As sultry French starlets go, 29-year-old Ludivine Sagnier is as advertised. Seductive, clever, sensual, and often at the center of a torrid love triangle, the Prix Romy Schneider winner first bared her soul to American audiences as the skinny-dipping ingénue in François Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003). Her wide-eyed enthusiasm and fragile sexuality will be on display again next week in Claude Chabrol’s erotically chilling A Girl Cut in Two [La fille coupée en deux], in which she plays a provincial TV weather girl torn between an older author and a rich young dissolute. Now five months pregnant with her second child, Mlle. Sagnier sat down with me in New York to discuss nudity, submissiveness, older men, and American politics.
One of the film’s themes is the question of whether French culture is moving toward decadence or Puritanism. Which do you prefer?
Decadence. But . . . not the hypocritical decadence that we have now, which encourages people to get more and more stupid.
How close are you to the character of Gabrielle Deneige?
She’s more frustrating because she’s desperately looking for a father figure, and she is also very provincial, whereas I come from a very balanced family in Paris. I’ve been much less naive in my life. I don’t fall into those traps. I fall into other traps, but that’s a story for another time.
You’ve been nude in at least five of the films you done, most notably to American audiences in Swimming Pool. Does being naked come naturally to you?
No. That’s a legend, an image you have here in America. I’m not necessarily open to being nude. It’s just a question of performance. And all the times where I play naked, it’s always done with dignity. It’s not like these are lousy movies.
A Girl Cut in Two has little overt nudity, yet it was more sexually charged than anything you’ve done.
Yes, it’s all about sex. Even Chabrol joked that he was doing his porn movie. I was like, “Come on Claude, you don’t even show anything.” And he said, “I don’t need that, I’ve put obscenity in the eyes of the audience, they can put it wherever they like.”
Was that more difficult to do than simply taking off a robe and lounging in the sun with no clothes on?
It was very destabilizing because everything is possible. The only boundary is the imagination, and when you’re playing that, it’s very disturbing. I wasn’t comfortable at all. I felt dirty, much more than I did just being physically naked.
How were the sex scenes with François Berléand? He’s reputed to be quite a ladies’ man off camera.
It’s funny, because if somebody had told me I would have to kiss François Berléand at some point, I couldn’t have imagined it. But that’s the magic of cinema. If you’re in love in the movie, then suddenly you find the man beautiful and attractive. But my mom was very jealous.
The peacock scene [in which Sagnier crawls 9-1/2 Weeks–style adorned only in plumes] was a powerful foray into submission and self-sacrifice. What was that scene like to shoot?
It was terrible, one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever done in my life. You see very little of my body, but it’s so strong psychologically that it really disturbed me. It’s a self-willing submission, so I couldn’t show any amount of suffering or reluctance. I had to give myself completely to the character in order to show the right emotion. It was kind of a generous act.
What was it like working with the Hitchcock of France, Claude Chabrol?
It was great because he’s a monument and I felt like I was becoming part of history. He’s not very talkative about the psychological background of his characters, but he loves to chat about what he likes and dislikes in cinema, directors he loves and hates, so working with him is like opening a big film encyclopedia.
The film is set in Lyon. If New York is the Paris of the United States, what American city would you compare Lyon to?
San Francisco. Beautiful in many ways but it still has a provincial side.
Pretense plays a big role in the film, and Chabrol lampoons the pettiness of television. How do you feel working in an industry so preoccupied with appearance and celebrity?
In Europe we’re not as obsessed with celebrity as you seem to be here. Being an actor, for us, is having the mission of expressing things to the public, and enlightening people, making them think and dream, so celebrity is not really part of my life. I take the Métro, I walk around Paris, I don’t get any paparazzi. We don’t get bothered in France.
Your father is a professor. Were you attracted to bookish, writer types, as your character is in the film?
Any thoughts on who might win the US Presidential election in November?
It’s obvious. In Europe it’s not a debate. In France we already say he’s won. Come on, the other one is so old.