The actor: Ludivine Sagnier’s star turn in Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool was full of sunlit and aqua-blue poolside nudity, so casual and continual it felt dreamlike. Since then, Sagnier has played it mostly clothed and chameleon-like, appearing in enough French productions that have found success in the States (Mesrine, 8 Women, Paris, Je T’Aime) to land her a type of international stardom that has eluded many of her French peers. In Alain Corneau’s Love Crime, recently released in the U.S., she portrays an executive upstart climbing the corporate ladder, stopping only long enough to figure out a way to climb past her cold-blooded boss Kristin Scott Thomas. It’s a stylish, over-the-top noir in the Brian De Palma mode—so much so that the actual Brian De Palma has snatched up the rights and is currently in production for its Stateside remake.
Swimming Pool (2003)—“Julie”
The A.V. Club: This film seems to be what you’re most known for in the United States. That could be for any number of reasons—like, for being a very good film—but it’s probably for all of the nudity.
Ludivine Sagnier: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s true. Swimming Pool was a very important moment for me because the character was written for me. I had done two other movies with the director [Francois Ozon]. He wanted to offer me a great part. I think why the movie did well is that it’s a very good movie, and because Americans love crime fiction. Also, it’s quite charming—the locations, the South of France—and, of course, because there was a lot of sensuality and nudity in the movie, it’s true. It did quite well. I really like the memory of this movie because it also brought me international exposure. It helped me to travel around a lot. That’s a movie that gave me a lot of opportunities. I’m very proud of this one. And, it’s true; I got bothered with a lot of questions about nudity. But it’s funny, because in America there are a lot of contradictions about sexuality. At the same time you’re not allowed to show a nipple on screen, but when you watch video clips, it’s about sexuality all the time, and all the girls are in swimsuits and doing all kinds of sleazy stuff. I was kind of surprised to have this image when I arrived, but then I understood all of those contradictions, so I just dealt with it. The only thing I had to go through was after that, the only offers that I had were to play bimbos. And I didn’t really want that, because the character of Julie was a total composition. She was the real South of France bimbo. I had worked on that tan and I worked out in order to look that way, and I thought I didn’t want to be the next sexual attraction, so I turned down a lot of offers related to that.
Love Crime (2011)—“Isabelle Guérin”
AVC: In some respects, this film is similar to Swimming Pool…
LS: That it’s another duet with a British actress [Kirsten Scott Thomas]?
AVC: Or that it’s with an older, acclaimed actress whom you probably admire professionally, but your character in the film tries to undermine and destroy.
LS: Yeah, that’s true. In a way, there are some similarities. At the same time, Swimming Pool was a movie about fantasies, and in Love Crime it’s much more concrete. Their relationship is a real competition. There’s a physical attraction. There’s a lot of domination. But it’s true that there are some similarities. The images are so different too. In Swimming Pool, all the colors are very warm, sunny, the pool and all that. In Love Crime, everything is so cold and it’s all inside skyscrapers.
Water Drops On Burning Rocks (2000)—“Anna”
LS: [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, he wrote a lot of stage plays. As I studied theater for a long time, I was very familiar with his work for theater. When I got involved in this project, I watched all of his movies. This one never got produced; it was an unedited play that Francoise Ozon found. It was written when Fassbinder was 19. In a way, it’s quite representative of the entire ensemble of his work. It’s the essence of his work, actually.
AVC: In that it plays around with sexual identity?
LS: Yeah, yeah. And hysterical relationships. Definitely.
AVC: That was your first film with Francois Ozon and has a whole assortment of sexual situations going on. Were you as comfortable with this material and working with Ozon as you were by the time of Swimming Pool? Or was this film a bit more difficult because it was early in your career?
LS: It’s funny, because after Water Drops, I thought I could never do that sort of thing again. I was completely unconscious of what I was doing. I was just having fun. You know, when you start, especially with me, I didn’t really know I was going to be a movie actress. I thought I was going to do theater. And here was this guy that was completely unknown who approached me for this. It didn’t occur to me that I would have a public image afterwards, so I didn’t care. I had nothing to lose. I thought it was going to be very intimate. When it first came out, I remember people from my family started to say, “Oh, okay. She’s starting to do porn movies.” [Laughs] I was like, “What?!” I thought it was so intellectual to be part of a Fassbinder play, you know? I didn’t have the same perspective on it. But it’s true that when you show your body, people think that it’s your real body, but it’s not. It’s only the character’s body. I’m glad I did it. Now, I’m a mother of two, I have a public image, so I would not be confident enough now to show my body that way. But I’m really glad I did it because I used to look good! [Laughs.] At least when I’m older, I can say, “I was once okay!”
