By Kenneth Turan
Los Angeles Times
CANNES, France — So much to talk to Natalie Portman about, so little time.
The 33-year-old Oscar-winning actress is at the Festival de Cannes to present her first film as a director, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” taken from the celebrated memoir by Israeli writer Amos Oz, a feature she also scripted and stars in, but that is far from the only potential topic of conversation.
For Portman has emerged as the Cannes star of the moment. She’s seemingly everywhere, from the cover of the Hollywood Reporter to the Sunday magazine of French newspaper Le Monde, because of not only her new film but also her future projects (including roles as Jackie Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) as well as her marriage to Benjamin Millepied, director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet (and founder of L.A. Dance Project).
But the rules for media at Cannes are nothing if not strict, and those able to get one-on-one time with the actress are limited to 20 minutes. That makes a focus on “Love and Darkness” inevitable, but Portman’s fine first directorial effort, anchored by her own intensely emotional Hebrew-language performance as a woman who takes her own life when her son is just 12, is so effectively done that concentrating on it is a pleasure.
Articulate and self-possessed, with an arresting presence that is even more striking in person than on-screen, Portman had not planned to write and star in the film as well as direct. But in the eight years she had been passionate about the project, it expanded in those directions.
“At first, I wanted someone else to write it, but the screenwriters I talked to said, ‘You should write it, you know what you want to do,’ and I ended up doing a little at a time and putting it aside,” she said.
“Initially, I wanted to use an Israeli actress, but no one would give me the money as a first-time director for such a completely noncommercial project. And I was also starting to get old enough to play the part myself.”
Though Portman, born in Israel, speaks Hebrew and has acted in it before (in Amos Gitai’s 2005 “Free Zone”), the demands of this kind of a role meant she needed to reach another level with the language.
“My Hebrew is good, but I make a lot of mistakes, so I worked with a language coach for the entire pre-production,” she says. “And though an accent is fine for the character, who is an immigrant to Israel, my American accent had to be worked on as well.”
In some ways, though, having to deal so intensively with her Hebrew provided her with “another level of closeness to the material,” Portman says. “I had to work so much on the language, I knew every line in the script like the back of my hand. I’ve never known a part so fluently ahead of time.
“Which turned out to be necessary, because with acting and directing, I didn’t have time during the shoot to go home and learn my lines. What sounded like a bigger challenge made it easier.”
Similarly, taking on writing, acting and directing might make Portman sound like someone who likes to test herself, but the actress laughs and says the reality is “not that I set challenges but that I’m naive about what I’m taking on, and once I realize it, I say, ‘Uh oh.’ I felt something similar on ‘Black Swan.’ I was ignorant of what was involved, and once I found out it was, ‘OK, I have to figure this out.’”
A film of beautiful melancholy set in Jerusalem in the mid-1940s, just before and after the establishment of Israel, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” focuses on the childhood of young Amos (newcomer Amir Tessler), a period overwhelmed by the fragile mental state of his mother, Fania.
Portman’s moving performance as Fania is the film’s emotional center, and the actress says her connections to the character are many.
“The relationship to Israel, conflicted and complicated and always changing, founded in mythology and dreams,” she says. “All Jews have the Holocaust on our backs as this dominant part of our cultural story that is a heavy thing. The pressures of being a woman, of being a mother. The dual pull of being an immigrant, idealizing where you’re going and once you get there, idealizing where you left. All of that I relate to.”
One painful high point of Portman’s performance is a scene where she savagely slaps herself after an altercation with her mother. “That’s the lucky thing about being the director,” she says, smiling. “I said, ‘I think we got it,’ after one take. Someone else would have had me do it until I was black and blue.”
In her understanding of this material and the importance of keeping it under control (“I don’t want to push people to feel anything,” she says), Portman has something of the feel of an old soul, a characterization she is not sure about.
“I’ve always been really young, I started so public so early,” says a smiling Portman, who co-starred with Jean Reno in “The Professional” when she was 13. “I pretended to be an adult for so long, maybe I just pretend well and I’m secretly very immature.”
Author Oz has seen Portman’s film, and though he is not in Cannes (“He said it would be too emotional, too uncomfortable for him”) he has been publicly supportive of her work. “He was so generous and warm,” Portman says. “That was a great relief to me.”