If I were born into the riches of what this room has to offer, I’m not sure that I would’ve gone on to figure out what I wanted to do because what do you achieve after that?
“The Monkey’s Paw,” a much-anthologized short story by W.W. Jacobs, first published in 1902 as part of his own collection, The Lady of the Barge. The classic tale of horror and superstition centers on a mummified monkey’s paw that’s imbued with the power to grant its possessor three wishes, but at a horrific price. The legendary object of evil intent is prone to twist your wishes in order to bring about the worst possible outcomes. Human existence obeys certain immutable laws, so when such an alternative is brought into the equation, capable of pushing back the boundaries of reality, of erasing the limits of nature and of satiating each and everything that we covet, an unfathomable world of possibilities and dangers opens up. This forbidden territory has always been great fodder for science fiction and fantasy. The latest comes from French filmmaker Christian Volckman, who ventures into the field with his moralistic parable, The Room. What the monkey’s paw, or a genie’s lamp, promises is tantalizing, despite its inherent dangers. Throwing caution to the wind, the ways in which literary and filmic characters have continually fallen prey to these familiar, double-edged entrapments speak volumes about the human condition. Volckman’s own cautionary warning is clever, which doesn’t morph into the redundant nightmares that we’ve so often experienced before.
In the northern reaches of New York, new homeowners Kate (Olga Kurylenko) and Matt (Kevin Janssens) are primed for new beginnings, moving into their sprawling but neglected fixer-upper with their eyes on restoring it. But the discovery of a hidden room would bring about a different kind of change to their fate. This is no ordinary room: it possesses the power to materialize whatever its occupant desires. Understandably, Kate and Matt are intoxicated by this horn of plenty. Mountains of cash, champagne, caviar, jewels, and priceless artworks are in order—the usual suspects. It’s the kind of wish fulfillment that offers a grand jumping off point for some provocative personal examination, and that’s precisely where Volckman steers us. The limitless powers of this mysterious room inevitably shift to the couple’s natural handicap: Kate is unable to conceive and has suffered two miscarriages. Frustrated by these failed efforts, Kate, for whom this baggage hangs over her more distressingly, takes a very perilous short-cut and summons a child. But there’s a snag. Nothing the room conjures up will survive beyond the walls of their estate. Poof—your cash is now a cloud of ash. Kate and Matt’s newly arrived son matures at warp speed—from baby to toddler to grade school years to a grown adult—in a matter of seconds every time he steps outside. Then there’s the room itself, which is inexplicably powered by a machine wired throughout its walls like roots from a tree made impervious to time. Volckman is clearly disinterested in the “why” of his monkey’s paw or how it’s able to grant wishes. The real appeal lies in the film’s subsurface strata: Kate’s single, life-giving action holds a mirror up to who she is, and ultimately, who we all are. The Room is a symbolic, psychoanalytic, and metaphysical portrait of triumphant—and fleeting—materialism, of isolation, and of our innermost dreams and desires.
The Room will be released on VOD, Digital HD, DVD, and Blu-ray on July 21.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
When I first watched The Room, it was actually right around this time last year at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea.
Oh right, I remember! I was supposed to come. They invited me, but I think I was filming. I was so sad I couldn’t come for the film. I really wanted to go! I think we won, right?
You won Best Film! Christian [Volckman] was there to collect the award.
I know. He’s amazing.
This is a very high concept movie, and like all good movies, it holds a mirror up to us. It’s interesting what Christian has said about this room—that it’s actually neutral. It’s Kate and Matt who bring their baggage and traumas into what he refers to as “Aladdin’s lamp.” If this room were real, what do you think what you wish for would say about who you are?
