Sexy French actress, the new Bardot:
What a difference a passport makes. Mention to male friends that you’re interviewing a comely actress and there are approving nods. Add that your subject is French and it induces the kind of unseemly fnarr-fnarring not witnessed since the fifth form.
When it comes to sexiness — or, rather, perception of it — orientation to Dover counts. La Belle France has given the world Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Sophie Marceau, Audrey Tautou, even an exotic presidential consort in Carla Bruni (okay, Italian-born, but they were smart enough to naturalise her, pronto).
“It’s very difficult to define. Something that is impalpable,” purrs the winsome Ludivine Sagnier, employing the full Gallic pronunciation, savouring the word like an XO cognac. “It’s true that French women have an aura. Marion Cotillard or Eva Green, for example. French actresses, they have it [she clicks her fingers for emphasis]. I don’t know what, but they have it. There’s vulnerability. In Hollywood, vulnerability is viewed as a failure, whereas in France it is seen as a strength.”
For vulnerability, let us also interpret a heroic willingness to disrobe in the name of art — but more of that in a moment.
Across La Manche, 30-year-old Sagnier is a national treasure. Blonde with blue doe eyes and a baby-faced kookiness, she is gorgeous, but not a beauty in the classic Marianne tradition. And on first encounter, in her producer’s office, in an elegant, shuttered town house in the bourgeois 8ème arrondissement of Paris, she is virtually unrecognisable as the sexpot gamine of popular renown. Sans make-up and jewellery, Ludivine — whose name means “divine light” — would appear to have deliberately twiddled the dimmer in a manner unthinkable to your average, overly accessorised American starlet.
Nonetheless, she proves a formidable package, perched neatly on the edge of a couch, her black top and dark grey leggings (American Apparel) crowned by chunky Gaultier shades that act as an alice band on her kinky, dirty-blonde mane. Throw in her charmingly accented, idiosyncratic English (“Hello, I am an actress,” comes her introduction), not to mention an engaging sense of humour (I swear, she actually uses the exclamation “Ooh là là!”) and it is fair to say that the mysterious, intangible “It” is definitely in Sagnier’s possession, too.
British audiences first found Sagnier in the 2003 hit Swimming Pool, in which she starred opposite Charlotte Rampling, and her rebellious on-screen teen self infamously spent most of the picture pursuing sexual congress with troglodytic midlifers whose wine guts flapped over their budgie-smugglers. It was a sexuality that was taken and somewhat rammed down cinema-goers’ throats — who can forget that film poster, all caramel-skinned Sagnier, dripping by a glistening piscine? — and that had her trumpeted as “the new Bardot”. “Clichés are a tool to communicate,” she says, “but when I’m compared to Brigitte Bardot, I’m flattered because she was an actress who really broke the rules. She was a rebel. In that way I feel close to her.”
In terms of raw sexuality, when it comes to her career, Sagnier has certainly been a rebel from the start. Born in the Paris suburbs, the daughter of a professor of English was plucked from drama group to appear in films aged 10. She continued acting at university; then it was but a short step to discovery by the camp French film-maker François Ozon. Sagnier became his muse, appearing in the sex romp Water Drops on Burning Rocks, in which she danced in her undies, then -— naturellement — divested herself of them, before going on to appear in The Girl Cut in Two. “It gets worse!” she groans, plunging face into hands in mock shame. In that one she cavorted with a sexual svengali old enough to be her grandfather.
Today she is here to discuss the superb gangster saga Mesrine, the true story of the bank robber Jacques Mesrine (played by Vincent Cassel), in which she stars as Sylvia Jeanjacquot, his ex-prostitute girlfriend. She counters that the nudity in this release wasn’t so natural.
“You know, being naked on screen seems to be so easy, but it’s such a challenge,” she insists. “In Mesrine, I have some love scenes with Vincent. It wasn’t that easy at all, especially because there were so many heterosexual males on set and they were, like, ‘Okay!’,” she mimics the eager rubbing of hands. “I have to be tough. It’s intimidating.” Why, then, choose these roles? “Usually the broken hearts are much more interesting and daring than strong women who understand everything,” she ponders. “Maybe it’s that my life is so normal and balanced that I try to get myself endangered.”
Indeed, real-life Ludivine — Lulu to her pals — is happily married to the director Kim Chapiron, with two daughters, Bonnie, 4, and Ly Lan, 5 months, the former from a relationship with the actor Nicolas Duvauchelle, with whom she appeared in a Miu Miu ad campaign. Where, not so long ago, Sagnier was extolling the virtues of smoking, drinking and gourmet food in a sort of “up yours, Delors” to the body-perfect, bleached-teeth ideal of American cinema, not so any more, she says. “Aaahhh, I changed so much,” she chuckles. “I used to be a kind of a Lily Allen type, but now I’m a mum, so...” According to her, the fags are out and the gym is in. “And I don’t really drink much because, uuugggh, I’m too tired.”
Tired, maybe, but happy. “When I was a child, I thought being 30 represented being blossomed, being a mum, being a woman. I thought, ‘When I’m 30, I’ll feel comfortable in my life,’” she smiles. “And, I’ll say, ‘Okay, you did well.’” Don’t go thinking those French sexpot ways are buried, though. When asked about her eldest daughter one day viewing Mummy’s oeuvre, she says: “I don’t feel ashamed. When she’s old enough, she can say her mum was sexy.” Quite.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct is out on August 7