On September 26, at the New York Film Festival, a group of demonstrators gathered in front of Alice Tully Hall, where Paul Verhoeven’s latest film, Benedetta, was set to premiere. Later identified as members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, a Catholic organization, the protesters were photographed brandishing signs denouncing “the blasphemous lesbian movie Benedetta,” which the NYFF Twitter account promptly reposted.
“To be honest, when I saw the pictures I almost thought it was a set-up,” laughs Virginie Efira, the 44-year-old French-Belgian actress who plays the titular role of Benedetta Carlini, a 17th-century nun who becomes entangled in a lesbian love affair.
The film, which will be given a wide theatrical release in the United States on December 3, is loosely based on Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, a book by Judith C. Brown considered to be one of the first records of homosexuality in that time. The story is set in Tuscany, Italy, where Benedetta, a passionate young nun, claims to see visions of Jesus, a gift which considerably elevates her status at the convent. While some believe her to be a true mystic, others, including the Mother Superior (Charlotte Rampling) and the Papal Nuncio (Lambert Wilson), are quite skeptical. Benedetta’s affair with beautiful young Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), marks the end of her reign at the convent: both are arrested and judged for sapphism, a crime punishable by death.
The movie marks a clear turn in Efira’s filmography. A household name in France, where she started her career hosting the French version of American Idol, the actress, who was born in Brussels, Belgium, is mostly known for her lead roles in easy-to-watch French romantic comedies. Her blend of sexy-meets-down-to-earth—she is as stunning in real life as on screen, with a tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating humor that adds to her easy-going charm—makes for particularly fun watching, and she’s not one to turn down challenging roles, whether that be a lawyer in the middle of a nervous breakdown in Justine Triet’s Victoria or the wife of an abuser in Catherine Corsini’s Un Amour Impossible.
“The first thing Paul told me, before he even revealed what the film was about, was that there would be a lot of sex scenes,” Efira remembers while sipping a glass of red wine in her Parisian flat. “I said, ‘Okay, no problem.’ He then said the sex would be with girls. I say, ‘Okay, no problem.’”
While Efira is no stranger to sex scenes, Benedetta is a step above from her former projects: a far cry from the voyeuristic feel of other girl-on-girl action in French cinema, the focus is on female pleasure, with the help of an unexpected prop that becomes a key element in the plot (we won’t spoil).
“I am not bothered by sex scenes as long as they are not merely illustrative,” Efira says. “They are scenes where things happen, and where there is meaning behind every gesture.”
The fact that she fully trusted Verhoeven, who had already cast her as the wife of a rapist in his 2016 drama Elle, was a bonus. “I’m a huge fan of his work,” the actress says. “What fascinates me is his way of both accepting a system and twisting it from the inside. He’s 100% part of Hollywood, but is still incredibly transgressive.”
She finds Verhoeven’s female characters particularly inspiring. “At 20 years old, I hadn’t read Simone de Beauvoir, but I had seen Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct,” Efira explains. “I’m captivated by the way Paul portrays women: in his films, the women don’t leave the subject of sex to men, it also belongs to them. They have a great awareness of their own body and use it to exert their own freedom. In no way are they sexual objects: they are above all individuals who have their own thoughts, desires, beliefs. Sex doesn’t define them. It’s just a part of their life.”
Benedetta’s character evolution is fascinating to watch. While her visions are particularly entertaining—she believes she is the wife of Jesus and pictures their union like a teenager would imagine hers with a pop star—her sincerity is the underlying question of the film. “I was so hyped when I first read the script,” Efira says. “It was insane. The main character is completely fragmented and difficult to identify with, which I found super, super exciting.”
Benedetta’s ambiguity also keeps the viewers on their toes. After some of her visions, the young nun wakes up to stigmata, the very same wounds that Jesus endured during his crucifixion. They typically appear on the stigmatic's hands, feet, side and hairline, the latter resulting from a crown of thorns. After one of these occurrences, it is pointed out that Benedetta is missing the hairline wound… which miraculously appears moments later.
“Personally, I deeply believe in her faith,” says Efira. “It’s clear that she doesn’t face life alone, that she has something bigger that guides her and gives her incredible strength. It might not be the right interpretation of the story, but that’s what I believed in while filming.”
“If you read the book, it’s clear that Benedetta Carlini suffered from schizophrenia. But we chose not to see the character that way. Above all, I believe Benedetta is a true actress. She takes on a different voice, she shows different faces… There is almost something perverse about her. She’s also a political leader, a guru, with everything that comes with suddenly gaining power. For example, wanting to silence any naysayers. She’s not only a good girl who has God.”
The actress chuckles suddenly. “I always felt like I gave the impression of being pretty balanced, but clearly I’m wrong given all the roles I’ve been cast in recently,” she says, adding that she plays a woman battling mental instability in her next film, the adaptation of Olivier Bourdeaut’s novel Waiting for Bojangles, opposite French actor Romain Duris. “I guess you can never see yourself the way you really are.”
Verhoeven clearly picked up on Efira’s capacity for nuance, giving her free reign to shape her character in the film. The only thing they struggled with was how to manipulate Benedetta’s voice when she claims to be possessed by Jesus: “At first they gave me a male voice, but that didn’t really work,” Efira says. “They ended up distorting my own voice, taking the high notes out of it. I think Paul did something similar on Robocop. My personal opinion is that they made me sound like Cher.”
Touches of humor pepper the entire film, giving it an aura of grotesqueness. Benedetta and Bartolomea’s first kiss happens right after they’ve used the communal toilets next to each other, not leaving much to the imagination. The Papal Nuncio knocks up one of his maids, who, while serving him food, whips out a breast to demonstrate that she is lactating. As Benedetta and her family arrive at the convent, they pass a troubadour amusing local children by setting fire to his own farts.
“Paul specializes in irony,” says Efira of Verhoeven. “He has a cheeky eye. For this film, he drew inspiration from Flemish Primitive paintings, especially Brueghel’s work. But what interests him is always the guy taking a leak in the background of the painting.”
It was clearly a good match for Efira, who was up for the challenge. “Because I had such a long career in television hosting live shows, the first acting projects that came my way were all comedies,” she muses. “Which was normal, and I wasn’t in any position to complain. My question was: what do I do with them? How do I turn them into something I can identify with? I looked at Drew Barrymore for example, who has been in so many movies that I love. So I thought, maybe my position isn’t a bad one to be in after all.”
Her next project, directed by Proxima’s Alice Winocour, is a radical change of scene. In Revoir Paris, Efira will play Mia, a woman caught in a terrorist bombing in Paris who struggles to piece her life back together. The tone of the film is far from that of Benedetta, but it resonates with the actress on a personal level: Efira lives near the area of the real-life terrorist attack that occured in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015. One has to wonder how she managed to not become overwhelmed with emotions.
“You do get affected,” she shrugs. “It has not been easy. I listened to many, many interviews with real-life survivors to prepare for the role. But even if you’re acting those emotions on camera, you still can’t say you understand what they’ve been through. No one can really understand.”
To lift her spirits after a hard day’s work, Efira focuses on the things that bring her pleasure: raising her 8-year-old daughter, Ali, and spending time with friends. “For me, the real pleasure is having time,” she concludes. “Time to listen, to see people, to read, to drink wine.” She gestures to the glass in front of her. “I like simple things, really.”
This interview was conducted in French and translated into English.