An actress cut in two

French sex symbol Ludivine Sagnier on passion, perversion and her new film "A Girl Cut in Two." (Please, don't call it a porn movie.)

Published August 14, 2008 11:01AM (EDT)

Americans first encountered French actress Ludivine Sagnier in the summer of 2003, when her oft-topless ingénue role opposite Charlotte Rampling in François Ozon's erotic thriller "Swimming Pool" made her an instant international sex symbol. Perhaps it will disappoint some of Sagnier's fans that when I met her recently in New York she wasn't wearing a bikini, or half of one. Instead she was clad in an attractive but relatively modest summer sundress -- and was five months pregnant with her second child. (She and her partner, actor Nicolas Duvauchelle, already have a 3-year-old daughter.)

Both before and after her performance as the bewitching blond cipher of "Swimming Pool," it was clear that Sagnier is among the most striking young actresses in contemporary French cinema, and one who's nearly certain to make the jump across the Atlantic at some point. After her English-language roles in "Swimming Pool" and P.J. Hogan's "Peter Pan" (as Tinkerbell) she began hearing Hollywood offers; many of them, I am guessing, rested on blondeness, hotness, Frenchness and not wearing many clothes.

So she has stayed in France, becoming a mom and broadening her range with starring roles in Claude Miller's Chekhov-inspired "La Petite Lili," Jacques Fieschi's decadent thriller "La Californie" and Laurent Tirard's period piece "Molière," a modest art-house success in the United States. In just the last year Sagnier has appeared in three acclaimed and vastly different French films: Christophe Honoré's New Wave-inspired musical "Love Songs," Miller's Jewish-family saga "A Secret" (which will open here next month) and Claude Chabrol's "A Girl Cut in Two," which occasioned her New York visit.

As Sagnier remarked in our conversation, the 78-year-old Chabrol is a massive cultural icon in France, but one who's never reached much of an Anglophone audience. (His last film to make any impact in the American market was "La Cérémonie" in 1995, and before that "Story of Women" in 1988.) He's been called the French Hitchcock, and if you stop and think about what a weird idea that is -- you can call Hitchcock English or American or both, but he's just about the most un-French director imaginable -- it's not a bad description. "A Girl Cut in Two" is classic Chabrol, meaning that it's an arch and almost inscrutable blend of thriller and comedy, whose characters and situations resemble real life only here and there, apparently by accident.

Sagnier plays Gabrielle Deneige, a bubbly, ambitious but naive weathergirl on a provincial TV station who wears slightly out-of-fashion jeans and sky-blue eye makeup. (As is customary with Chabrol, the art direction and production design have a sculptural, almost baroque quality.) Gabrielle falls hard and fast for Charles (François Berléand), an older, married writer who's a local celebrity, infuriating her younger, more handsome and vastly richer suitor Paul (Benoît Magimel), the dissolute heir to a chemical fortune.

Neither of these guys is good news, necessarily. Charles is eager to instruct Gabrielle in his unconventional sexual tastes; he brings her to a shadowy private club he frequents and takes her upstairs for undisclosed activities with a group of his friends. But he has no plans to leave his lovely and charming wife (Valeria Cavalli), and shoves Gabrielle away eagerly every time she gets too clingy. Paul, on the other hand, is a brainless playboy who comes attached to a family of terrifying upper-crust parasites. (As his spectral, beautiful and monumentally evil mother, Caroline Silhol steals every one of her scenes.)

Arguably, "A Girl Cut in Two" is more fun around the edges, as an assemblage of bizarre supporting characters and throwaway comic bits, than it is down the middle, as a classic French morality tale about an innocent girl despoiled by two warring predators. Chabrol's intermittent parody of provincial French television is hilarious, and Cavalli, Silhol, Marie Bunel and the feral, dominatrix-like Mathilda May stand out amid a cast of amazing women. But Sagnier's luminous performance is in every way the heart of the picture; Gabrielle is the one real person, the one who strives, suffers, yearns and survives in this world of grotesque artifice.

Chabrol and co-writer Cécile Maistre based the script for "A Girl Cut in Two" on a real-life American scandal from 1906 involving the prominent New York architect Stanford White and his much younger girlfriend. That's all I'm going to say on that point; if you read anything more about those events, you'll learn the story's major details. I should add that in discussing her role in Claude Miller's "A Secret," her other upcoming film, Sagnier reveals a central plot point. I've edited her remarks to make them slightly less specific, but consider yourself warned.

I met Sagnier at the offices of IFC Films in New York. (Listen to the interview here.)

