Ludivine Sagnier - Fairy Tales

  • The List
  • 14 May 2009
Ludivine Sagnier

As she prepares to set the silver screen alight once more, French actor Ludivine Sagnier talks to Tom Dawson about Snow White, politics and being a star in the making

Ingenue, starlet and disgracefully young-looking, Ludivine Sagnier is about to turn 30. In a dazzlingly high-quality career, she has packed in collaborations with many of the heavyweights of French cinema including Francois Ozon, Claude Miller and Alain Resnais. Not bad for an actor still in her 20s. Yet, when I meet her in Paris, she is engagingly devoid of movie-star airs.

Pretty and petite, she talks quickly and fluently in English, passionate about cinema, yet quick to laugh at herself. ‘I have a feeling I still haven’t achieved a lot and that the best is yet to come,’ she says. ‘Of course if you’d said to me at 18 that I would be in all these films, I wouldn’t expect a tenth of what has happened, but I’ve become used to being surprised, because that’s what being an actor involves.’

Growing up in a middle-class household in a small town outside Paris, Sagnier began acting at the age of eight as a way of avoiding learning the piano. Within two years she had made her professional screen debut in the long forgotten Les Maris, Les Femmes, Les Amants. Going on to study at the Conservatory of Dramatic Art in Versailles, she secured parts in Francois Ozon’s earlier films Water Drops on Burning Rocks and 8 Women. But it was her performance as a Provençal wild child with a liberated attitude to nudity in Ozon’s 2002 Swimming Pool, for which she was heralded by Rolling Stone as ‘the new Brigitte Bardot’, giving her an international profile.

Now, two years after it was released in France, Sagnier’s second outing with new wave film veteran Claude Chabrol has finally made it across the Channel. In the sly melodrama The Girl Cut in Two, she plays Gabrielle, a TV weathergirl torn between a famous novelist and a suave libertine. Exuding the sprightly effervescence that makes the character so appealing to men, she also manages to bring out Gabrielle’s naivety.

Unsurprisingly, she wasted little time deliberating about whether to work with Chabrol. ‘He’s part of the history of cinema, like Hitchcock, Bergman, Truffaut and Godard, so working with him was like entering this great pantheon of directors,’ she says. ‘It’s the cinema I worship, so I said yes immediately.’

The 78-year-old Chabrol doesn’t bother with casting sessions. Instead, Sagnier met him in a café where she realised her list of questions was redundant. ‘Claude told me about the catering on-set,’ she says. ‘He talked about it for an hour, so I knew I would be well-fed.’

Chabrol himself has described The Girl Cut in Two as a ‘chaste film about perversity’. Inspired by a real-life crime of passion in early 20th century America, it takes a peek behind the closed doors of a swingers club. In the most explicit scene, a naked Sagnier crawls along on all fours with a feather between her buttocks, much to her partner’s delight. ‘That was very difficult to play,’ she says. ‘But it was very useful to really shock the audience. To me it shows the tiny boundary between devotion and submission.’

Highlighting the fairytale dimensions of the story, Sagnier regards Gabrielle as a modern-day Snow White who discoveres her Prince Charming is more like Captain Hook. Revealingly, Chabrol told her she’d be perfect for the part after he’d seen her performance as the mute fairy Tinker Bell in PJ Hogan’s Peter Pan. ‘You can see the similarities,’ she says. ‘Like Tinker Bell, Gabrielle is a character who’s completely radiant and also has a mischievous side. Her wings get clipped and she has to deal with her own drama and then she’s reborn.’

But it’s the path Sagnier took after Swimming Pool that reveals most about her aspirations. Following her Tinker Bell duties, she moved back to France, turning down a number of American scripts that hoped to cash in on her sex appeal. ‘Working abroad is not a priority for me,’ she says. ‘My priority is playing interesting characters in good movies. What I’m ambitious for is quality. In France I find I can bounce between old and young directors, and that way I find my balance.’

Since completing The Girl Cut in Two, she has impressed in the WW2 melodrama A Secret, playing a Jewish woman who gives up herself and her child to the German authorities. The process of altering her appearance from role to role is one she relishes. ‘Some actors can’t change their physique, and they are hired for what they look like and what they represent,’ says Sagnier who recently gave birth to a second child. ‘I’m not that kind.’

