There’s a scene in A Girl Cut in Two, Claude Chabrol’s latest autopsy of bourgeois pomp and circumstance, in which the young heroine, an ambitious television weather-girl named Gabrielle, has to prove her love to Charles, the elegantly depraved (and much-older) novelist she’s infatuated with. The experienced bon vivant is unsatisfied with a blowjob under the desk, so Gabrielle is made to crawl across the bedroom floor in flimsy lingerie adorned with peacock feathers. It’s a moment which, extending the film’s study of sexist entertainment from the TV cameras to the boudoir, is balanced between the ridiculous and the sublime, saved from tawdriness by Chabrol’s sardonic feeling for human absurdity and, above all, by the mix of resolve and vulnerability Ludivine Sagnier brings to the role. Playing an ingénue among wolves, Sagnier provides a vibrant vision of innocence as resistance—as J. Hoberman put it in his Village Voice review, “she’s humiliated but never defiled.”
In a medium that devours beauty so easily, it’s talent that’s kept Sagnier going. Not content to just lean on her Gallic gorgeousness, she has sought out a variety of roles, and, not quite 30 yet, has already played petulant seductresses, warbling romantics, aristocratic courtesans, and even fairy-tale sprites—all of them fresh, autonomous portraits. Our interview took place earlier this year in San Francisco, where A Girl Cut in Two was screened as part of the international film festival. Her English is better than my French, so we proceed without a translator. I started by bringing up her brief role, at the age of ten, in Alain Resnais’ I Want to Go Home, which I had just reviewed.
LUDIVINE SAGNIER: Are you sure that was me?
FERNANDO F. CROCE: The little girl near the end in the village, next to Gérard Depardieu? Your name is in the credits.
LS: I’m not so sure. I remember coming back from summer camp to do a scene and having a huge bump on my head from an accident, so I think Resnais used another blonde girl. I did get to star with Depardieu the next year in Cyrano de Bergerac, though.
FFC: How was it, getting started in movies at such an early age?
LS: Well, I wouldn’t really say it was a big thing because I didn’t become a “star,” for lack of a better word, right off the bat. I did a few things here and there because my parents didn’t want my life overwhelmed by the industry, so I didn’t experience this idea of celebrity until I was, thank God, strong enough.
FFC: Was acting an early interest?
LS: Yes. My friends were taking dance lessons and riding horses, while I was really interested in drama and movies. I started taking some theater lessons at the age of eight, and what began as a hobby soon became a necessity.
FFC: Tell me about A Girl Cut in Two. What appealed to you about the film?
LS: Well, above all it was working with Claude Chabrol, really a monument in French cinema. And I was moved by the character, this girl who in the beginning seems to be very ambitious yet very naïve. She thinks she can handle everything, gets humiliated but still fights back and survives.
FFC: Gabrielle seems like an innocent next to the other corrupted characters, but she’s really quite ambiguous.
LS: She is. She’s never as clever as she thinks she is, but I see her as stronger than she at first believes.
FFC: There’s a Chabrol movie called Innocents with Dirty Hands, which I always thought was a terrific description of his worldview.
LS: Yeah, I know. You don’t see many pure people in his movies, do you?
FFC: Usually they get strangled.
LS: (laughs) Right, right.
FFC: What’s Chabrol like? His stamina, year in and year out, is just amazing.
LS: He does a lot of SuDoku to stay focused, and it helps him keep precise. And he’s so funny. He plays up the old-man grumpiness, but he’s really a child on the set. He’d much rather talk about food than about the psychological details of the movie, I think to keep the situations fresh. And I think he’s rather shy.
FFC: Speaking of his humor, the scene where your character has to crawl across the bedroom in the peacock outfit…
LS: (smiles and rolls her eyes)
FFC: (laughs) Chabrol’s analysis is often very close to a kind of caustic comedy.
LS: Believe me, there was nothing funny about doing that scene. (laughs) It was also important to him to use that scene because it’s the moment where the deviant sexuality of the writer is shown, and it also shows how much this girl is willing to do for her lover. In a way, it’s a scene about purity—she declares the truth of her love.
FFC: How was working with him different from working with François Ozon?
LS: Ozon loves Chabrol, but he directs more. I mean, he talks to you more about character and motivation, he’s much more authoritative, whereas Chabrol does it calmly, indirectly.
FFC: Big fan of Water Drops on Burning Rocks, your first film with Ozon. From a Fassbinder play, no less.
LS: That was amazing, because I studied Fassbinder in theater classes. He worked on the stage as much as he did with films. François and I are both big on German culture, so we hit it off immediately on the set. It was also sort of a period movie, set in the Seventies, so we had a blast recreating it.
FFC: Moliere is another, more obvious period piece you were in.
LS: Oh yeah. I love doing period movies, especially Moliere, because the costumes were amazing. I had only four scenes, but each had a different 17th-century dress. I hope I never lose the childlike pleasure of playing dress-up.
FFC: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but how was it being part of that ensemble in 8 Femmes? Deneuve, Huppert, Darrieux…
LS: Fantastic. I think I learned more about acting just being with those actresses for two months than in ten years of theater.
FFC: I should confess that I adore “T’es plus dans le coup, Papa,” that sort of rockabilly, yé-yé number you do in that movie.
LS: (laughs) Mon dieu.
FFC: Along with Les Chansons d’Amour, I noticed you get to do quite a bit of singing in movies.
LS: I never saw much difference between singing and acting. There’s pleasure in the performance, but you can feel a bit naked doing it. Singing in musicals is usually used to reveal what the characters otherwise don’t dare talk about, so there’s this element of direct emotion to it.
FFC: Jacques Demy certainly understood that.
FFC: Speaking of feeling naked, you’re no stranger to sex-bomb roles. La Petite Lili, Water Drops, Bon Plan, Swimming Pool. I read in an interview that you find “sexual acting” painful.
LS: Painful in that your skin becomes the character’s, though I’ve never had problems with nudity. It’s part of being on the stage, and of giving yourself to the camera.
FFC: Do you see any differences in the way the media addresses movie sexuality in America versus in Europe?
LS: Sure. Europeans are more much blasé about sexuality, so usually they skip over the subject and focus on other facets of the movie. When I did interviews for Swimming Pool, the sexuality of the film or my nudity in it would frequently be the big subject for American critics.
FFC: Swimming Pool was your first English-language role, if I’m not mistaken. [Note: And mistaken I was. Toothache (2002) was Sagnier’s first English-language role.] How was Charlotte Rampling?
LS: Charming. And brilliant.
FFC: And from there ... Peter Pan?
LS: Oh God, that was so much fun. Tinker Bell never spoke, so I got to do a lot of physical stuff and improvise, and I really got along well with the director, P.J. Hogan. It’s something I would love my children to enjoy.
FFC: Any directors you would be interested in working with?
LS: Yeah, but they’re all dead. (laughs)
FFC: Like who?
LS: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Joseph Mankiewicz, Elia Kazan, Douglas Sirk.
FFC: 8 Femmes did channel Sirk.
LS: I know. I loved the references to Imitation of Life, and Cukor’s The Women. It was a very French movie, but François had these tips of the hat to the greats.
FFC: Has becoming a mom changed the way you look at acting?
LS: Not really, but it did confirm that living life is more important than having some kind of superstar career.
Fernando F. Croce is a critic for Slant Magazine and the creator of the website Cinepassion.