There’s something about the French that can seduce at a glance, from the smoldering looks of such classic screen icons as Catherine Deneuve to Brigette Bardot. But if there were a pose for that which put a generation of cineastes under the spell of a Gallic beauty, it would undoubtedly be the bikinied recline of Ludivine Sagnier beside the Swimming Pool. While Sagnier had been acting in France long before Francois Ozon’s 2003 film (in fact, since the age of ten), it was the mysteriously seductive heat she generated as either the figment or very real rival of Charlotte Rampling’s mystery authoress that put Sagnier on the international map, as well as in the minds of many film-going Francophiles. But not content to rest waterside on her electrifying laurels, Sagnier has since impressed as Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, Moiré’s object of more than literary affection, and the gun moll of the criminally exhibitionistic Mesrine.
Now an actress known for her characters' dangerous and sometimes naked ambition, she continues to show her enticing range with two very different approaches to sensuality in The Devil’s Double and Love Crime. In the first picture (and late director Alan Corneau’s last), Sagnier daringly and seamlessly transforms herself into a kept Iraqi, as if even the insane Uday Hussein (Dominic Cooper) could hope to tame a woman like Sarrab. Packing her own heat that could even tempt Uday’s hapless impersonator (ditto Dominic) to risk a horrific fate for messing with the wrong love slave, Sagnier nonetheless invests Sarrab with vulnerable innocence that keeps us guessing as to her true motives inside Uday’s lethally gilded, sexed-up cage. But in Love Crime, there barely seems to be a spark coming from Sagnier’s woefully restrained executive Isabelle, who’s thwarted at every business and romantic turn by her female overlord (Kristen Scott-Thomas). But woe to anyone who thinks a Sagnier woman is capable of taking any kind of repression lying down, as this battle of the same sexes quickly becomes a Hitchcockian web of ever-escalating illegality.
Daniel Schweiger: When you were told you would be playing an Iraqi woman, did you have any doubts you could pull it off?
Ludivine Sagnier: Actually, yes. At first I turned the project down. But the director, Lee Tamahori, kept asking me because he met a lot of women throughout the world and was convinced that I was the one for the part. So he went to Paris, where I was shooting Love Crime, to meet me. I said I didn’t have much time to talk because I had to be back on set. Fortunately, we were shooting next to Lee’s hotel, so I invited him to meet our director, Alain Courneau. Alain loved Lee’s work. So with that kind of recommendation, how could I help but not take the role? And the story of The Devil’s Double was so original that I really wanted to be part of it, even though I knew I was not the “Iraqi” type of woman. I was used to playing the young, sexy French girl.
DS: Is Sarrab a real person, or is she a composite of different women that Uday kept in his “harem”?
LS: In this movie, no one is who he or she seems to be. “Sarrab” means “mirage” in Arabic. So she might not be that real, actually. The few things we know about the true story, as told by Uday’s impersonator, Latif Yahia, is that there was a woman in Hussein’s entourage he became involved with. The movie follows the course of their relationship. However, there aren’t any more witnesses to verify it because everyone in Saddam’s entourage has been shot. Nobody is here to testify to the truth of The Devil’s Double.
DS: A lot of people protested the invasion of Iraq, particularly in Europe. After seeing the atrocities that the Husseins commit in this film, did it make you think the invasion was the correct course of action?
LS: It didn’t really change my mind. Look what happened in Tunisia, for example. It’s the people who rebelled against their own government. Suddenly they couldn’t cope with a dictator anymore. So sometimes it’s better to have an inner resolution of problems, rather than one from the outside. But I’m not an expert on the war, so it’s very hard for me to have an opinion. They only thing I can say is that dictators and their families have such a monstrous and obnoxious life. It’s the same in every country. When you see Ghadafi’s son talking, he appears like a lunatic. But that seems to be a quality of these types of people. It’s really scary. What I felt about this story is that it shows you that wherever you are in the Middle East, women are the true heroes. To survive with this male dictatorship, you really have to be strong and really smart not to be punished or treated badly.
DS: Do you think Sarrab’s plight embodies what women are going through in these Arab societies?
LS: Yes. But at the same time, she plays a character. It seems like all women there are actors. They all pretend to be devoted to their men, but that doesn’t prevent them from thinking in a totally different way. Look at what’s recently happened in Saudi Arabia. Women rebelled there because they don’t have the right to drive. So there are women actually risking their lives now to drive in the streets. They want to improve the status of women in that country. I think they are very courageous.
DS: Do you think there’s a Sarrab in Libya right now?
LS: There might be one. I don’t know because I’m not in the intimacy of Gaddafi. It’s like in Tunisia. I’m sure there are women who are being held there against their will, but they don’t have many other choices. So they are just survivors who look pretty, even if they seem to have fun.
DS: You play a very sexual woman in The Devil’s Double. But in Love Crime, your character is completely restrained, at least at first...
LS: Isabelle is so tight in her shirts. She’s not blossomed. She’s so bad in her skin and has no knowledge about human relationships. Yes, it’s a totally different character, but that’s what I like in movies -- to have the privilege to embody such a variety of people. It helps me to explore the human civilization.
DS: What is the worst time you’ve ever had with someone who had a position of power over you, and how did you translate that misery to this film?
LS: Directors have such a power over you, and they can sometimes abuse it. Those people enjoy pushing you a little too far, and that can do you harm.
DS: Do you think the fact that Love Crime’s foes are women really makes a difference at all? Could this be about cutthroat men in the corporate boardroom as well?
