Since her breakout in Francois Ozon’s 2003 Swimming Pool, in which her feisty, bikini-clad Julie was a beguiling foil to Charlotte Rampling’s buttoned up Sarah, Ludivine Sagnier has earned admiration for her provocative, sensual performances in a host of independent French films. So the actress, 32, was both surprised and pleased when she read the script for Love Crime, opening September 2, and discovered she was being cast as the capable but dowdy Isabelle.
“You know how it works with actors, sometimes you get this tag on you like ‘Okay, she’s been naked in swimming pools so she has to be the sex kitten for the rest of her life. She has to be the bimbo forever,’” says Sagnier. “I was glad to be the ugly one.”
Sagnier as Isabelle
Ugly might be stretching it, but as Isabelle, a socially inept, fashionably-clueless executive assistant, Sagnier convincingly trades in racy lingerie and bedroom hair for ill-fitting button downs and stringy chignons. The perfect coifs and stylings are left to Christine, Isabelle’s ambitious, egomaniacal boss, played with a gleaming smile by Kristin Scott Thomas in this cat and mouse—and then mouse and cat—thriller.
Yet despite her appearance (“Usually I keep the clothes [from films], but these I didn’t take,” quips Sagnier), Isabelle is young and smart, a threat to Christine, whose every move she worships until the latter takes advantage of her efforts, pushing her to actions with irreparable consequences.
“Even at the beginning, I think she’s very unbalanced and when the humiliation hits her, it’s too strong, it’s a feeling she can’t cope with,” muses Sagnier of her character. “The director, Alain Corneau, was really precise about this point that humiliation could lead someone to a murder because that’s one of the biggest traumas you can have.”
Fortunately, no such competition existed in real life: the younger actress’ initial concerns that the formidable Scott Thomas might prove intimidating were quickly displaced (“She’s like a little girl playing dolls,” she remarks). And while expressing an understanding of Isabelle’s psyche and the allure of the mentor-mentee relationship, Sagnier, who has acted opposite such greats as Isabelle Huppert and Catherine Deneuve, is too well-equipped to fall prey to even tamer versions of such scenarios.
“If I had someone who was starting to harass me and set up a really toxic relationship, I would see it coming and beware and protect myself much earlier than she does,” she says. “Isabelle just gives herself away like Little Red Riding Hood—straight in the wolf’s mouth.”
Sagnier’s own path into acting was much more measured. The daughter of an English teacher father, raised in the town of La Celle-Saint-Cloud in northern-central France, she began studying theater at an early age as an escape from classical music, the preferred profession of her father’s family. She made her first film, Les maris, les femmes, les amants, when she was eight years old.
“I wasn’t like what you call a child actor in the US. I wasn’t famous. I would shoot a few movies here and there…and went to school just like a regular schoolgirl,” says Sagnier, adding, “It was almost like a failure, to be an actress was not much of a value in the beginning.”
When she was nineteen and began landing plum leading roles, like in Ozon’s Water Drops on Burning Rocks, her childhood endeavors naturally segued into an adult career.
Now a mother of two daughters, ages six and two and a half, Sagnier is quite in demand. She can currently be seen as Uday Hussein’s mistress in The Devil’s Double and will soon appear in Les bien-aimés, as a Roger Vivier shoe clerk turned prostitute, whose older counterpart is played by Deneuve. If anything, her children have helped keep her grounded in the face of such a challenging industry.
“A journalist once told me when you’ll be on your deathbed, it’s not the movies that’s gonna hold your hand,” she says. “So I guess it’s my statement now.”
Photo: Courtesy of IFC Films