Mathieu Almaric: Hold Me Tight (2021) | featured image
Vicky Kripes in Hold Me Tight | Kino Lorber

Director Mathieu Amalric on Letting Go in ‘Hold Me Tight’

French director and actor Mathieu Amalric talks with PopMatters about the power of imagination and its phantoms in Hold Me Tight.

Hold Me Tight (Serre moi fort)
Mathieu Amalric
Kino Lorber
9 September 2022 (US)

For his sixth directorial feature, Hold Me Tight (Serre moi fort, 2021), celebrated French actor and director Mathieu Amalric adapts Claudine Galéa’s stage play, Je reviens de loin. The story centres on a woman, Clarisse (Vicky Krieps), who leaves her husband and two children.

This simple premise is deceptive as Amalric weaves together a story that explores the projections of the mind and how we live much of our lives in our imagination. Did she leave her family, or is she repressing a personal tragedy? It’s a tantalising and captivating puzzle that plays with its audience. The filmmaker asks his audience to be comfortable with the ambiguity of uncertainty as to the truth of what we’re seeing. At its heart, Hold Me Tight is a touching drama, its simplicity complicated by emotional and psychological contours.

In conversation with PopMatters, Amalric discusses that his female lead is not meant to be either a saint or martyr, and the appeal of the gesture of imagination that she represents. [Spoilers ahead.]

Where did the creative spark originate for you?

[…] For many of us who do these [creative] jobs, it must start somewhere in adolescence. […] I lived in Russia, and my parents were journalists. At the age of eight, I had my first Zenit [camera], and I’d develop the photographs myself in a dark room. This chemical transformation was magical, and even now, with video and the new tools, there’s still magic to transformation. 

Beneath all of that is the transformation of one’s self and the exploration of everything that’s possible with the human body and mind. So trying to be in a field of risks attracted me. 

Hold Me Tight feels dreamlike and free-flowing, imitating the messiness of life. This contradicts the habit of stories being neat and tidy. 

I was attracted by the gesture of this woman’s imagination and what we think is real. We even prefer to forget something is real, even if in the denial we can feel something is not. It’s why I thought a lot about hyper-realistic painting, where you think it’s a photograph, but in fact, it’s a painting.

[…] Clarisse invents a story that has to be as precise as those paintings where you think it’s true. She does everything in detail so that she can believe in it and that they [her family] can be there and they can grow. Of course, they never grow. This is what attracted me. Hold Me Tight would be a melodramatic and a phantom film. It’s how I felt cinema could grab Claudine Galéa’s play and have fun with it. 

We want things to be logical, of course. Every morning we’re trying to create an equilibrium, a belief, or something, but fortunately [reality] is always more surprising than we could have thought of. I’m thinking of what people will say about a parent, “Oh, he became bourgeois, he finished his life. Now he doesn’t want adventure”, but kids are the most surprising things. You’re never where you think you’re going to be and have to start everything again. 

It’s why I love that there are children in the film, and Clarisse has more imagination for her daughter than her little boy. She can become this incredible pianist even if, in real life, her daughter never went beyond the level of Für Elise

It was important to film things that seemed alive – we were filming the woman bringing them to life. This is so incredible for Vicky Krieps because she had to hide everything and keep it inside almost all of the time. 

We live much of our lives within our imagination, and Hold Me Tight represents how we project such imaginings onto our reality.

That’s why it was important that this woman would not be a saint or a martyr but a woman that in real life could say, “I wanted to leave.” Life as a couple is not easy, and of course, she thought of leaving, and her husband was sometimes like the furniture. 

What does she do with her sexuality now? That’s why we wanted those moments where there are men that don’t look at her, or she’s looking at men. She’s looking at a hairy man, and then you understand why. If she wants to see her husband naked again and as attractive, more than he was after some years of their common life together, this is how she can.

We see he’s gentle, and she cries because she misses him so much. She goes too far in making them [her husband and child] alive, and when they’re in the breakfast scene, it’s like they’ve forgotten her, and they can live without her. It’s a bit too far.

Hold Me Tight is a different and fresh approach to a common theme. How difficult is it to challenge audiences and reinvent stories that have familiar themes and ideas? 

Let’s say it’s an exploration of your tools, of cinema, and because of the gesture of the imagination and being in Clarisse’s head, she’s doing the shots and the edit, which was exciting.

You have tried to find the right way to film it, and we immediately felt there shouldn’t be a difference in the aesthetic between what’s invented and what’s real. It’s true that it made me remember those moments when we go through terrible times. I thought about the end of a love story when the separation is like death. We become crazy, and that craziness is important – it’s like delirium. 

What I liked in Claudine’s story was that at the beginning, you think it’s a woman leaving because it’s very close to death. I remember how you feel in those moments, where there’s no filter between reality and imagination to tell you if it’s different. We often filmed only one or two takes to resemble real life, but I’d prepare a lot. […] I’d be Clarisse during the preparation and the setups, and then I’d tell her what happened to me, what went through my mind and body. 

[…] If you put the story in order, which we did, first there’s the accident, then she receives a phone call saying her husband and two children have been caught in an avalanche, and their bodies haven’t been found. Could she come? They then have to wait for spring [to recover the bodies], and that’s the story. It would be the story of a woman waiting and then saying, ‘Oh, they’re dead.’

The things in our heads are incredible, more incredible than the deception of life in the play. She [Galéa] invented this gesture of this woman’s imagination, and that’s what made me cry. 

The magic of cinema is the out-of-body experience, where we’re both immersed in the film, believing it’s real, and we’re critiquing the experience. 

The editor François Gédigier and I thought about this during the editing. I know that feeling of being in the cinema, where you know what’s on the screen, is not real, but you believe it. If you believe in it, then that means it’s reality, that it’s true. But at the same time, you know that behind the screen, there’s nothing. It’s phantoms and shadows, it’s love and memory. 

[…] We lose our memories, and we transform memory. When people separate, they don’t have the same memory of their common life, so what’s left? What do we live on? Where’s the ground? That’s why Clarisse needs real people around her. She needs to touch this man, the flutist, or speak with this woman at the cafe.  

Hold Me Tight opens in Los Angeles on 23 September 2022. It previously opened in New York on 9 September 2022.