When it comes to French cinema, there may not be such a thing as a “no brainer” but when veteran French filmmaker Claude Chabrol called upon Ludivine Sagnier, the hot young star of François Ozon’s breakout French thriller Swimming Pool, to play the title character in his latest thriller A Girl Cut in Two, it must have been much like Woody Allen “discovering” Scarlett Johansson for Match Point.
Famous for dark thrillers that have gotten him labeled as the “French Hitchcock”, the 78-year-old director who was making films during the French New Wave hasn’t been any less prolific going into his fifth decade as a filmmaker, making memorable films like Merci Pour le Chocolat and The Flower of Evil since 2000.
A Girl Cut in Two similarly examines familiar relationships, in this case that of Sagnier’s Gabrielle, an ambitious television weather girl who becomes involved with a significantly older novelist (François Berléand) while fending off the advances of a spoiled rich kid played by Benoît Magimel, who has played the lead in three previous Chabrol films. Where things go from there is what makes Chabrol’s film so different from his French peers, but clearly, much of the film falls on the talents of Sagnier to carry it.
When ComingSoon.net sat down with Ms. Sagnier last week, we were informed she was five months pregnant, fairly shocking because it was already hard to believe that the actress who was playing a teenager just five years ago was already a mother and now with another one on the way. Despite being tired from the pregnancy and jetlag, Sagnier’s effervescent personality still came through as we talked about her new movie, as well as Sagnier’s reunion with Claude Miller (La Petite Lili) in A Secret, an era-spanning movie about two Jewish women (played by Sagnier and Cécile De France) who must make hard choices in order to survive World War II.
ComingSoon.net: Claude Chabrol is almost like the Woody Allen of France with a big body of work, very prolific… Ludivine Sagnier: Yeah, the people go to watch his movies every year, whatever happens.
CS: How about yourself? Were you familiar with his work and what were some of your favorite movies of his? Sagnier: Yeah, of course. My favorite movies, they were old movies from his, like “The Butcher” and “Let the Beast Die,” they are movies from the ’60s, where he really played with the suspense, like Hitchcock.
CS: Did he come after you to play this role or did you learn of the script and approach him to play the part? Sagnier: No, I had done some auditions for him for previous movies but they didn’t work, so I thought maybe I wasn’t upper class enough, but no, he just called me for this one and said, “I want to work with you.” It just happened, you know. He just offered it to me and I met him in a café and I thought he was going to tell me about the script and the only thing he talked to me about was the catering on the set, that it was the best food in all of show business, that we would have good wine and things like that.
CS: What did he tell you about the story or the character after trying to tempt you with the good food and wine? Sagnier: He said she’s something like Tinker Bell, so at the beginning I was like, “Is he laughing at me or something?” He was really sincere because he thought that the character of Gabrielle Deneige was radiant and attractive, but still has something inpure inside of her.
CS: Did you have to do a lot of preparation on your own to play her besides reading the script? Sagnier: Not really, because I think it’s a character that requires a certain type of personality and I think Chabrol had seen that in my personality the qualities he wanted, so it was more the game of reaction and instinct rather than composing a character. I did it with my own personality.
CS: This is also a very modern day story compared to some of his other movies or other ones you’ve done. Sagnier: Yeah, definitely, compared to “A Secret,” where I really had to build up a character.
CS: What about the other actors? Benoit had made a lot of movies with Chabrol, so were you able to do your scenes with him first to get you into his way of working? Sagnier: I don’t remember. I think it was all mixed. No, not really, and Benoit was really focused on his character and at the beginning, I didn’t imagine the character that loony, and so on set, I was like, “What are you doing?” and I was amazed when seeing the movie because I thought he did a great job.
CS: Yeah, he plays a very strange character, almost exaggerated version of a rich spoiled brat. Sagnier: Yeah, but they exist though. (SPOILER Warning: The next bit could potentially spoil one of the BIG SURPRISE TWISTS in the movie!) The whole story is based on real facts that happened in 1906 in New York. It’s the assassination of Stanford White, who was a famous architect, famous for his work and for his devious habits with women, and he had used a young actress named Evelyn Nesbit, and after a while, he dumped her after having used and abused her many times, and then she got married to a very fortunate young man, his name was Harry K. Thaw, and he just killed the architect saying “You perverted my wife and you deserve to die!” There was a basic story that Chabrol used to make our story, and when I was in San Francisco promoting this movie, I was doing a Q ‘n’ A with the audience and there was someone in the audience who said, “My grandfather was a waiter in New York in 1908 and one day, he served in a restaurant Harry K. Thorpe, who was the “lunatic character” but she said it wasn’t exaggerated from what my grandfather told me.