LS: I think it’s because these characters are women -- that makes this movie so contemporary. If men had that kind of rivalry, it would lead directly to a fistfight. Because women don’t have that physical strength, they have that conflict in a different way. Their revenge is much colder. It’s not like “I’m going to mess your face up in a parking lot.” It’s more subtle and vicious somehow.
DS: What do you think Love Crime has to say about women and what they go through climbing the corporate ladder of power?
LS: When we shot this movie, there was a wave of suicides at the biggest telecommunications company in France. Those corporations demand so much from people that they forget they’re dealing with individuals. There are some exceptions, like Google, for example. That’s a company which is very devoted to their employees and give them a lot of comfort and ease in their jobs. But apart from that kind of company, people are usually just pushed and pushed to get quick results. The demand is always bigger and bigger, and they cannot fight back. As a result, they can lose their will to live. Every week when we were shooting, there was a suicide, and it was so terrifying because we were doing a crime fiction. We didn’t really expect Love Crime to have such a social truth about it.
DS: What’s so interesting about Isabelle in Love Crime is you think she’s mousy and won’t retaliate against her evil boss. But there’s quite a bit going on behind her façade...
LS: That’s the only thing she is able to do, unfortunately. Isabelle is very brilliant and is propelling through this job. She’s apparently quite young to be an executive. But I’ve met a few people who are completely obsessed with studies and who want to be the best in universities and school. As a result, they didn’t have a social life. In terms of setting strategies, they were very mature and very adult, yet they were bad at regarding the human relationship. Isabelle is one of these people. She’s been targeting her attention for years on studying and strategy and commercial stuff. She doesn’t know how to deal with the other obstacles in life.
DS: In terms of American audiences, you’re best known for Swimming Pool, which I’m a huge fan of, especially with its indelible image of you reclining by the pool. People immediately began comparing you to Catherine Deneuve and Brigette Bardot because of that. What did you think of being put alongside those French screen icons?
LS: That was the flattering part of it, but at the same time, it was very difficult. I got tanned and worked out to be as fit as possible. I had hair extensions and stuff to make me look like this bombshell. So when I arrived in America, people thought I was the next sexy piece of meat. I felt so upset. People didn’t know me, so they just thought that’s the way I was. In actuality, I wasn’t. But while I wasn’t exactly endangered, I felt that I was not equal to the public image I had. But throughout the years, I’ve found that it’s normal to have a distance between what people project about you and who you really are. I learned how to deal with it, but at that age, I think I was too young to cope with it.
DS: There’s been a lot of conjecture about the enigmatic ending of Swimming Pool. What do you think happened?
LS: When we showed the movie all around the world, every audience brought a new interpretation. And that’s what our director, Francois Ozon, wanted. He once said that the pool was actually the screen where all the fantasies could get projected on. So I think the character of Julie is only a fantasy that has been created by Sarah Morton. Julie doesn’t really exist.
DS: After Swimming Pool, you appeared as Tinkberbell in the wonderful and criminally underrated Peter Pan. P.J. Hogan’s film is my favorite version of the story...
LS: I totally agree with you. I enjoyed working on Peter Pan so much. It was a lot of work, though, because I was on my own on a blue screen with the second unit, and hanging on wires. So I was secluded from the other crew because I was supposed to be small. As a result, I couldn’t play with the other actors. We would shoot 15 hours a day, and it was all improvisation because nothing was written about Tinkerbell. I had to create everything. That was magical because every time I had an idea, P.J. would say, “Okay, let’s create that.” Suddenly, the whole special effects team from ILM would think about my idea and make it concrete. It was such a privilege and a feeling of great creation to do that.
DS: Peter Pan still remains your one big Hollywood movie. But where Emmanuel Beart had only one shot doing Mission Impossible, would you hope to do more studio films?
LS: Why not? Yet that used to frighten me at the time I did Swimming Pool because I’d become an international star. People would know me and recognize me. I felt that if I got too much fame, that could have been the end of it. It also scared me because I’m the type of person who always struggled for her balance in life. So I slowed it down intentionally, and I think Emmanuel Beart also did that. Now I feel much more grounded because I have two children. I know myself much more than I used to.
DS: Do your daughters think you’re Tinkerbell?
LS: Yes. Every time we watch a Disney DVD and there’s Tinkerbell introducing the castle, they say, “Mommy! Mommy!” That’s very cute.
DS: You recently played a great gun moll opposite Vincent Cassel as Mesrine.
LS: I enjoyed myself so much on that film. It’s a very popular story in France. Everybody knows about Jacques Mesrine as much as they would Jacque Chirac! Mesrine was hated, respected, feared, and admired at the same time, and I really liked all these sides of him. I think every woman has this fantasy once in their lifetime to be in love with a gangster. There’s some attraction and appeal to it. I went through this and I really enjoyed it.
DS: In the end, what do you think your characters have in common in Love Crime and The Devil's Double?
LS: They pretend to be something they’re not. Sarrab pretends that she’s in love and that she doesn’t care about anyone nor is afraid of anything. Yet she’s holding those emotions back because she’s not allowed to show those kinds of feelings. Isabelle tries to be as naive as possible, but she’s able to set up such a diabolical strategy. Even if Sarrab looks more evil, I think she’s less a villain than Isabelle.
'The Devil’s Double' opens July 22, 2011, and 'Love Crime' on September 2, 2011.
Special thanks to Nancy Bishop and Venice Magazine.
Interview transcribed by Peter Hackman.