Anne Parillaud: La femme Nikita is shooting sex

Anne Parillaud made her name as the assassin in Luc Besson's Nikita. Now she's calling the shots in Catherine Breillat's film, Sex is Comedy, playing a director determined to coax sexually explicit performances from her young cast. Fiona Morrow meets a woman who'll do anything for art
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The Independent Culture

The first time I see Anne Parillaud in the flesh, she is dressed in a pale, slinky evening dress which clings to her frame, emphasising her protruding hip bones and skinny arms. It's the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, and the French actress is on stage as part of the cast and crew of Catherine Breillat's new film Sex is Comedy.

"Maybe she should eat something occasionally," the man next to me whispers.

Many months later, on a freezing January day in Paris, she's still impossibly thin, despite layers of clothes which include both frills and fluffy bits. At 43, there's something vaguely disturbing about her gamine body topped with a woman's head. She's unquestionably pretty and favours a smudgy, shimmery make up which emphasises her doe eyes. But there's something unreal about her, something slightly frozen: though it's more than a decade since she slunk sexily across the screen as Luc Besson's super-assassin, Parillaud doesn't appear to have aged at all. It's as though she remains suspended in time along with her best-known character, Nikita.

It is surprising, therefore, that Catherine Breillat, France's infamous director of highly charged movies exploring sexuality - Romance; A Ma Soeur - should have picked Parillaud for Sex is Comedy. A philosophical doodle on the relationship between a director and her actors, Breillat's latest movie takes a controversial scene from A Ma Soeur in which the teenage Elena (Roxanne Mesquida) is unceremoniously deflowered, and uses it to look at how a director can inspire a decent performance from recalcitrant leads.

This is a particularly raw subject for Breillat - Caroline Ducey, the young star of Romance, accused the director of exploiting her during the filming of explicit sex scenes. So far so lifelike, but in casting Parillaud to play the fictional director, Breillat seems to have swerved from the verité path. It's not just that Parillaud is physically at odds with the short, solid, fifty-something Breillat, but that the two women's personalities appear so different. Where Breillat is pointed, aggressive and demanding, Parillaud is vague, gentle and flirtatious. One can't help wondering whether Breillat just had a lot of faith in Parillaud's acting, or if she fancied herself a little softer on screen and vanity prevailed.

Parillaud, bless her, is so earnest she doesn't so much dodge my question as completely miss its point: "When I am entered by a character, I don't have a point of view on her," she smiles. "She's in me, I'm in her - and we're going through her story, because this is not my story. In Sex is Comedy she is a director... so I'm following that person that is in me and I become her, and wherever she takes me, I will go."

As I worry that we're suffering something of a language gap, Parillaud continues, breathily: "Therefore I don't have the distance or the objectivity on the part to be able to say: 'This is schizophrenic, this is difficult, this is an actress playing a director.' These things don't enter my head, because this is not what I feel. I don't feel like an actress doing parts one after another, I feel that I am one of a few who have the privilege to be in the skin of others and it is that feeling that makes me live."

Ah, the French. I can see my questions will have to become very direct if I am to stand a chance of penetrating such typically Gallic intellectual fuggery.

So, I ask, was she at all surprised to be approached by Breillat? Parillaud's already huge eyes widen and she gives a little shiver: "Oh yes," she exclaims. "And I was very worried because I really wanted to work with her, but at the same time I didn't want to have to deal with the questions a film about sex would involve - whether, if I was asked to be nude, or to be involved in very raw scenes, I would do it. I didn't want to ask myself the question."

A little frown crosses her forehead when I ask whether her concern had anything to do with Caroline Ducey's experience: "I know the story, but I don't know the whole story," she says slowly, "and when you are not on the set you cannot talk about what happened and have a judgement about it."

"But," she adds quickly, "knowing Catherine now, and knowing how she is with actors and what she asks of them, I think that definitely, if you don't give her what she has a right to expect, she's ready to do anything. Anything is possible on her set."

Parillaud reminds me of a scene in Sex is Comedy in which the young actress - having known that the part called for nudity and simulated sex - begins to balk at what is required of her. "It may be," Parillaud suggests, "that in that scene in Romance where the actress said she was being abused, it was the same situation. An actress sees a script and says 'yes, yes, yes', but when she gets the part, she suddenly realises she didn't completely understand what was expected. Or her subconscious says 'yes' and then her conscious says 'stop'.

"I think in that situation Catherine is prepared to say, 'You owe me that, you said yes to the part'. And I think if the actress is not maybe - and all this is maybe - is not maybe capable of giving truth through that sex scene and Catherine could see that the actress was faking, she might have said, 'Do it for real'. Who knows?"

Parillaud delivers this with a nonchalance that surprises me. Does she think, therefore, that a director would be right to suggest such a thing? "I'm not saying that she's completely right, but neither is she completely wrong," she proffers. "What matters to her is her movie, she is married to that. I'm sure she never said to the actress, 'You're going to have sexual intercourse with the actor'. She's not going to insist on it, but when she looks on her screen, she wants to believe it, one way or the other. We don't know if Caroline really did do it, even the director doesn't know - but Catherine doesn't care."

In Sex is Comedy, Breillat depicts actors largely as obstacles to be overcome by the director: extracting a performance requires more than just their egos nurtured, it takes seduction. Parillaud admits that she sides with her director.

"When I read the script," she recalls with a faraway look in her eyes, "I loved it because I thought, 'Wow. For once here is somebody who says loudly what I feel, what I think and what others think and don't say'. It was saying things about the times I have had conflicts with actors - which have been many - so I know what she is talking about. Actors that want to control, actors who are there for themselves, not for the part - actors who only exist themselves, not the role. Actors whose relationship with the work is completely masturbatory.

"So I was very close to Catherine," she adds, eyes snapping back to the present. "Catherine is somebody that I really like: her demands are absolute, her obsessiveness - she's a survivor. She's incapable of living a mundane life."

In fact, Parillaud feels that, like Nikita, Sex is Comedy is an important marker in her career: "These are key movies for me because they suddenly bring me to the next step," she explains. "With Besson on Nikita I discovered the abandonment to a character, how to melt in her."

Though her relationship with Besson was also personal - they had a child together - it is of Breillat that Parillaud says in hushed tones: "With Catherine I discovered the abandonment to a director."

"A director needs you and a character needs you and it's such a great feeling to give yourself to them, it's liberating. And now I want parts that allow me to abandon myself to both." And if that included a Breillat movie requiring explicit sex? "If the part did completely take me, then I think that I could. I don't think I would have limits or doubts." Suddenly there is a touch of steel in those big blue eyes.

"Honestly," she repeats emphatically, "I really think I could do it."

'Sex is Comedy' is released 25th July