Mélanie Laurent: “We’re supposed to have a better life now, but we’re still not happy”

Mélanie Laurent: “We’re supposed to have a better life now, but we’re still not happy”

Cartier Social Lab

Text: Celine Yap

Following a César Award win, the French actress-director delves into the topic of Sustaining Futures

Most of us remember her well in the 2009 film by Quentin Tarantino Inglourious Basterds but Melanie Laurent has done much more. For starters, did you know that Laurent has been in a Chinese movie that was shot in Singapore? She starred beside Hong Kong veteran Sylvia Chang and Yan-Can-Cook Martin Yan in the 2004 dramedy Hainan Chicken Rice, written and directed by Kenneth Bi.

She's also received and been nominated for a number of filmmaking awards including the prestigious César Award in 2016 for her work on Demain, or Tomorrow in English. Demain took the Best Documentary Film Award and Laurent shared it with co-director Cyril Dion and producer Bruno Levy. Mostly, what made Demain such a winner was its stubborn optimism. Rather than being just another doomsday warning, it showcased alternative and creative solutions implemented by people all around the world. It offers constructive ideas to act on a local level to impact the global level.

"Take concrete steps to a sustainable future" is the tagline of the film and as such this makes Laurent the ideal person to be speaking about Sustaining Futures at the Cartier Social Lab — three days of inspiring conversations among pioneers, artists and creatives from all industries and backgrounds.

The Cartier Social Lab covers three main themes: bold connections, fearlessness, and design innovation. What's your take on making bold connections with your audience?
Every time you do something bold, it's like you're taking a risk. And you get nervous. And if you feel it's working, at some point you feel proud because you've just tried to do something. I feel maybe sometimes society has become a little bit shy of being bold. And we spend so much time judging everybody now. So whenever you're trying to do something different, it feels like you're going to be judged. We're all just trying to be different, as an artist or as anyone, just a human being. I think that's very important, very precious.


How do you get around it? Nobody is immune to criticisms, especially these days with social media. Everything's out there whether or not we want it to be.
I'm not on social media at all, so I'm protecting myself and not reading things about me. Never. And I don't read any critics also. It's not that I want to be living in my bubble, it's more like I don't want to be judged by anonymous people who'll be saying things, most of the time very mean things, and I'm not going to spend energy being sad about it. It's a lot of energy to read all of that. And I feel that life is so short. I'd rather be creating things instead of judging people. I don't judge people. I don't judge people when they're trying and doing things. I wish people could be nicer and kinder. It worries me, the power of social media. There was an artist who proposed an exhibition but then because of social media, people suddenly came from nowhere saying it's not good, or it's a scandal, and now the artist can't do anything anymore. It [social media] is creating hate when the idea of just communicating, bringing everybody together, should be all about love, sharing experiences, cultures... I feel it's more about jealousy sometimes, anger, racism... Makes me very anxious.

Life is so short. I'd rather be creating things instead of judging people. I don't judge people.

People can be very harsh.
I think technology ruined a lot of spiritual things. We did so much progress, so much amazing progress, but we also never stopped, we never took a break. We ruined the whole earth in 50 years. The way we're growing food, the way we're travelling, it's just ruining the planet. Technology is very scary. I feel like it's never-ending. Now we're even talking about maybe escaping to a virtual world. People are talking about going to another planet, what about going to space... And you're just like, what about also taking a break from all that and living on earth, which is probably the most beautiful planet in the universe, and the only one we know, and the only one which actually sustains life? It's funny to observe that we're supposed to have a better life, less disease, more comfort... but I'm not feeling like we're happy. Also, instead of communicating on important subjects, people are talking about really uninteresting things. It's scary to realise that maybe humanity is going to disappear because we never understood that nature is the only answer.

It's deplorable because many people choose to not see the evident.
Yes and it's crazy because we don't have any excuse, because we know everything. We know what's going on here. We know it's climate change. Social media knows because it's everywhere now. But we'd rather spend time in hate instead of just finding solutions. There are solutions. There are amazing people everywhere, there are a lot of movements, and many things but it's small, not big movements. They're very important and very inspiring but there needs to be more.

It's funny to observe that we're supposed to have a better life, less disease, more comfort... but I'm not feeling like we're happy.