8 Women (2002)—“Catherine”
AVC: You not only had to sing in this one, but there’s a lot of choreography, too. Not just in the actual dance sequences, but a lot of scenes feature very organized, staged movements.
LS: Yeah, it was very theatrical. All the songs were precisely chosen from pop culture, pop-variety French songs, so it was just a game, you know? It added a kind of distance to it. The choreography and all of that—it was so artificial that somehow you could tell the actors were having fun at the same time as the audience. I really enjoyed it. The singing, it went all quite naturally. I remember the first scene that I did with choreography was dancing in my pajamas next to Catherine Deneuve and I remember how intimidating it was. I didn’t know her personally and she’s such an icon in France, it was really weird for a first encounter.
AVC: Since then, you’ve been in a couple of films with her daughter Chiara Mastroianni.
LS: Yes. And we just did a musical where Catherine Deneuve and I share the same character [Les Bien-Aimés]. I play the character in the ’60s and she plays the character in the present, and Chiara plays her daughter in the film too.
Love Songs (2007)—“Julie Pommeraye”
AVC: Chiara Mastroianni is also in Love Songs…
LS: Yeah! She was my sister in Love Songs, so it’s a whole family thing. That was a great movie. It was completely overwhelming, full of emotion. It might not be really understandable for an American audience, because I think it is typically Parisian. The way it shows Paris is not the Woody Allen type of postcard, you know? But at the same time, I thought the story was really moving. My character almost died from love. Even though it was very much about daily life, there was something very tragic about it. I really loved it. I can’t really watch it because it makes me cry every time. This next film with Catherine Deneuve and Chiara is also by the same director, Christophe Honoré. It’s like a follow-up. As you can tell by my filmography, I really like to be part of someone’s universe and work again and again with the same people because I think it gives you more and more depth to the work. You get more intimacy with the director. It’s really important for me to create families and to stick to them. Being faithful is important in this job.
A Secret (2007)—“Hanna Golda Stirn/Grinberg”
LS: That one was quite a hit in France because it’s based on a true story and the book was a bestseller. I really enjoyed doing this movie because usually I am the one—the beautiful girl who is the one that seduces men and all that—but in this story, I was the cheated wife, shady, complex. I’m not the one that shines. I was really thankful to the director, Claude Miller, to give me such a part.
AVC: You also had red hair, not blonde.
LS: And red hair! That’s right.
AVC: Trying not to spoil the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, do wonder at the end of it why she does what she does?
LS: Yeah, there are several layers to it. It’s difficult to have a view on it, because she didn’t exactly know where her decision would lead her. They didn’t know about the [concentration] camps. She just knew that she was going to be isolated from her husband. I don’t think she consciously killed herself and her child, she just wanted to be… She was so madly in love with her husband, she just didn’t want to be a burden for him and not be an obstacle to his real love. That’s a kind of sacrifice, you know? Underneath there was this Medea complex. You know this Medea complex? Women with this tragic persona. She’d killed herself and her children because her husband was cheating on her. It is like the ancient Greek tragedy. It also became a figure in psychology, the Medea Complex, is something that… How do you say it? These kinds of doctors?
LS: Therapists, yes. It’s kind of widespread. Women who give up their own family and just kill their children to take revenge on the husband. That’s something that’s very tragic. I remember when they showed this picture there were some people in the audience who were saying, “How could you play such a character? It’s awful!” I was like, “It’s okay. It’s only a movie.” But it’s true that it’s something that really happened, but the War made them so confused, the status of the Jewish people was so complex and so difficult that people could do almost anything.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct/Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (2008)—“Sylvie Jeanjacquot”
AVC: These films were probably how most American filmgoers learned about Jacques Mesrine, but he was hugely famous in France.
LS: Yeah, he was not very popular in the U.S. In France, everybody knows him.
AVC: Your character appears more in the second part than in the first. How long was the entire production?
