Ludivine Sagnier’s Wounded Souls
Three films starring Ludivine Sagnier screened in Los Angeles this spring and summer. Love Crime and The Devil’s Double were shown at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June. Lily Sometimes was shown at the City of Angels, City of Light Festival in April.
I met up with Ludivine at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to talk about the wounded souls she brings to life in her films and where she finds the freaky stuff to feed them.
In Love Crime Ludivine Sanginer plays a young woman working in a corporation at La Défense, the cluster of skyscrapers in metropolitan Paris constructed to separate the corporate world from the cities famous arrondissements.
Isabel Guérin is a creative young executive overflowing with ideas but oblivious to the duplicity of people in the corporate environment. Her boss steals her ideas and manipulates her emotions. She does not have the capacity to realize she is being exploited.
In the absence of the hard won social skills that would enable her to deactivate her bosses behaviour, a cauldron of emotion starts to boil beneath the surface of their relationship.
La Défense – named after La Défense de Paris, the famous statue commerating soldiers of the Franco-Prussian war – becomes a battlefield where Isabel’s payload of emotion explodes and she turns her creativity to strategies of revenge.
“Isabel is based on desires that it is not easy to express,” said Ludivine. “I think Isabel is someone who is very good at what she does, she is excellent, she is a very brilliant person. I think we all know the sort of person who has been targeting their whole life towards one single goal and you know she has been obsessed with studies and success but humanly speaking she is completely immature.”
“She has no friends. Never went out. She is no good at feelings at all. She is not street wise. She doesn’t know anything about human relationships. She cannot control the thing she feels for her boss and she is a control freak. The sexual tension is beyond her ability to figure out. When she kills she realizes her desire.”
Ludivine Sagnier was born into a literary family in 1979. Her father was an English professor and her mother studied the classics. She grew up in Sèvres. Both parents loved movies and encouraged Ludivine’s interest in theatre.
Ludivine has appeared in 33 films. Her first role was in Cyrano de Bergerac with Gerard Depardieu when she was 10. Over the years she has established herself as one of France’s great actresses with an uncanny ability to reinvent herself on screen.
“Ludivine is an actress who gives her all without any restrictions,” said Fabienne Berthaud, director of Lily Sometimes. “She works without a safety net. She doesn’t act, she is. She never cheats and is very generous. She has the ability to forget herself and take on another persona to the point of physically changing.”
To prepare for the role of Isabel, Ludivine visited her brother-in-law at a La Defense skyscraper.
“It was an environment I needed to be familiar with,” said Ludivine. “To work in an office, which I had never done.”
The sado-masochistic themes at work in Love Crime are reflected in the sterility of the modern office where the use of language is restricted to project status updates and strategy sessions. Emotion is suppressed and people cannot be trusted.
Ludivine explained that a lot of “inner cooking” was required to build Isabel’s character and understand her personality.
“I think she must have missed a lot of affection and you know she must have come from a very cold and not loving family,” said Ludivine. “You know sometimes it is enough to ruin a whole life. Usually all of the sociopath that society is full of, they just look like regular people.”
Love Crime was directed by Alain Carneau. Carneau, who also directed Tous les matins du monde (All the Mornings in the World), died before the film was released.
“I felt a bit like a soldier at war obeying the captain,” said Ludivine of her experience working with Carneau. “We didn’t have the space of creation. It was more like obeying the general and trying to set up this strategy as precisely as possible.”
“I tried to observe more and more Alain’s personality in order to get some freaky stuff to feed my character. Usually for actors I think it is quite a good trick to observe the director. It will lead you directly to the lead part.”
Working with Carneau was grueling. Ludivine’s mastery of acting technique, as well her sense of humour, came through as she recalled the experience.
“The scene where Isabel has a breakdown and she cries in the office and in the elevator and then in the parking lot, we shot it during 5 different days, throughout 3 weeks.
I was like, my god. I complained. I said, you know, it’s really difficult to get the continuity of the kind of emotion. And they say, “Sorry.”
Love Crime is structured like a viscious circle with a series of gestures that are repeated throughout the film to symbolize Isabel’s breakdown and descent into madness.