Ludivine, I know you've spent time in America, although you've never really worked here. What's the biggest single difference between France and the United States?

The biggest single difference? I think it's the size of Coca-Cola!

Right. You have those teeny little Coke cans over there.

They're just normal! You have the tradition of everything being bigger here, because it's a bigger country. I feel like we live in a village in Paris.

Well, you're too polite to say this, but we've also got bigger people here. That may be related to the size of the Coca-Cola, actually.

Maybe, yeah. But there are some bad habits that we share, unfortunately. In England and in France there's a big government campaign -- this isn't about the movie at all, is that OK? -- about how you have to eat five portions of fruits and vegetables a day. I don't know why, in America, no one has heard about that.

Oh, we've heard about it. We're just not doing it. Now that we've got the nutritional advice out of the way, we can talk about "A Girl Cut in Two." You play this young, very innocent woman who reads the weather on a TV station in Lyon.

That's right, in Lyon, which is a provincial city in France. She's doing her job quite well, she's very seductive and charming. You can tell she's got a certain power to attract men, for example. And she falls in love with the wrong man, who is going to push her into a trap that will imprison her. Sorry for my English! You know what I mean.

Talk about Claude Chabrol a little. I don't know whether Americans really know about him, even after all these years. He's been called the French Hitchcock, and I don't know how fair that is, but there are some similarities.

They have common points, and first of all they were very good friends. Claude always talks about "my friend Alfred." It's very funny to hear him. And I would say that, like Hitchcock, he likes to put some dirt on the purity of his heroines. So he likes them blonde, in order to lynch them.

To lynch them! That's pretty brutal. Gabrielle, your character, falls in love with the older man played by François Berléand, instead of the man played by Benoît Magimel who's much richer, much younger and more handsome. Why does that happen?

Gabrielle is kind of a clever girl. It's obvious that she's more attracted to a brilliant writer who has a spiritual life and plenty to teach her, rather than the younger man -- who's got plenty of money, sure, but nothing to say. She's ambitious, but not in the common way. She's ambitious regarding the feelings she wants to have in her life. She wants to have the most thrilling adventure, and she will find adventure with the writer.

Chabrol has said that this is a chaste film about sexual perversity. Many things are suggested in the story, but we don't see them. There is no nudity at all, no explicit sex.

When we were shooting it, Claude Chabrol would say, "It's my first porn movie." I would say, "Come on, Claude, don't say that. We don't have one scene of nudity." He'd say, "We don't need that," you know, with a smirk on his face. "The obscenity is in the head of the audience." That's what he liked about this story, to suggest everything.

It's true that the character of the writer, performed by François Berléand, pushes her across borders she wouldn't usually cross. She devotes herself completely to him, and she's so in love with him that she doesn't see anything wrong. She's ready to do anything he will say, and she doesn't realize he's manipulating her. When he dumps her, she gets her heart completely broken. She thought she was very clever, but she realizes how naive she was. When she tries to fight back and tries to be happy again, she makes another bad choice, which is to marry the other guy, the younger man, who has been teasing her for months. He doesn't love her; she's just the target of his lust and he's obsessed with the past she had with the writer.

For me, one of the keys to the film comes when Charles takes Gabrielle to that sex club ...

Yes, it's very chic. I'm sure it exists.

We don't know exactly what happens there, because we don't see it, but he takes her upstairs. And it seemed to me you played that scene very delicately. Gabrielle genuinely wants to do it, because her lover wants her to. But she's also afraid. And both parts of that are very important.

She gets over her fright, and that's beautiful. You know, she's a poor sheep in this scene! She's ready to do anything. And it's beautiful, the way she gives herself completely to this man. It's true that she is completely afraid of what's going to happen, and she does it anyway. I think it's a beautiful proof of love.

One of the central questions in the film is whether Gabrielle is really choosing to do these things, or is being manipulated or coerced. I don't think there's a clear answer.

You know, it's a tiny reflection of domination. Who is dominated, who is dominating, who likes to be dominated? It's a very tricky reflection, because of course things are not white or black. She is manipulated, but still she finds an attraction. She might be excited by the whole situation, so she doesn't feel manipulated. Everyone has a bit of perversion in himself, so it's very hard to judge her. And it's hard to judge the writer also, François' character. It's a reflection of sexuality nowadays, definitely.

Did you know about Chabrol, growing up? I mean, he's been making films since long before you were born.

