Lyna Khoudri is The French Dispatch’s secret weapon

LFF: The Wes Anderson-approved French-Algerian follows fellow César winners Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vanessa Paradis and Audrey Tautou – and now she’s disarming Timothée Chalamet.

If this is the first time you read the name Lyna Khoudri, it won’t be the last. With a handful of films d’auteur under her belt and accolades from both the César Awards and the Venice Film Festival, the Algerian-born actress has fast become a fixture in independent Francophone cinema.

Now with a memorable part in Wes Andersons highly-anticipated, star-studded quirk-fest The French Dispatch – this Sunday’s Headline Gala at the London Film Festival – the 27-year old is about to grab the rest of the world’s attention. Still, she’s keeping a cool head about her Hollywood debut.

I approached it like any other film,” she tells me on a Zoom call from her Parisian pad, her chestnut hair pinned in an unruly bun. But it’s Wes Anderson, so it’s another universe!”

The French Dispatch pays homage to the 20th century American tradition of literary journalism (much to the joy of Khoudri’s journalist dad). Bill Murray’s notionally lead character in this sprawling ensemble is loosely based on The New Yorkers storied co-founder Harold Ross, while the rest of the cast are drawn from the familiar Anderson repertory company (Tilda Swinton, Anjelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand), rounded out by some star new signings, notably Elizabeth Moss, Timothée Chalamet and Khoudri.

The film unravels in the 1960s and chronicles the unlikely tales of an incarcerated artist, a student riot and a gripping kidnapping, with frequent references to the French New Wave à la Truffaut (Anderson made his stellar cast watch The 400 Blows, among other classics).

It’s in the film’s second segment – directly inspired by les événements of Paris’s May 1968 civil unrest – that Khoudri appears in the role of Juliette, a determined student revolutionary.

Accessorised with a motorbike, goggles, helmet and compact mirror, she clashes with Chalamet’s Zeffirelli (the movement’s charismatic leader) over a flawed political manifesto. I completely disagree with everything you say,” Juliette tells him, before they fall for each other and make love.

The absurdist plot is about a militant movement, but it’s also quite funny. Their demands don’t really make sense,” Khoudri explains. She prepared for it by studying the equally out-there texts of the Dada artists, themselves an influence on the Situationist International, the arts/​political movement that played a crucial part in the events of 1968.

How was shooting with Hollywood’s sweetheart (and, with Dune also imminently coming to cinema, its newly-minted blockbuster A‑lister)?

“[Like] with anyone,” she replies with a nonchalant shrug. Timothée speaks French like I speak English!” she laughs, pointing to their respective accents in the film.

Instead, Khoudri seems more interested to talk about the scene’s third musketeer, multi-Oscar winner McDormand, who plays the unflappable reporter Lucinda Krementz. There is a very maternal side to her,” she remembers fondly. She wants to know if you’ve slept well, if you’ve eaten well… She was an important part of my experience.”

Born in Algiers on the cusp of the decade-long civil war that tore the country apart throughout the 1990s, Khoudri emigrated to France with her family at a young age, forced to flee after her father (like many other journalists in the country) received death threats.

Years later, acting became a way for Khoudri to revisit her origins while contributing to Algeria’s cultural revival.

I really wanted to shoot in Algeria,” she says of her first lead role in Sofia Djama’s 2017 feature film The Blessed, a haunting portrait of contemporary Algiers in the wake of the civil war. It’s a country that has suffered a lot and that struggles with an identity crisis.”

Even before the civil war, Algeria had a turbulent, colonised past, from the Ottoman era to French rule (from which Algeria gained independence in 1962). I find it so beautiful to participate in the creation of a country’s narrative,” she adds. It’s something we’ve never had.”

After ditching training at the National Theatre of Strasbourg to take the role, Khoudri’s performance earned her the Orizzonti Award for Best Actress at the 74th Venice International Film Festival. Since then, she’s also bagged the 2020 César for Most Promising Actress for her lead role in Mounia Meddour’s Papicha, joining an elite league of past winners including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vanessa Paradis and Audrey Tautou. A poignant film about a tenacious fashion student in 1990s Algiers, whose aspirations are punctured by the civil war and the parallel Islamist upsurge, the project had personal resonance for Khoudri.

When I first read the script, I was hysterical,” she remembers, her hands gesticulating wildly across the screen. I said to myself: This is the story of my parents, I absolutely must make this film!’”

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood took notice, but it was next-level special when Anderson came knocking and she was asked to join an ensemble cast that also features returning star Anderson players Léa Seydoux and Saoirse Ronan.

Aside from this first American gig – albeit one set in the fictitious post-war French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, or Boredom-on-Jaded”, and filmed in Angoulême in Nouvelle-Aquitaine in southwest France – Khoudri has also completed filming on two very different other projects.

First there’s the urban fantasy Gagarine, which recently had a limited theatrical release in the UK, about a teenager trying to save his Parisian housing estate from demolition. Then, out in November in France is Haute Couture, a moving, intergenerational tale about a retiring seamstress at Dior, played by illustrious French actress Nathalie Baye, and her apprentice (Khoudri).

What else is in the pipeline? Well, she’s been making a film in the UK, but she can’t talk about that.

Anglophones are very secretive, unlike the French!” she laughs. So I’m having to learn to keep things to myself – and it’s very hard.”

The French Dispatch screens at the London Film Festival on 10th, 11th and 13th October, and is in cinemas from 22nd October. Allez Lyna! Allez Wes!

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