She enthuses about her role in the forthcoming Public Enemy Number One, the two-part biopic of real-life French career criminal Jacques Mesrine, who was gunned down by the police in 1979. Sporting a red wig and enormous sunglasses, Sagnier stars as Mesrine’s last wife Sylvie Jeanjacquot, in what she calls ‘my first action movie’.

Mesrine, who claimed to have killed 43 people and staged countless jailbreaks, continues to polarise French society. To his detractors he was a brutal killer, and to his supporters he was a modern day Robin Hood, attacking big business via bank robberies. During filming, Sagnier met members of Mesrine’s family and his former associates and, although writer-director Jean-Francois Richet’s screenplay reduces Sylvie to a stereotypical gangster’s moll, she is proud to have worked on this controversial project.

‘We tried to sort out an enigma’, she says. ‘Was he really committed politically or was he just a serial killer with a lot of charm?’

Politics is on her mind today. Observing the great French tradition set by politically outspoken artists, she has campaigned for candidates on the left in the presidential elections, and happily tears into President Sarkozy. ‘He uses the same tools as Berlusconi,’ she says. ‘He manipulates and controls the media and, as a result, citizens are getting more and more cynical about democracy. He has this bling bling style and because of the CDs of his wife Carla Bruni, he seems to infiltrate our lives by getting into our living rooms.’

Now lined up to work in a thriller alongside Kristin Scott Thomas, she is preparing to take on another new shape. With her 30th birthday this July, is she ever surprised about how much she has achieved? ‘You are always going from one challenge to another.’ she smiles. ‘I’m not thinking about what I’ve achieved already, but on what there is left to do.’

The Girl Cut in Two, GFT, Glasgow and selected release from Fri 22 May. Public Enemy Number One (Part One) is on selected release from Fri 31 Jul.

5 French thrillers

Les Diaboliques (1954)
A fantastic noir-ish thriller by pessimistic genius auteur Henri-Georges Clouzot about the tangled and murderous assignations of a guy and two girls (Paul Meurisse, Simone Signoret and Clouzot’s wife Véra Clouzot) at a second-rate boarding school. Les Diaboliques remains a high benchmark for French thrillers with its suspenseful plotting and surprising twists. It was also one of the first films to carry an anti-spoiler message in its closing credits requesting the audience not to disclose the plot to anyone who had not seen the film. Available on DVD (Arrow Films).

Lift to The Scaffold (1958)
Louis Malle’s ingenious thriller has everything. Murder, abseiling, expensive cars, glamorous criminal couples, stuck lifts and a specially commissioned score by Miles Davis, which was easily his best work for cinema. Available on DVD (Optimum Releasing)

The Butcher (1970)
The film that earned French new waver Claude Chabrol (who directs Girl Cut in Two) the moniker of ‘the French Hitchcock’ is a mysterious and murderous character study set in a small town. It is also one of the few films that Hitchcock went on record as saying he wished he’d directed. Available on DVD as part of the Claude Chabrol Collection Volume 1 (Arrow Films)

Diva (1981)
The 80s are back. Jean-Jacques Beineix’s glorious violent and surreal calling card of a debut feature was a garish full-on cult thriller involving corrupt policemen, prostitutes, opera recordings and a witless postman. Diva was an unexpected international hit that influenced European cinema indefinitely.
Available on DVD (Optimum Releasing)

Tell No One (2006)
Almost a decade after the event, Dr Alex Beck (François Cluzet) receives a call from his murdered wife. The call sets in motion a chase for information that Beck simply cannot lose. Guillame Canet’s enjoyably frenetic and engrossing adaptation of Harlan Corben’s 2001 potboiler. Available on DVD (Revolver Entertainment) (Paul Dale)

The Girl Cut In Two

  • 3 stars
  • 2007
  • France/Germany
  • 1h 55min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Claude Chabrol
  • Written by: Claude Chabrol, Cecile Maistre
  • Cast: Ludivine Sagnier, Benoît Magimel, François Berléand, Mathilda May

Based on a real-life case in 1900s America, transposed to contemporary Lyon. A sly playful satire of the haute bourgeoisie world of publishing with elegant direction and fine performances.

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