Well, yes, of course. He's a part of history in France. Every French actor wants to work with him, definitely. I had done some auditions for him, but I hadn't made it so far. I was very honored when he hired me, and when I met him I asked him why he'd chosen me. He said, "Because I liked you as Tinkerbell" [in "Peter Pan"]. OK! That's where he liked me most! He's an original character, he wouldn't like to say, "Oh, I liked you in 'Swimming Pool.'" That's too common. He preferred to quote Tinkerbell. He said Tinkerbell was somehow close to Gabrielle Deneige. She's a fairy, she's radiant and very seductive, but she's also mischievous and has a bit of perversion. She betrays Peter Pan, and then she realizes that she will never get out of her own drama, she will never become big enough to be with her lover.

I never would have thought of that, but that's brilliant. We should mention that Gabrielle's last name in French, Deneige, is kind of a joke. "Neige" means snow, and she reads the weather. Maybe that's a fairy-tale reference too.

Yeah, it's like Snow White. She's this pure innocent who is going to be stained. With blood!

You've been closely associated with another French director, François Ozon, who made "Swimming Pool" and two other films with you.

Yeah, we met when I was 19 years old, and he directed me in a small movie called "Water Drops on Burning Rocks," which was adapted from Fassbinder's play. We just got along really well. We're still like brother and sister, always arguing. He wasn't known at all, he had just started doing cinema, and we grew up together.

Before you did "Swimming Pool" together you had done "8 Women," in which you stood out amid a cast of the most famous French actresses: Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Béart. And you were quite young, 22 or 23 at the time.

I must say, it was worse than any theater school! I was surrounded by the best French actresses, and it was a very good class. I will never forget that experience, because it gave me strong roots for the rest of my career.

Did they test you? Were they like, "Who's this girl who thinks she can act with us?"

Not really. I mean, I wasn't in competition with any of them. They were kind of nice to me. It's true!

After you did "Swimming Pool," you must have gotten offers to do American films.

Yes, it's true. I got offers, but they were too close to what I've already done. What I like about this job is to cross boundaries and to do things I've never done before. I didn't feel inspired by what I've been offered so far, and I've been very busy in France. I've had a child and I'm expecting a second one.

Congratulations! When is the baby due?

In December, for Christmas. But, you know, I'm a big fan of American movies -- I would say, of certain American movies.

More American independent movies than Hollywood movies?

Not independent, so much, but lately I've really appreciated movies that have been produced by actors. Brad Pitt's movie -- I don't know the English title. "The Assassination of Jesse James ...

" ... by the Coward Robert Ford."

Exactly. I thought that was a very clever and daring movie. And the last James Gray movie with Joaquin Phoenix and Eva Mendes, "We Own the Night," which Joaquin Phoenix produced [as did co-star Mark Wahlberg]. You know, I wouldn't say they are independent movies. But when the studios trust actors, they do well. I'm a big admirer of actors who are involved in the industry.

Do see yourself working in the industry in other capacities? As a director or producer?

No, directing is too much work. Acting is a lot of work too, but you're not involved in the whole process of shooting. You get some rest here and there. I would be more into writing or producing. I have some time. I'm still very young!

I know that "A Girl Cut in Two" is based on events that happened more than 100 years ago in New York ...

Just a few blocks away from here, at Madison Square Garden.

That's right. But to me it's more reminiscent of classic French material, like a Molière comedy, or "Les liaisons dangereuses," a moral fable about the corruption of an innocent young girl by these rakes.

Yeah, it's true. It's funny because I don't see too many young girls with older men in the French streets, but it's true that it's a recurrent ingredient in French cinema. It's fascinating.

Could you imagine falling in love with an older man, a man of François' age?

I don't know. My heart is taken, so it's hard to project that. François is very charming -- my man was so jealous! I would say it's recurrent because the young and appetizing woman is like a little lamb, and the older, perverted man is like the big, bad wolf. It's a very attractive story.

Do you want to say anything about "A Secret," your other upcoming film? That will be opening in the U.S. in September.

It's the story of a Jewish family from 1936 to 1985, happening in France during many historical events, including the Second World War. I play a young Jewish woman whose husband, on the day of their wedding, falls in love with someone else. He falls desperately in love; he can't help it. So they're trying to struggle against this passion. It's a very ordinary story, but the fact that it's happening during the Nazi occupation makes it extraordinary. It's an overwhelming subject, and it's a movie that really changed my life.

"A Girl Cut in Two" opens Aug. 15 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York, with a national rollout to follow. It will also be available on-demand via IFC In Theaters via many cable-TV systems.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Beyond The Multiplex Movies