What Actress Vicky Krieps Taught Me About Being (in Love)

On film and in real life, just being—and not acting—is hard but essential.

Is romantic love experiencing its own kind of polycrisis?

The so-called “fairy-tale industrial complex” (a term coined by love coach Francesca Hogi) keeps our expectations of finding the one soaring high above reality. At the same time, polyamory has gone mainstream, providing an alluring alternative to traditional romantic tropes. Meanwhile, the self-help movement has monetized relationships by propagating the idea that love requires work, investment, management, and maintenance, be it through “conscious coupling” (and uncoupling) or an assortment of newfangled couples therapy, ranging from the Imago technique to the Gottman method.

Amidst this polycrisis, I met Vicky Krieps, the award-winning German-Luxembourgian actress known for her sensitive and enigmatic performances in some of the finest contemporary international cinema. She recently starred in Viggo Mortensen’s new film, The Dead Don’t Hurt, and just completed shooting Jim Jarmusch’s latest alongside Cate Blanchett.

Krieps’ international breakthrough was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s much acclaimed Phantom Thread (2017), the story of a (literal) lovesickness between renowned women’s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock and his mistress and muse, Alma.

“What I did is—I did nothing.”

Krieps told me she felt certain that a very deep love existed between Reynolds and Alma in the film. “But it's not the chatty, loud kind of love nowadays. It’s more the two-people-looking-at-the-tree kind of love,” she explained. “They can sit there and look at the tree and say, ‘Do you see how beautiful this tree is?’ ‘Yes, and can you see the shades of green going through that?’ And that's how they love each other.”

When Krieps was cast opposite powerhouse method actor Daniel Day-Lewis, in what was to be his last role, she was intimidated, to say the least. “I mean, how do you face someone like Danny? It's actually almost impossible. Sometimes I tried to explain it to people, and it's just so intense, and I can't even say why. It's like meeting Jesus,” she said with a smile.

Krieps and I rewatched one of the first scenes she shot with Day-Lewis. In it, Alma watches Reynolds eat an omelet in silence. Revisiting her work, Krieps was struck by its simplicity.

“Now that I watch it again, I get it,” she said. “It's absolutely logical. What I did is—I did nothing. When you accept to be the weaker part or when you accept that, there's nothing to happen other than for the monster to devour you, you become stronger. But I wasn't planning that. It wasn’t my agenda. I wasn't thinking: How can I be stronger than Daniel Day-Lewis? Then I would have probably failed. I just was. And that was all I had. All I could do was to sit inside my own intimidation, and let it happen, and seeing it now, when I watch the film, she becomes so strong and defiant.”

There are several scenes in Phantom Thread where you can see Krieps’ doing nothing; the effect is so uncannily real that it’s almost uncomfortable to watch. The electricity between the two actors is practically visible as the power shifts from the seasoned superstar to the young woman who dares to hold his gaze.

Being, not acting, is a formidable challenge for an actor. “I can tell you that it’s really difficult not to act, because I tried to perform this circus trick where you don’t act, and I don't always achieve it, you know,” Krieps told me. “But I always try, honestly try, just be there and remove my ego and everything. Just be there, and only listen and only react. So if anything, I'm trying to not do this acting that we usually do all the time in society, because we have to do that, right?”

As an example, she shared an anecdote about an everyday chore: buying bread. If you stop acting, “you bump into the walls all the time,” she said, describing her urge to have a genuine conversation with the baker, shattering the conventions of brusque efficiency and ignoring the line that was forming behind her.

Research has shown that we’re dishonest with people an average of 25 times per day. Lying can be a matter of survival, a necessary instinct for self preservation. And there’s no doubt the line between lying and acting is a fine one. Can we survive without acting? Maybe if we live alone and don’t have to deal with continuous interaction with other people. The hermit is probably the ultimate anti-actor. But in any social context, a life without acting is next to impossible.

“As long as we were in love, we understood each other: there was nothing to understand.”

Do we lie when we’re in love? Or is love an exceptional state during which, if only for a moment, we let go of our self-protective instincts? You might argue that the very definition of love is a forgetting of the self. We become oblivious to what’s around us, too. We rise above the world. We tune out the nagging questions, the ruminations, the doubt and self-doubt; we stop worrying about how we’re perceived and the degree to which our actions accurately represent us. When we are in love, in a Dionysian kind of way, even the unexamined life is worth living. We can just be (at least for a little while). Our lover, an audience of one, is the only witness we need to an act that is invisible beyond simply breathing.

In director Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1962 masterpiece The Eclipse, the lead character Vittoria proclaims: “As long as we were in love, we understood each other: there was nothing to understand.”

But as time goes on, a single witness can grow inadequate. We may start longing for the kind of insight that comes with distance, a perspective that can see our relationship as a whole. This point of view can only come from a third party. Whether that party be summoned or unsummoned—whether they be a friend, parent, ex, colleague, or simply society as a whole—they validate the love while breaching its secrecy. In effect, they are love’s enablers and vanquishers at the same time.

A scene from another one of Krieps’ movies, Bachmann, serves as an example. The Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann (Krieps) is furious to discover that her lover, the Swiss writer Max Frisch, has written about her in his diary. She tells him that she has burned it. “I thought we had a pact!” she exclaims. “What is between you and me, that is the pact!” In her mind, their shared life is sacred, private, and not material to be owned, recorded, or exploited. “I would never write about you,” she protests.

Love is power play. If the battle isn’t internal, then it’s with the world at large. How much public can a love tolerate? How much public can a love do without? Does love shrivel without a witness? Can it survive without acting? Is it possible—or even desirable—to just be all the time?

Asking myself these questions. I thought of a conversation between two minor characters from Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the wonderful 1988 film adaptation). Trapped in a loveless marriage, the husband and wife debate whether love is worth fighting for or whether the notion that love is a battle is patently absurd. Then Kundera weighs in with his characteristic profundity:

“Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to them demand-free and asking for nothing but their company.”

-- Tim Leberecht

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