CS: I didn’t realize this was actually based on real characters from history, so did you want to do any research into that yourself? Sagnier: No, because I got aware of those facts doing the publicity. I just heard “Thank you for telling” and he said, “No, it wasn’t important. I didn’t want you to focus on that.”
CS: Your character gets put through the wringer as both these guys do awful things to her. It’s somewhat surprising how she reacts to what happens to her; she’s in love with one guy and ends up with the other, and when you’re playing a character like that, do you have to ignore your own feeling about what she might do? Sagnier: Well, at least if you believe in love, because that’s the only feeling that drives her. She just wants to be loved and she gets her heart broken once and she goes with the other one because she needs to recover, and she hopes she’ll fall in love again and forget her scars. But she’s very naïve; she’s a very poor lamb in a world of elves.
CS: When you play a character like this, do you have to find her motivation for doing this or do you just accept what’s written about her in the script? Obviously, you’d probably do something different in that situation. Sagnier: Yes, but when I’m shooting, I endure the personality of my character. I just think I can’t judge them or have a different perspective than they do.
CS: Was there anything about her character you were able to relate to or something about her you wanted to explore when you first read the script or talked to Claude? Sagnier: He didn’t want me to compose anything; he just wanted me to be myself, but what I liked was the strength she had when she falls and comes back again. Yeah, she gets humiliated and all that, but she keeps her positive attitude and her space in life and that’s something I share with her.
CS: She’s a very ambitious career woman doing well in TV, and most women I know wouldn’t have put up with half that stuff from either of them. The magic act at the ending was interesting, too. Was that something always in the script? Sagnier: In the beginning, yes, and I liked this idea that suddenly, it’s like an exorcism of what she’s been through. The scene and it’s a way like with a phoenix to die and get reborn again, something like that.
CS: It was a very literal interpretation of the movie’s main theme for sure, but it freaked me out a little because I saw a trick like that when I was a kid and it scarred me for a long time. Sagnier: You know I did the trick for real. It was kind of frightening. I did a little training with the illusionist who set up this trick and I went to his workshop and all that. It was funny.
CS: Moving onto “A Secret,” I know you worked with Claude Miller on “Un Petit Lili,” but this was a very different movie for him and you. Did you shoot that before the Chabrol or after? Sagnier: I had done the Claude Miller before. In the first movie, I played a young girl who attracts everyone and who is the object of desire of everyone, and suddenly, he offered me the part of the cheated woman and I thought that was very interesting and also it was relating the story of a Jewish family from the ’30s to the ’80s, and it was the age of my grandmother, so I could easily identify myself in this character. It’s based on a true story, so there was many reason why I wanted to do it.
CS: The movie is very non-linear as it goes between the different time periods, so were you surprised when you saw the movie assembled together that way? Sagnier: No, because at the beginning, it was a novel, so in the novel, there was a different timings and things like that, so I was used to it.
CS: Besides “Peter Pan,” you’ve mainly been working in France as you’re a big star, but after “Swimming Pool,” did you want to try and do more Hollywood movies? Sagnier: Yes, but I think I wasn’t ready because Hollywood, it requires a lot of work and commitment.
CS: I’m sure that the movie business in France does, too. Sagnier: Yes, but I’d say in Hollywood, it’s very competitive and I wasn’t ready for competition, but now yeah, I’d be glad to work, not in Hollywood necessarily, but with American directors. Yeah. I am busy in France, but there are so many directors I admire in America.
CS: I wanted to quickly ask you about “Public Enemy No. 1” because it has an amazing cast and I spoke to Vincent Cassel almost three years ago and he was talking about it. Who are you playing in the second movie? Sagnier: I’m playing his last fiancee and I had a lot of fun doing it. It’s based on a true story, and it’s two movies, so one is called “Death Instinct” and I’m in the second one “Public Enemy No. 1” and it’s from the ’60s to the end of the ’70s and it relates the life of this very special gangster who was very controversial, and who was very popular in the eye of public opinion.
CS: Do you have any idea when they’ll be finished and be released? Sagnier: It’s going to be released in October in France.
CS: Do you keep in touch with François Ozon? He’s been such a huge booster of your career and he used to be so much more prolific back then. Sagnier: Yes, he’s still very prolific and he’s still doing one movie a year.
CS: Do you know if you’ll have another chance to work with him? Sagnier: Yeah, we are arguing about the topics but we’ll find something to do together. I needed to fly with my own wings, as we say in French. I was working only with Ozon, so I needed to do some other things, but now we both want to work together again, so we’ll find something.
A Girl Cut in Two opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, August 15 and you can also see Sagnier in A Secret, which opens in New York on September 5.