Film: Stuck on the road to Rouen

Sophie Marceau has little good to say about any of the directors she's worked with. Doesn't think much of Michelle Pfeiffer, either. As for her homeland, well, don't ask. Still, she has her reasons...
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The Independent Culture
Sophie Marceau is always shooting her mouth off. If it's not calling legendary French icons such as Eric Rohmer "boring", the actress who most famously played the fabulously beautiful princess in Braveheart is joining Brigitte Bardot in animal rights protests or upsetting President Mitterrand on his goodwill tour of Korea by heaping Gallic working-class scorn on his pet project, the Louvre's glass pyramid.

She can't even live in the French countryside any more, after being hounded out by the pigeon-shooting enthusiasts in Seine-et-Marne. She now resides outside Warsaw with her young son and her partner of 14 years, the director Andrzej Zulawski.

Briefly in London to do some promotion for the Vera Belmont film Marquise - in which she plays an ambitious, sexually aggressive courtesan and actress who makes it all the way to the court in 18th-century Versailles - Marceau is also doing unspoken penance for her most famous habit of slagging off most of the directors she's ever worked for.

The French loved it when there were rumours of a full-on cat fight between the female director and her leading star, and did everything to stoke it up, despite weak protestations from Marceau herself.

But it's really no good. She can't keep quiet. "There was a problem with the script," she pronounces within minutes of meeting, with her purple-slippered feet tucked up beneath her and a good deal of nervous smoking going on. "It wasn't easy working with a female director," she adds, after dragging the armchair to the open window and puffing her Gitane out of the room."Making the film was very hard and I didn't much savour it."

It's rather endearing, this unwillingness to do the requisite PR and the expected Hail Mary obsequies for her many transgressions against directors in general. Then she seems to collect herself. Perhaps she's a little stir-crazy after weeks in the Los Angeles sun, filming a light comedy she hopes may be her breakthrough film. "I've been in trouble a lot because I complained about the last few films I did," she suddenly recollects, then clams up.

Now there are only kind words about Mel Gibson's directorial debut in Braveheart (though she does manage to observe, "every scene is Mel, Mel, Mel!"). She unwisely thinks that "all actors are able to direct" - a common conceit among her kind. In fact, the long hours spent hanging around for her scenes were spent writing an eight-minute short, l'Aube a l'Envers, which she directed herself in 1995. "I was very surprised, when I made my film. I had absorbed so much technically in 20 years," she reveals. It hasn't necessarily been absorbed from the best. Most of her films have been directed by jobbing French directors, little-known outside their country.

The acting debut of Sophie Mapuis (her real name) came when she was just 13, the daughter of a truck driver from the Gentilly suburbs of Paris. Claude Pinoteau's Los Angeles Boum (1980) saw her catapulted into the French consciousness as a lippy teen - and she's gone on to make 20 films since then (with two currently in post-production), three of them with her partner Zulawski. In 1985, when she was only 16, she began dating Zulawski, prior to appearing in his vaguely cheesy l'Amour Braque. Zulawski is her senior by 24 years. It was something of a scandal at the time, with the wise old men at the Gaumont studio insisting that their racy young protege had nothing to to with the Pole. She responded by borrowing a million francs to buy herself out of the Gaumont contract. It now seems there was another reason for her row with Gaumont: they refused to finance her pet project, a Joan of Arc film.

"The subject is very, very painful for me," she says. "I was desperate to make the project." Zulawski wrote the script and was to direct his lover in the lead role, a configuration that has haunted many Joan of Arc films over the years.

Ingrid Bergman was also obsessed with the life of La Pucelle and allowed herself to be directed twice in the role - once by her lover Victor Fleming and a few years later with her then husband Roberto Rossellini. One of Russia's great screen actresses, Inna Churikova, has also played the Maid of Orleans, with her husband Gleb Panfilov directing her, in 1970. Now, of course, Luc Besson is directing his wife (woefully miscast, it can be said in advance) Milla Jovovich in a $60m version, currently being shot in the Czech Republic.

Sophie is not pleased about it. Not pleased at all. It seems that Besson's Gaumont producer Patrice Ledoux was exactly the producer who turned her down 15 years ago. "The script I wrote was very faithful to the truth," she protests angrily. "Three quarters of the French jury who condemned Joan of Arc were French Catholic, not English at all. Then I realised [Ledoux] is from an ultra-Catholic background. He was the last person I should have asked."

Hence much of her antipathy to the French film industry, which she attacks with more consistency than anything else, raging that it is full of art- house bores who "don't have any new ideas".

She may have become a great success over the past two decades but clearly the Joan of Arc snub is a wound that festers even now. "I will regret it always," she says, almost with a hiss. "Why, they never thought about doing Joan of Arc with me! That's sometimes why I'm a little bit mad with them."

Somehow it's her lot to still be beholden to the French film industry for her work, though more recently she has branched out to do Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds (1994) ("not a good film") and Shadowlands writer William Nicholson's lacklustre directorial debut Firelight (1995). She's published a novel, has done a little theatre and by all accounts paints - and sings on thankfully obscure French pop records. But what will Sophie do next? This most French of French actresses seems hell-bent on escaping the clutches of her native culture, for whatever reason. She says France is "dying". "What I suffer from in France is that everything has been said and done," she pouts.

She is unapologetic about her confrontational style, honed from a childhood spent hanging out with Communist youth in the grim Paris suburbs, which has made her loathe the French bourgeoisie with a wonderfully old-fashioned hatred. "Sometimes I regret I didn't say more," she bounces back, when I talk about her clangers.

She's just finished playing Hippolyta in an Italian production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose all-star cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer and Christian Bale. She's already got into trouble by calling Pfeiffer "boring". But she doesn't care.

"I loved doing Shakespeare," she confides in me before I leave. "I've always wanted to play Hamlet, not Ophelia."

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