People always ask me, “What would you wish for?” but you say, “What would the room say about who you are?” It’s interesting how you put it, and you’re right. Obviously, material things can contribute to happiness, but the thing is, they won’t define happiness. You have to work on happiness from inside of you. I don’t think I would wish for many material things because, first of all, I’m not sure that I even need anything! For me, it’s about psychological happiness. The film portrays that, no matter how much you accumulate, if they come too easily and you don’t make any effort to get them, you won’t even care in the end. You might love it for a moment, but you won’t appreciate it long-term. It almost resembles depression. [laughs] When Kate loses her necklace, it’s like, “So what? I can always have tons of others.” She doesn’t care. How can this be a good thing?
I often think back on where I came from. Back then, I wasn’t very happy that I didn’t have all the stuff that the other kids had. My parents were struggling. Of course I got lucky and had the opportunity to make my story mine, but now I look back and think it was better I didn’t have anything. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t appreciate what I achieved. Back then, I was wishing for so much that I put all my efforts into it. To see the results of your efforts is what brings you satisfaction. If I were born into the riches of what this room has to offer, I’m not sure that I would’ve gone on to figure out what I wanted to do because what do you achieve after that? As a child, I think it’s better to not have enough. I’m talking about not having complete wealth so you can grow up dreaming about things. If all your dreams are already completed, then what is left? You need to not have enough in some ways, and I’m of course not talking about the essentials like food and water. So the room is the worst thing that could happen to people in their lives. The room seems like a huge savior for this couple at first, but in the end they realize it’s the enemy. So yes, I’m not sure that I would wish for anything! I’ll get another ring? And then what? I’ll have a new necklace? It doesn’t change anything to me. Momentarily? Sure. But forever? What’s the point?
During your press conference at the Sitges Film Festival, you talked about this room you have in your home where you “throw things away.” So you’re already an anti-hoarder.
Oh my god, absolutely. Yes! And you know what? The pleasure, the happiness, and the satisfaction I feel when I throw things away? You have no idea. I just feel lighter and newer. I feel like I’m taking my old skin off. I feel like I’m reborn again. It’s definitely psychological because, really, throwing things away and getting more things, it’s all about how it’s making you feel inside. It does almost give me the psychological impression that I’m more open to new opportunities and that I have more room for new things to come into my life. It’s a bunch of clothes and things I don’t need anymore. They’re books that I’m never going to read. I only keep the books that I like and are important to me. I just got rid of all the stuff, things that you bring back from trips that you will never need again. Actually, there is this thing about buying with me. When I go somewhere, I see things and go, “I’m gonna get that!” But then I quickly ask myself, “What am I actually gonna do with it? It’s going to lay there in a corner.” I walk away. I’m already thinking ahead to throwing that out. I’m already thinking, “In how many days or months am I going to throw that away?” [laughs] So why buy it? I don’t! It’s a good thing that the movie might also make people think about that. I think our world is obsessed with the overconsumption of things and we definitely need to change our views.
I love that you would preemptively throw things out in your head.
It’s a good way of thinking. It works! If you have a problem with shopping, you should think about it in those terms. I don’t know if that works with everyone, but it totally works with me.
You’ve spoken positively about your collaboration with Christian, that he gave his actors a lot of room to play on the film. I wonder if that’s difficult to come by on the bigger budget studio films that you’ve also been involved with. What has been your overall experience in terms of freedom? Does it always come down to the directors you’re working with?
