Although it wasn’t her first on-screen acting role (that would be Jean-Luc Godard’s DÉTECTIVE) (1985), Paris-born Emmanuelle Seigner was first noticed seriously at the age of 22 in Roman Polanski’s 1988 thriller FRANTIC, starring Harrison Ford. She was the perfect, stunning femme fatale for Ford and Polanski, and it’s no surprise that not only did she and the director work several more times after that, but they married about a year after FRANTIC was released.
She and Polanski made BITTER MOON and THE NINTH GATE (with Johnny Depp) in the 1990s, and they haven’t worked together since, but Seigner went on to do incredible work in LA VIE EN ROSE, Julian Schnabel’s THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, and François Ozon’s IN THE HOUSE. Her latest film, VENUS IN FUR, marks her reunion in film with her husband and marks a continuation with his fascination with filming works of the theater for the big screen (after CARNAGE).
VENUS IN FUR also re-teams Seigner with her DIVING BELL co-star Mathieu Amalric in a two-person story about a theater writer-director and an actress named Vanda, working their way through his sexually charged work for the stage. And it’s a fantastic bit of acting from both leads, but it’s Seigner’s performance that sneaks up on you and shatters your preconceived notions about both her character and Seigner’s range. It’s a great film about identity, power and domination, and it should be missed.
I had a chance recently to chat with Seigner via phone, and she was delightful and insightful about her work and process. Please enjoy my talk with Emmanuelle Seigner…
Capone: Hello, Emmanuelle. How are you?
Emmanuelle Seigner: Hello. I’m very well.
Capone: Are you in Paris right now?
ES: I’m in Paris, yes.
Capone: Well, thank you for doing this. I’m sure you’ve been told this many times, but this is a fantastic film.
ES: Thank you so much.
Capone: And without overstating it, I think this might be the best thing I’ve ever seen you do.
ES: Well, it’s actually the best role I’ve had, for sure.
Capone: Yeah, but in terms of performance, too. It’s so raw and energetic, a little rebellious, and I love seeing you embrace that.
ES: Thank you. Because you know, most of the time they have me do this beautiful, passive woman walking in movies, and that’s very boring.
Capone: I can believe that would get old after so many years, yeah. But at the same time, because of that history of you playing roles like that, it makes it perfect that you’re taking back your identity in this role. You’re reclaiming your womanhood.
ES: Well thank god, I had a good role. It was time [laughs].
Capone: Exactly. This story is about control in its many forms—who thinks they have it and who actually has it. Was it nice to see that role reversal in a film for a woman?
ES: Yeah, it’s great, because in most movies women are passive, prostitutes, or victims. So yeah, it was a lot of fun, and it’s just fun to do it, because I had to do so many characters. And the way she fucks with his mind, I think it’s really cool.
Capone: You’re right, it is more than one role.
ES: Yeah, it is many roles. Yeah, we don’t know if she’s this person or this person, because then suddenly she changes into this German woman, and then there’s a detective, and then the psychiatrist, and then a femme fatale. It’s pretty fun. It’s good. But since that role, I haven’t been doing any movies, because everything I’m offered seems pretty boring.
Capone: A return to what you were just talking about before.
ES: For the most part, yes.
Capone: Has taking on this role set a higher standard for you, making it more difficult or impossible to go back to some of the things you did before?
ES: Yeah, exactly. The thing is, I love acting, and I love my job, and I want to work, but I’m waiting now. It’s been a year and a half since we did that movie, so I’m waiting for a good role, and it’s not so easy, actually.
Capone: Yeah, well now that it’s coming out here, maybe people will see it and things will change.
ES: Maybe. I hope.
Capone: I know this play has been staged everywhere in the last couple of years, but the age of your character has had quite a range. Does Vanda’s age matter in the end?
ES: No, I think it doesn’t matter. I know that a lot of critics talk about the age, but I think it doesn’t really matter. I think you’re either the character or you’re not, and it’s not a question of age. Yeah, I can imagine that they changed the age, because it’s not so important. I think people today put too much importance about age. Age is only a number on a piece of paper. You have people at 80 years old that are so young, and people that are 20 that are so old.
Capone: Honestly, I think the age you are now and the age that Vanda’s supposed to be makes a big difference, because I think she does seem like someone who has experienced life, the good and the bad of it.
ES: Exactly. I don’t think she’s a little girl at all. If not, she wouldn’t understand all that about men, I think. But she’s a goddess anyways.
Capone: Yes, absolutely. There’s no taking that away from her. Mathieu is one of my absolute favorite actors in the world, and you were lucky enough to work with him more than once. What do you learn from working with him?
ES: It’s the second time I’ve worked with him, and I love working with him because first, he’s such a great actor. You know what he has? He swings. He has this sense of rhythm that is so rare, because most of the time it’s not like that. But with him, it’s like when you play tennis with the person that throws you the ball at the right moment. It’s exactly that feeling.
