The natural born fighter with a taste for Guinness

The French love Sophie Marceau, one of their most beautiful and outspoken actresses. And now Hollywood is finally waking up to her. One the eve of a swashbuckling international debut, she talks to Chris Peachment
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The Independent Culture
THERE is a short straw for journalists doing interviews and it is marked "young actress". The young actress interview can be a nightmare. They are fresh out of drama school, with little work to their credit. They are often not terribly bright, which is not at all their fault, since what is required of a young actress is intuition and feeling rather than academic learning. And they are worried about their future careers and so all they will ever say about their recent production was what a pleasure and a privilege it was to work with the director and everyone else. Not Sophie Marceau.

An interviewer in the French film magazine Premiere recently admitted to being intimidated by "sa beaute, son eclat, sa simplicite, et son energie". I'm not sure that I saw too much eclat, but I would go along with the rest of the sentiment. Beautiful she certainly is, though more striking than the sort of conventional cover-girl beauty which Hollywood seems to require of its ingenues these days.

She is tall, about 5ft 10ins. There doesn't seem to be a polite way of describing a woman of good size, because most readers take it to be a euphemism for fat. "Big-boned" is about the worst thing to accuse an actress of being. Perhaps "well-formed and athletic" is just, in Marceau's case. "Handsome" also springs to mind. She is very pregnant at the moment, and carries it magisterially.

On film the 28-year-old actress has enormous energy, which is evident when she speaks. She looks you straight in the eye and talks forcefully, simply, and with a degree of personal honesty which can be unnerving. And she certainly isn't worried about keeping potential employers sweet. After her work on the forthcoming French film D'Artagnan's Daughter, it seems unlikely that she will be working with director Bertrand Tavernier again. Their farewell at that film's finishing party was almost certainly an adieu rather than an au revoir.

Her parents now run a coffee shop in the Paris suburbs, although her father had worked previously as a truck driver, barman and painter. Her mother had sold clothes in a department store. Sophie was only 12 when she began modelling.

She has been working steadily in films for 15 years now, but you could be forgiven for not recognising her immediately. Her first film La Boum, when she was barely 13 in 1980, for Claude Pinoteau, was a tremendous hit worldwide with the sole exception of Britain and the US. Its success spawned a sequel in 1982, imaginatively titled La Boum 2. After an appearance in the Foreign Legion epic Fort Saganne, she took a leading role in Maurice Pialat's Police which was an art-house success in this country at least, although Pialat often stirs violent antipathy among his own countrymen. Marceau was playing a young criminal girl, a chronic liar with a suitcase full of dirty money, who comes under the eye of Gerard Depardieu, a flic in the drug squad. He falls for her and becomes deeply mired in her corruption. No one pushes their actors to such extremes of tension and conflict as Pialat, and she was more than a match for the mighty Depardieu, and carried a weight of conviction as a criminal which belied her years.

Since then it has been a steady stream of French films, which are the sort of daily fodder which French audiences still lap up in their native cinemas, but which hardly ever make it across the Channel, thanks to the vagaries of our distribution system. "You know the sort of thing," she says, "three people sitting in a cafe, falling madly in love with each other, and then rowing in public." She even turned down the role of Roxane opposite Depardieu in Cyrano de Bergerac, because the only role she wanted to play was that of Cyrano himself.

All of that is about to change. As Premiere noted, suddenly she is at a "carrefour" (crossroads) in her career. She will be appearing shortly as the roaring girl in D'Artagnan's Daughter who stirs the grouchy old musketeers out of retirement and leads them back into the fray to vanquish a plot against the king. She will then be seen in her first Hollywood film, Mel Gibson's Braveheart, playing the French wife of Edward II of England; not a happy woman if you remember his sexual tastes. And she has also recently finished filming Beyond The Clouds, which is directed by the 83-year-old Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni, and marks his first film for 15 years.

D'Artagnan's Daughter did not begin auspiciously. "I spent two months learning how to fence," she says, "because I did not want to be doubled." Bertrand Tavernier, currently France's leading director, was acting as producer for the project and had persuaded Riccardo Freda, an 85-year-old Italian who had directed swashbucklers in the late 1940s, to come out of retirement. The official reports say that illness forced him out of the shoot.

"He was very nice," says Marceau, "but I knew from the first assistant that he was very tired and could only work a couple of hours a day. I asked for some rehearsals and then discovered that he wasn't even watching, he was upstairs somewhere. So I talked to the director of photography and the assistant and said, 'Hey, wake up. If we have to stop the film after a few days that's going to be very dangerous and cost a lot of money. So we have to do something, and we have to do it now.' There was a big explosion. The only person who could replace Freda was Tavernier himself, so that is what happened."