It’s the production. It’s dependent on the dynamic between the producers and the directors. Sometimes they give total creative freedom to the director, and in that case, it’s just between the director and the actors. If the producers are very present, sometimes the director can’t do what he really wants to do. With The Room, the producers were there, coming and going, but they totally believed in us. They were on the same page and had total faith, which is amazing. It’s the feeling you get when you meet people. I think if you’re confident about the actors you cast from the very first stage, it’s much easier on set. When you give someone the part, hopefully it’s because you believe that they can do it. In terms of the freedom with Christian, what I meant was that he let us improvise. I don’t know if you could tell, but there was a lot of improv on this movie. For certain scenes, he just let us try things out. For example, the scene where I jump out of the box and scare Kevin [Janssens] was my idea. That was his genuine reaction. The movie is full of those moments. With the crazy scenes where they play dress up, drink champagne and run around, we could do whatever we wanted. Those were our ideas. When Kevin is doing his little striptease, that was his idea. There’s a room full of stuff, right? Whatever we found in there and whatever we wanted to do with them, we would just do. We had so much fun! They were just following us around with the camera, shooting and grabbing the material. I love working like that because it becomes more real and it takes much less to become the character that you believe yourself be. Of course I’m in no way saying that I don’t need the director. I need the director to speak to me, too. I’m that person. I need to know that I’m in good hands and that they trust me to do what I think I can do. And then we just have fun! This is the best way of working.
I had no idea that you started your career in France. French cinema is obviously its own beast. How did those early beginnings inform and shape your approach to acting?
Yeah, it’s very different. But you know what? I loved it. I love French cinema. I love European cinema as well. I’m grateful that I was able to start there. First of all, it would’ve been much more difficult to get a first role in the U.S. I got, having done nothing prior, the lead role in a film. That just doesn’t happen. When you look at other actors’ filmographies, you realize that they’d already done tons of small roles in movies where we really hadn’t noticed them before. I think I did maybe two appearances before that first movie. They were really nothing—walk on roles. That lead role was an incredible chance through incredible luck. Also, of course it was a much different way of working in France. They have less money usually so the productions are small. There are no studios behind the movies controlling everything so sometimes people have a little more freedom. In America, the producers have a lot of say usually. In France, sometimes directors can do whatever they want, be it a good or a bad thing. I’ve had great opportunities. I’m lucky to be able to do what I do in different countries, under different methods of working. Actually, recently, I did a film in China. That’s a complete other thing as well. It’s another different way of working. It was a real Chinese production with a Chinese director. Everyone was basically Chinese. There were only a couple of foreigners acting opposite Chinese actors. We had translators to communicate. I love that. I love the diversity and to be able to go to completely different worlds that I know nothing about. You’re just thrown in there to figure it out and do it. I love challenges. I love discovering new things. So it was exciting, you know? Life is so short. I think the point is to get as much out of it as possible. New experiences are what it’s all about, really. All these experiences are great, and it’s exactly what I like and want. I love to travel. Did you know I’m supposed to shoot in South Korea? It’s my next film.
No way! I should know that.
Yeah! I was supposed to go in the middle of August, but now it’s been pushed a little bit. Well, of course, there is no second way. I think we’ll start in September now. So I’m gonna be there filming with a Korean crew and everything. It’s a Franco-Korean production.
What’s it called?
It’s called Matin calme, which in French means “calm morning” or “quiet morning.” I don’t know if they’ve announced it there. It’s a very small arthouse movie. The story is very cool.
I remember reading that you also had writing and producing aspirations. Where are you with that these days?
[laughs] You know what happened? I was writing a lot—before I became a mother. I don’t know if you’re a parent yourself or not, but once you became a parent, everything changes. You have 60 percent less time, if not even less, than you had before. Especially if you’re a woman because we obviously have more to give to the baby. But I still love writing. I’m actually disappointed that I left it completely. Now I’m thinking I should resume because my child’s at the age where I can maybe relax a little bit and do a bit more work. I have lots of ideas. Writing is a lonely process, meaning that you really have to be alone where no one can disturb you. It’s very hard when you have a child and you need that kind of space, where you go to a room and tell people, “Don’t speak to me for the next five hours.” It’s not easy to find that. If I were to start again, I think I will definitely need a partner. There comes a point where you just can’t do everything by yourself anymore. When you’re alone and young and free, you can manage it. But once you start having a family, you have to get other people involved in your work. I need to get back to that. I still have my ideas and those drafts. They just really need to be tweaked. Time changes things so I need to edit and get other people on board. You reminded me that’s another thing I have to do.