And that's what you were trying to express in the film?
We did the first positive movie about what works instead of making people very anxious about what's the worst. Also we never tried to do morality at all. We never said, "You should do that." We always said, "Well this is this, it is working, people look happy, what about you? Is this inspiring for you or not" We don't just say you should do that. I think people need that. I think they need to be free to decide if they want to be involved or not, and in a philosophic way maybe, through art, through movies. That's why we wanted to be in theatres because it's different to watch something from a computer or from a TV alone in your place. In a theatre you're surrounded by people and feeling the emotion together.


In Singapore, a lot of people are conscious of their impact on the environment but might be a little hesitant to impose their beliefs on others, or not know how for fear of offending others.
It's tricky. It's not about being superior but you have to think about the way you're going to say it. Before I made the documentary, I was really mad. I was mad at people. I was angry all the time. I was always "you shouldn't do this, it's bad" but it's not working when you're just mad. Then I did the documentary and then I knew exactly why that was bad. Maybe all you need to do is take the time to explain why it's bad. Not saying you shouldn't do that, but more like, oh by the way, you know when you're doing that, it makes this... When you're wasting water, it means this... When you don't turn off the lights, it means that... When you throw a plastic bag somewhere it means you don't respect yourself because you don't respect the earth and the earth is why you're breathing. But also, try not to be too naïve. People can be very stupid and very yah-yah [sic]. Our earth is the answer of everything. The more you're talking about scientific things, there's no debate because it's just facts.

Our readers are big on fashion, and we know that fashion is not good, ecologically speaking. There've been some improvements of course, some brands encourage the return of preloved items, many brands stopped using fur...
It's not just about the fur. The huge problem is cotton. Cotton is a very big issue. It's a very fragile plant, very hard to grow. The cotton flower grows in an exotic climate and 60 per cent of the world needs cotton for clothes. Being very fragile and needing a very particular climate means a lot of insects can destroy it, so farmers spray a lot of pesticides. Then the problem gets worse because the insects get more aggressive. Cotton also needs a lot of water. One t-shirt equals 3,000 litres of water. And maybe in 10 years, water will be the biggest issue. And we've not even started talking about the fact your clothes travel across the world before ending up in stores.

So what can we do?
Knowing this doesn't mean you can't be fashionable. You just have to be aware that every time you buy from a big industry that doesn't protect the earth at all, you're giving them money to buy something you'll throw away very soon to then buy something else. What you could do is find small labels which take care of things. Maybe a small creator working in Singapore instead of something that flew in from across the world. Also vintage! Vintage is the best, it's already existing, it's practically recycling. You can find so many cool stuff and it's also very stylish. It's so easy to create looks, you become more creative, and you don't hurt the earth that much. Fashion is the second most polluted industry right now.

Vintage is the best, it's already existing, it's practically recycling. You can find so many cool stuff and it's also very stylish.

I like that! Vintage is on-trend and sustainable.
And fun! And you know, instead of saying don't to people all the time, tell them it's like opening your mind to something. When you change in that manner, it's going to be better, you're going to feel better, I guarantee it. If you know about all those terrible things, and then you try to do better, at the end of the road your life's going to be better. You'll be closer to nature, to art, more open, less nervous, stop running after something, stop being surrounded by friends who maybe don't really exist, come back to something more pure... It makes more sense trying to get a style in a vintage shop than running after fashion. I don't say that fashion doesn't make any sense. It's a very beautiful art. I'm saying, there's art, there's inspiration, and then there is you. Are you a victim or a creator? When the industry says you have to wear something, it's not funny because they're seeing you as weak people who's just here to keep them in business instead of being inspired and trying to create your own style. Every time you make a change, it's better, but personally, it's not that complicated. We're so afraid of that change, so afraid of losing our comfort zone, but it's not true. It's always for better.


As a Hollywood star you're constantly surrounded by luxury. Do you think luxury can ever become sustainable?
I think they're trying to do better. Also they're so powerful that they need to lead the change and be an example. They're particularly the people who needs to make another world. Rich people need to make the big change because rich people ruined the earth, not the poor people. Poor people are just trying to survive. Climate change victims are coming from big countries and big industries. Rich people travel a lot and they pollute everything and now they just want to try to escape from reality, trying to get richer somewhere else, saying it's not my problem. But when ocean levels rise, rich people get away from that catastrophe and poor people get it first. Luxury and big industry have access to scientists and knowledge, so they should make the big change to say to others, "Okay, we worked on that to repair, and that's how we changed, we can be an example." It should be that.