By Helen Barlow

Cecile de France is one of the biggest stars in France. Yet what sets her apart is that she is actually Belgian, which may explain why she is so down to earth and speaks English well.

Following her breakthrough into French cinema with 2001’s The Art of Seduction, I first met the actress for Cedric Klapisch’s 2002 hit The Spanish Apartment where she played a lesbian character, little-seen at that time in cinema, especially in France. She continued with the character in the director’s sequels Russian Dolls and Chinese Puzzle and was also a stand-out in the pilot of the hilarious Call My Agent!, a binge-worthy comedy series Klapisch partially produced and directed, which is now on Netflix.

I sat down for an interview with the stunning 44 year old actress at the Venice Film Festival where she had two projects, Fabienne Berthaud’s feature A Bigger World and Paolo Sorrentino’s series The New Pope, a follow-up to The Young Pope in which she appears as the Vatican publicist. The characters couldn’t be more different, De France admits.

“When you are an actress in cinema you can cross over into so many universes. I don’t want to restrict myself to one style or one type of character. In A Better World, I play a fragile woman who grows with her experiences in Asia, while in Paolo’s series I play a woman of power who leads her life with determination in a very male universe that is capitalistic and very western.”

De France has much more to do in The New Pope and her Sofia character appears prominently in the trailer in a bikini as Jude Law’s Pius XIII struts his stuff in speedos. She has sexual scenes too, including a raunchy encounter with her husband over a mobile phone – a rarity on screen, especially in the way it is shot.

“I love Paolo because he loves theatricality,” she says. “He has a very baroque style which is different to the French spirit. He’s very Italian and is very unique. He composes his images very carefully and has fascinating choreography. When you accept to work with him you know you have to do a bit of nudity, even complete nudity, but he’s like a painter in the way he uses nudity, like models in paintings.”

Ultimately, when Sofia discovers her husband is not who she thinks he is, she forms a close bond with the new pope, John Paul III played by John Malkovich. (De France only has a few scenes this season with Jude Law.)

“Sofia brings enthusiasm and optimism to the new pope who is suffering secretly, and his loneliness is deep and painful,” De France explains. “A lot of Paolo’s characters are very dark. They have a lot of pain and are suffering after difficult childhoods. He needed a balance, a character in a good mood. So, I think Sofia’s enthusiasm makes the people in the Vatican feel better. Of course, she admires the new pope a lot. He’s a fragile, seductive man and something will happen between them,” she notes with a cryptic smile. “She brings a ray of sunshine amid that nest of snakes. My hair is bright, my costumes too and Paolo pays tribute to the power of women.”

Is Sofia a seducer?

“It’s a package. She’s a representation of the modern free woman,” De France replies. “She’s very brave and yes, she’s seductive. She has all the weapons to find her position in this patriarchal realm. It was very interesting to be a woman of power, who is so different from myself.”

Malkovich of course has a quiet soft-spoken power of his own. “He speaks perfect French and helped me a lot with my English,” she says. “Like Jude he is very professional and very nice, and they are never nervous or impatient. Working with them was a lesson in professionalism. I’m learning with each English-language project. When you work with John, his look is incredible. I’d pinch myself to think I was acting with the man from Dangerous Liaisons. He had that same intensity in his eyes.”

In A Bigger World, De France plays Corine, a woman who, following the death of her husband, travels to Mongolia and experiences a kind of spiritual enlightenment.

“Corine wants to connect with the soul of her late husband and it’s up to her to find her way, to keep her feet on the ground,” De France explains. “The film doesn’t talk of religion; it’s more an exploration for us to be in harmony with nature. It shows how there’s also an invisible world that we can’t perceive with our eyes and ears.”

The Mongolian shoot was very isolated. “It took three days to get there by car and there was no telephone, no internet, no running water or electricity. It was very wild. It was in the north of Mongolia near the Siberian border and Fabienne wanted to discover the local people and how they live with nature and to explore the Shamanic rituals. It was a very enriching exploration.”

De France also has a small role in Wes Anderson’s upcoming comedy drama The French Dispatch, about a fictitious publication established by American correspondents in Paris after World War Two.

“I’m in two scenes so it’s a very short cameo,” she says. “I speak English even if my character is French. She perhaps says a few words in French. It takes place in Paris around the revolution of 1968 and in other periods of history.”

As to whether she might work again with Klapisch, she is unsure. Though looking back, I ask the mother of two who is happily married to musician Guillaume Siron, regarding her groundbreaking lesbian role.

“I’ve now played a lesbian five or six times and I always thought why not? Since the first time there’s been a big evolution, the change has been extraordinary. No one says anything. Finally, homosexual people can have their love stories told like heterosexuals in movies, and that’s a great thing.”

Double episodes of The New Pope will drop weekly on SBS On Demand from Thursday 16 January. A Bigger World and The French Dispatch will be out in 2020.


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