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Precision

Gaspard Ulliel takes his own time

Gaspard Ulliel just won the award of his life — onscreen, he’s just added the César to his mantle piece; off-screen, he’s the face of the first Monsieur de Chanel watch

Slowness is the only rhythm that allows in a little poetry.

He’s a casting director’s dream. Tall, muscular, handsome, boasting boyishly good looks, Gaspard Ulliel had his pick of roles as lead protagonist in romantic comedies. Luckily his highly expressive, intelligent and curious nature saw him turn down many of them, throwing things wide open for the Frenchman. 

He had a modest start, aged 12, in made-for-TV movies in France and two decades later, Ulliel has built the sort of CV not even the most intuitive critic could have predicted, least of all the actor himself. Now, 32, he has already worked with Gus Van Sant (Paris, Je t’aime), taken on Anthony Hopkins’ career-defining role as Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal Rising), and brought fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent to life in Bertrand Bonello’s biopic Saint Laurent.

Maybe it’s his strong physique, which, when complimented, reveals a dimple that dents his left cheek, or maybe it’s the Monsieur de Chanel watch on his thick wrist, the maison’s first watch for men, but hearts race when Ulliel enters a room.

Slowness is the only rhythm that allows in a little poetry.

He undoes the watch to show off the underside and it’s clear — brand ambassador or not, Ulliel has a passion for much more than acting. It’s transparent and we can see the mechanism. “It’s like a beating heart, don’t you think?” he asks.

And he’s able to explain how it works. “I’m going to surprise you: it’s a watch with instantaneous jumping hour and retrograde minutes,” he says, a smug look spreading across his face, exaggerating earlier-referred dimple. 

Turns out said dimple is a scar from an angry Doberman he was riding like a horse, aged six. We ask no more.

Ulliel, who’s also the face of the Bleu de Chanel fragrance, learnt about the inner workings of the watch because “it really interests me”, he says. “As soon as the hour changes on this watch, the minute hand winds itself back at top speed to the zero position. In a cookie-cutter world, this wonderful detail reminds us of something more enduring, timeless. 

“Plus, it has an old-fashioned mechanism. The watch has a three-day power reserve, but you have to wind it up. You have to earn the time it tells you. And, if you don’t wind it up, then you stop time. That gives you a little bit of power.”

Power is something Ulliel is destined to find. He was nominated as the Most Promising Male Actor at the César Awards — the French equivalent of the Oscars — for three consecutive years from 2002 before eventually taking the title in 2004 for A Very Long Engagement, co-starring Audrey Tautou. In February, he won the Best Actor César for It’s Only the End of the World

And he doesn’t stop working. F.J. Ossang’s 9 doigts is set for release this spring, he’s about to star in Benoît Jacquot’s Eva with Isabelle Huppert and in Guillaume Nicloux’s Les Confins du Monde alongside Gérard Depardieu.

Eventually he plans to direct his own movie.

By his own admission, the Frenchman says he’s never been in a hurry and believes, to some degree, it’s why he’s been so lucky as an actor having rarely “forced” anything. “I have a very personal relationship with slowness. Since childhood, I’ve been told I have my own rhythm. I can’t be hurried. I wouldn’t want to stop time, but, rather, to feel it passing. And a watch allows that.

“As an object, it makes time even more precious than before. I like to feel those little seconds beating on my wrist. Strangely, it’s very calming.”

He connects this to the slowness he embraces as an actor. “Slowness is the only rhythm that allows in a little poetry,” says Ulliel. “And I don’t really see where we’d be without poetry, right? 

“You have to accept those moments of silence. I have never felt anxious between film shoots, never felt unnerved by those periods between projects. I live the emptiness like an unexpected space. Emptiness is what allows us to replenish ourselves. Well, at least that’s how I see it.”

On the other hand Xavier Dolan, who directed the acclaimed drama It’s Only the End of the World, is hyperactive, says Ulliel, who recently became a father. “He lives at a hundred miles an hour. The seconds on my watch would seem very slow to him.” 

In the US, Ulliel is most commonly referred to as “that one French dude” or “the sexiest man on the planet” — depending on who you ask. It’s not hard to understand why. A chat with him and you’re drawn into a place of strange, seductive solitude. His thoughts are eerily deep. “What’s frightening is the juxtaposition between speed and profusion. All those telephone alerts — I’m going to deactivate them. Hyperconnectivity. We’re more and more connected, but, really, we meet less and less.”

He digresses further. “Those countless photographs we take. I have a little boy, and I can’t help thinking of the thousands of photos we take of him. Isn’t it a bit too much? What will he do with this mountain of photos later? Poor kid. Put them on his own phone? All those indelible traces of his past, as though his life has been minutely archived in a gigantic photo-novel. 

“I sometimes have the awful impression that we’re robbing him of his own memories. Stripping him of his free will and the freedom to interpret his past by himself. His memories will inevitably be altered, even damaged, by all these photos. It’s a bit like we’ve stopped him telling the story of his own life; there’s no place left for fantasy, dreams, legend. Images destroy the imagination.”

So he’s more a watch than a telephone person then? “I’d like to say yes, but, even though I’m not on any social networks, I do pass a crazy amount of time on my phone. As soon as there’s a gap in my knowledge, I rush to educate myself on the internet. It is pretty incredible to have unlimited knowledge — well, almost — always there, to hand.”

But he’s here for “watch talk”. Even then, he can’t help but reminisce beautifully. “My first watch was a Flik Flak,” he says. “The hour hand was a little guy and the minute hand was a big one.”

Realising he’s showing his age, he then struggles to recall the years behind him. Unfortunately, the Monsieur de Chanel watch can’t tell your age. “It does better than that,” Ulliel counters. “It reminds me that each second counts. That’s why I keep it on, even for sleeping. Sometimes, in the dark, I even listen to the second hand to help me fall asleep.”

A watch and a man that have the power to do it all, very much in their own time. 

chanel.com

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