The ruction shows up in the finished film. There are moments of great elan, the early atmosphere is very eerie, and the sword fights are well up to the mark. There is also much mocking humour from each of the musketeers, something which Dick Lester introduced in his two Musketeer films of 20- odd years ago. These things constitute great moments, and indeed make the romp well worth watching, but the film overall is a thing of fits and starts.

"I think the film is a little bit of an orphan," the actress says, "with no real parentage. Tavernier is very good, but it is not really the sort of film that he directs. He is more interested in psychology than action. I think the film could be quicker and funnier. We lost maybe 30 per cent of the film because of that. For me that is frustrating. My part lost some of its energy and youth, even its existence."

It strikes me that "30 per cent", and the remark about the "orphan" are both spot-on. The lady knows what she's talking about and is obviously not afraid to speak her mind. She has since made it up with Riccardo Freda, but not, apparently, with Tavernier. This is a shame. He has an eye for strong young women, and could use her fruitfully in the future.

Still, she enjoyed the fencing. "I like sport. But the great thing is that sword-fighting is more than a sport. You are fighting to defend yourself and to kill. It beats jogging." And it beats sitting around in cafes, falling in love.

Mel Gibson's Braveheart was filmed in Co Wicklow, Ireland, after a cunning Irish Films Minister hot-footed it over to Scotland and persuaded Gibson to change location by dangling big tax concessions under his nose. Marceau plays Princess Isabelle, daughter of Philip IV of France and wife to Edward, son of Edward I of England. "She is tall and cultivated and smart, but she has been raised in the court and so knows nothing of life. It's a good part because in the film she grows up and learns to make her own opinions." Something which Sophie Marceau knows all about. She also acquired a taste for Guinness, an improbable thing in a Frenchwoman.

The King uses her as a messenger to William Wallace, but betrays her by sending an army to follow her and trap the upstart. Patrick McGoohan plays the wicked King. "The film is an epic, with battles and action, but it retains a human soul. OK, it's about an uprising, but it's still about a boy, a girl and their family.'' Though not sitting around in cafes presumably.

And she has recently finished shooting the first story of Beyond The Clouds, a collection of four short stories by Antonioni. He is also an Italian who is well into his eighties, though one with whom she found a better rapport than with Freda. In spite of his confinement to a wheelchair and some difficulty in speaking, she talks with great excitement about working with him. "It is very difficult to describe what it is about," she says (a problem that often faces reviewers of Antonioni's films).

"The story is abstract, like the wind, with no particular meaning. I am a girl who works in a store in Portofino, and one day I meet John Malkovitch and we talk and decide to have an affair. But first she must confide a dark secret to him. I cannot tell you what that is, or it will spoil the story. But that's all there is to it. I was very nervous because I had nothing to work on. I had, as we say in French, my arse between two chairs." I point out that in English we sometimes say "falling between two stools". "Ah, so polite," she replies.

"Then something miraculous happened. Suddenly Antonioni and I understood each other perfectly, just through the eyes. He would look at me, and murmur "piu, piu, piu'' (more, more, more), and I would know exactly what he required. He is 82 or 83, but he is very, very alive. I love him."

He may be very alive, but the insurance company was taking no risks, and so the German director Wim Wenders volunteered to stand by on the set in case of illness or worse. "But there was nothing for him to do, so he cleverly made himself the set still photographer. He may shoot one of the stories himself. He told me that whenever he made a film he always had only two directors at the back of his mind. The Japanese Ozu, and Antonioni."

Marceau is so forthright a woman, so clear- minded and with a vision of things that seems so whole and rounded, that I suggest the next logical step might be to direct her own film. And it turns out that she has already done so. Using Antonioni's producer, she shot her own nine-minute short film about a man, a woman and an accident, which moves between Venice and Berlin. Will she now move on to bigger things?

"Oh, yes," she says, proudly smoothing her pregnant belly, her first child by her husband, Polish film director Andrej Zulawski, "this is my next production. It is a boy. We have named him, but I will not tell you the name now. I am very superstitious." And after that?

"I will be slim again, and people will want me in their films," says Marceau boldly. In a world of change and uncertainty, that is one of the few things I would lay good money on.

! 'D'Artagnan's Daughter' opens in London on Friday, and nationwide on July 14.