, had the desired effect. “Most people, when they leave, they feel quite hammered. It’s a movie that leaves you speechless.” 

An Impossible Love opens in UK cinemas on January 4 2019