In a particularly chilling scene, Isabel watches herself apply lipstick in a bathroom mirror at her bosses home. “Beautiful aren’t we,” she exclaims to her reflection.
“She’s completly crazy doing this,” said Ludivine. “When her boss initiates Isabel to being the shark in the company world, she gives her some lipstick, looks into the rearview mirror, and says, “We’re beautiful aren’t we.” Isabel is infatuated with this statement. She’s flattered and thinks they have something in common. When she does it at the end I think it is really freaky. Becoming a criminal leaves some stains here and there.”
In another scene Isabel repeats a gesture made by a male colleague by pinching his lip.
“That was my idea to do that,” said Ludivine. “You know something, it’s really thugish to do this to a woman. It is a virility gesture that is humiliating, you know. So I thought it was kind of interesting to play around this viscious circle to do it another time. I’m glad you noticed it.”
In The Devil’s Double Ludivine plays Sarrab, an Iraqi prostitute who has been selected by Saddam Hussein’s son Uday to serve as his mistress.
Sarrab, whose name means “mirage” in Arabic, has multiple identities and her accent changes as she moves from the clubs of Bagdad to Malta in an effort to escape Uday’s domination. In Malta she reveals the strength of her will to survive and her capacity for betrayal.
“She’s always hiding behind this sexy image that she’s sick of,” Ludivine told the Independent. “She’s like a lot of women in Middle East countries, who have to deal with male oppression and have to pretend they like to be dominated even if they don’t.”
Ludivine was director Lee Tamahori’s first choice for the role of Sarrab.
“Everybody in this movie is not what they seem to be,” said Tamahori following a screening of The Devil’s Double at the Los Angeles Film Festival. “Everybody, because of fear and terror, is acting out. Everyone is hiding behind another character. It’s the nature of this movie. Sarrab is very much like that. For self preservation, she is playing multiple roles which is why I had her in multiple personas. She wears wigs a lot, she looks different all the time because Uday wants to see her as a different sexual construct every day of the week. She is always performing a role for somebody.”
Devil’s Double producer Paul Breuls told The Independent that Ludivine was the obvious choice to play Sarrab because British and American actresses are too inhibited when it comes to sexual acting.
“The role (of Sarrab) is very demanding sexually and it’s difficult to find actresses who are willing to take that leap into the sexual unknown, especially in the States or in England,” said Bruels.
Ludivine’s appreciation of British actresses, on the other hand, is generous, insightful and cunning.
“I love British actresses,” said Ludivine. “They are very subtle and don’t have to do much in order to express a lot. I am very impressed by their subtlety and wildness. They’re soft and kind of withdrawn but like a tiger can jump at you and cut your throat.”
Ludivine Sagnier on Lily Sometimes
Ludivine was surprised that I had seen Lily Sometimes, which was shown at the Director’s Guild in April but has yet to find a distributor in North America.
“This is a very special character,” said Ludivine. “I must maybe pitch it for you. It’s the story of two sisters who live in the countryside. The other sister is played by Diane Kruger who also speaks perfectly in French and the movie starts at the death of their Mom.”
“My character is socially retarded. She is not able to have a normal social life and she is growing up being completely secluded in her own bubble of creation. She is like a primal artist. She doesn’t know that she is an artist but she is still an artist. She does a lot of stuff with animals because she is living in the middle of nature.”
“She finds dead animals in the forest and all that and she does all kind of stuff with them but I think she is an over sensitive person and she is so fragile that she builds a world around herself in order to protect herself somehow.”
“What I like about this activity is that usually people that do things with dead animals are usually sordid and morbid and what I like about it is that it’s always joyful and a tribute to life rather than to be a tribute to death.”
“The girl must be in her early twenties, we don’t know how old she is. She is very charming, she has a very childish attitude, everyone calls her the retard because it’s so easy to give her a function, a status, you know. She’s been completely traumatized by death and that’s the way she fights back you know.”
“I think its a very poetic way of putting it and I really love this movie because it’s full of tenderness. I think the relationship between the two siblings is great, very moving. I enjoyed working with Diane Kruger so much.”
“It didn’t get a distributer yet. Maybe it’s a bit too indie for the U.S. audience, you know. I’m glad you saw it.”