LS: The whole movie was shot in nine months. But me, I was involved for a couple of months. I had a great, great time with Vincent Cassel who is a… he’s a… [searching for the right word in English] humungous actor! [Laughs.] It was such a great part. I like to be part of true stories. It was a period movie, too. It all happened in the 1970s.
AVC: The clothes were great.
LS: Yeah! And I love to be dressed up in that way. Also, I don’t know, but to be the wife of a gangster is somehow exciting.
AVC: It feels like one of those films that over the years, as more people discover it, it’s going to endure and take on a life of its own.
LS: Definitely. In France, for example, I take care of a festival—a movie festival—in jail. It’s the biggest jail in Europe. I program movies for it and so I spend a lot of time in that jail. And when I come there, I can hear the prisoners behind their bars and they say, “Hey! It’s Mesrine’s wife! Mesrine’s wife is here!” They all shout out like I’m their hero. [Laughs.]
AVC: What kinds of films do you choose for them to watch?
LS: I try to pick movies that they wouldn’t watch normally. Because they are allowed to watch TV all day long, so I try to pick movies that can elevate them a little.
AVC: What was the last one you showed?
LS: We did this one that did really well in Paris about monks. It was about French monks during the Algerian War. [Of Gods And Men —ed.] But it’s a movie that helps them to think about something else, you know?
AVC: And are they receptive?
LS: Yes! Definitely. There’s a jury and we give a best prize. We do the whole thing.
AVC: How did you get involved in something like that? Do you have family members in prison or something?
LS: No. I just got involved several years ago. I visited and did some workshops with the female prisoners. Then we just organized the whole thing. I’m doing another thing that’s going to be a photo exhibition of prisoners who are going to shoot… The pictures, they shot themselves. We’re going to show it in the yard where they work. It’s based on [an idea from] this artist JR. He won the TED prize. He’s a good friend of mine, so we’re doing that together.
Paris, Je T’Aime (2006)—“Claire”
AVC: Do you think this film conveys an accurate feeling of Paris? Or does it get romanticized like New York City does in films?
LS: It’s funny, because I had this conversation yesterday with someone about Midnight In Paris, and I was saying that sometimes the way Americans look at Paris is not that accurate. It’s like a nice postcard. But there are plenty of other places [in the city] to look at. I think Paris, Je T’Aime was kind of an exhaustive and precise portrait of Paris. I really enjoyed working with Alfonso Cuaron and Nick Nolte. That was great.
A Girl Cut In Two (2007)—“Gabrielle Aurore Deneige”
AVC: This was Claude Chabrol’s second-to-last film before he passed away last year. What was it like to work with him?
LS: [Sighs.] Yeah. I had the best time with him. He’s such an adorable man. Working with him is like opening an encyclopedia about cinema. He knows everything. He was best friends with Alfred Hitchcock, so when you talk to him you’re like, “Wow! Okay, you’ve been friends with Alfred Hitchcock!” It’s so impossible to imagine. He’s a very gentle man. He’s done so many movies. He does movies like he snaps his fingers. It was a great, great encounter. I was proud to be a part of his path, you know?
The Devil’s Double (2011)—“Sarrab”
AVC: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you were reluctant to play this part because she was a prostitute.
LS: And also she was Iraqi! I didn’t think I had enough roots to legitimately play an Iraqi girl. At the beginning, I didn’t really want to do it, but the director, Lee Tamahori, convinced me. I thought the movie was so special and the story was so original, that I had to be part of it. Even though it was the sexy girl part again, I didn’t care. It was a good experience to go through no matter what. Having the privilege to watch Dominic Cooper at work, who was doing both characters, was amazing.
AVC: In terms of choosing what roles to play, it was written somewhere that you had said you were mostly interested in doing French films and reluctant to work too much in Hollywood. Is that still true?
LS: No, that’s not true! When I was in the U.S. for Swimming Pool, people had asked me, “So are you going to settle down in Hollywood?” And I said, “No, I’m French! I am living in France. I am not going to be American.” But I’m not reluctant at all. I’m mature enough now to do it. A few years ago, not as much. It all went very fast—fame, success—and I felt I had to keep my feet on the ground, and I felt that being in Hollywood wouldn’t make me feel balanced. But now I’m a mom, I have a family, and I’m much more prepared for it.