Capone: They often say about playing tennis that if you play against someone who’s better than you, you get better. Do you feel that way with him?
ES: Exactly. And I feel he makes me better, much better. He gave me so much.
Capone: People focused a lot on the fact that he looks like Roman Polanski a bit. Maybe not so much how he looks now, but how he looked in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
ES: Yeah, but that’s a total accident. I promise. I know that all the critics have talked about the fact that I’m his wife, and then Mathieu looks like him, so it must be autobiographical. But that’s all bullshit. There’s nothing to it. First we were looking for the right role for me to do for a long time, so we found this and we thought it was a great movie for him, and a great role for me, and something we could do in a reasonable budget, so it was perfect. And then Mathieu, we didn’t hire him for his physique; we hired him for his talent, because there were not so many actors in France that could do the role.
Capone: I believe that if you don’t want to work with Mathieu, something's wrong with you.
ES: Exactly. And he’s right for the role. He’s so right. So it’s a total accident, but I think it’s a nice accident.
Capone: I also remember that in DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, didn’t your son play him?
ES: Yeah, he played him as a child, because Julian thought Mathieu looked like Roman.
Capone: I know you said you had not seen the play before making this film, is that correct?
ES: No, I haven’t seen it. I read it in English, but I haven’t seen it.
Capone: In the play, you’re not always sure in the conversation what parts of the conversation are just them talking, and what parts are the text that they’re reading.
ES: Ah, you don’t see the difference?
Capone: No, it’s just one continuous blend of the two. But in the movie, it’s a different experience, because the subtitles are either in italics or they aren’t.
ES: Ah, okay. But in France, it had no subtitles.
Capone: Exactly, right. If you’re not reading subtitles, it’s probably more like watching the play. Maybe for movie audiences that’s not such a bad thing that people are a little more certain what they’re talking about, if they’re pulling from the play or if they’re just having a conversation.
ES: Yeah, but there’s a difference, because when I do the character of the play I have a different voice, I’m standing differently. So I think it’s clear.
Capone: That’s true. And if I wasn’t reading, it probably would be more clear.
ES: Yeah, it’s more clear. We really worked on that to make it very different.
Capone: Did you shoot this in sequence?
ES: Yeah, of course. We did it in sequence.
Capone: I don’t know how you could do it any other way.
ES: Yeah, it’s exactly the right material for that.
Capone: Before doing this, how much theater experience did you have?
ES: Well, I did three plays. I played a play 815 years ago, a German play, and then I played Hedda Gabler, and then actually when I was doing the movie, at the same time I was doing “Homecoming” by Pinter. So I’ve done three plays, and I love it. I love doing theater.
Capone: Did that have any impact on the way you performed this character?
ES: For sure, for sure. All the character work, when I play from the play, which is a bit more theatrical. Of course, it’s good to do a lot of theater I think for an actor.
Capone: This is a great discussion film. I think people will leave the theater maybe angry, maybe just thrilled, but definitely talking about the issues brought up in that. Was that one of the goals here?
ES: Yeah. it talks about a lot of things, important things. To me, it’s a big joke. It’s fun. I see it more of like a fun thing.
Capone: Do you see it as subversive?
ES: Subversive, no. I don’t think so. It’s feminist for sure.That’s great. We love that.
Capone: Watching the two of you just changing costumes and moving around the stage, it seems like a very physically demanding part.
ES: Yeah, it’s very demanding, but it’s fun. As I said, most of the time, I have nothing to do in movies, and I’m bored. So that was so much fun that I had to do all these characters, and it was great. I think it was one of the best moments of my life, doing that movie.
Capone: As a pure acting experience, did making this film make you a better actor?
ES: For sure. Sometimes when I think of it, I say, How did I do that? How did I learn those lines? How did I do all that? It’s weird sometimes, you do things, and then you think about it and you say, “Wow, that was a lot of work.” I think it’s good when you do something that you enjoy. Most of the people do something they don’t enjoy, so I’m very happy for that.
Capone: If you had told me that you shot this film in a week I would believe you, because there’s such a flow and energy and immediacy to it. How long was the shoot?
ES: The shoot was 27 days. Yeah, because I was going on the tour with the other play I was doing, and Mathieu was acting in the Wes Anderson movie [THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL], so he had to leave. We had only this amount of time, so we worked like crazy hours on Saturdays and Sundays, and then we shot it like boom.
It was great, because it felt like making a youth movie, like we were all making our first movie. There was a sense of urgency, you know? Sometimes when you have too much time, too much money, you relax too much, and it’s not creative. This was more like an emergency situation [laughs].
Capone: I’ve heard that Roman likes to do a lot of takes. Was hestill able to do that?
ES: Yeah, he does a lot of takes, when he needs it. Sometimes he only does two or three, and then when he needs it he does a lot.