Hot tickets were somewhat thin on the ground at this year's London Film Festival, emerging stars few and far between. Eva Green, the actress at the centre of Bernardo Bertolucci's new film, The Dreamers, is one of the exceptions.
When we meet, she's sitting in a hotel room overlooking Hyde Park, smoking her umpteenth cigarette. The 22-year-old was recently described by Bernardo Bertolucci as, "so beautiful, it's indecent." With her full mouth, perfect teeth and lustrous dark hair, she looks as chic and glamorous as any self-respecting French actress ought, but the dentist's daughter from Paris is clearly uncomfortable with her new-found status as cinema's latest sex symbol. Trained as a stage actress, (she studied briefly at the Webber Douglas school in London which no doubt explains her perfect English), she admits that she is finding the whole experience, "very scary."
In Bertolucci's film, set against the backdrop of the 1968 student riots in Paris, she plays Isabelle, a precocious and flirtatious cinephile. Together with her brother Theo (Louis Garrel), she ensares a young American, Matthew (Michael Pitt) whom she meets at the cinematheque. Their parents are away on holiday. As the students riot on the streets, the three create their own magical, self-enclosed world in the parents' apartment - a world in which the only points of reference are movies and sex.
Neither Green's mother (the actress Marlene Jobert) nor her agent were at all keen for Green to make the film. The agent had represented Beatrice Dalle at the time of Betty Blue. "[Dalle] was naked in the movie. It was her very first movie and afterward she was really, really depressed," Green recalls. Then, there was the cautionary tale of Maria Schneider, the 21-year-old unknown actress cast by Bertolucci in Last Tango In Paris who'd reportedly been "broken" by her experiences on the film. "I am very sensitive, a very reserved person and very shy, and this was my very first movie and Bernardo had this reputation for being ..." she pauses, "not Hitler, but quite tough with the actors."
Defying her mother and her agent, Green took the role. Thankfully, Green found that Bertolucci was not quite the ogre he had the reputation for being but rather was the opposite. "He was very sweet, a little Buddha. He's very wise. He can see through you. He can detect your weak spots," she says, likening him to "a shrink."
Green's mother - perhaps surprisingly, since she was part of the New Wave and had appeared in Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin Féminin - did not know Bertolucci. Jobert (who now writes children's books) had put her career on hold when her children were born. She tried to discourage Eva from entering the business, telling her that she was too vulnerable and insecure, and that acting was a brutal profession. Even after she got into drama school, Green didn't admit to her mother that she wanted to be an actress and kept up the pretence instead that her real interest was directing. "But for me, acting is like a therapy. I can express myself fully when I am acting and have blood in my veins. Even when I'm not working, I'm always living in my own world, imagining characters."
In The Dreamers, there is a wry, comic scene in which the parents return from their holidays in Deauville to discover the three young lovers, naked, asleep on the bed with their limbs coiled around each other, and looking like babes in the wood. Rather than rage about the havoc the trio have wreaked on the apartment, the parents leave them in peace. They even write out a cheque so that the kids can buy groceries.
Green doubts that her own mother and father will react with quite such equanimity to the film [they were due to see it this week, in Paris]. "I think they are going to be shocked because I am naked. They're going to see me as a woman. I'm very different [from the role which I play]. I'm quite shy but Isabelle is very provocative, tough, and with a sharp tongue." The screenwriter Gilbert Adair encouraged her to watch as many Bette Davis films as she could in preparation for playing a femme fatale like Isabelle. "That was good homework."
As a former actress herself, Green's mother was a hard taskmaster. Eva recounts that when she was appearing on stage, Jobert came to watch the play "about 20 times" and sent her endless notes about her performance. Neither Jobert nor Green's Swedish dentist father talk much about the Sixties. "Maybe they were ashamed of this period," she speculates. "They weren't really involved. When I ask them questions [about the era], they answer in a very general way that there was a need for truth, a need for primal behaviour. People [then] had ideals and dreams but they didn't really go all the way." Still, she admits, she gets exasperated by all the friends of her parents who reminisce endlessly about how the late 60s were the best years of their lives. She hasn't watched her mother's best-known movies from the era - not even Godard's Masculin Féminin.
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Green's own film career began in a less than propitious fashion when she auditioned for a role in Roman Coppola's ill-fated Barbarella-style fantasy, CQ. "I was in a leather outfit with a blonde wig and I was jumping everywhere with a gun. I've never felt so ridiculous. I was terrible, I wasn't picked," she confides through a fog of smoke.
Much to her surprise, the same casting director who had rejected her then called her back a year later to do a reading for the Bertolucci film. She was asked about politics, literature, and, more germanely, "whether I'd get naked for a film." She did readings with Louis Garrel, met Bertolucci, and then went off to London for screen tests with Jake Gyllenhaal (of Donnie Darko fame), who was originally cast as Matthew, but pulled out because he objected to the full frontal nudity. Green never had any such doubts. "It's justified," she says of the nudity. "It's not gratuitous. It's very pure - and not sick.... We are like animals, pure animals - young puppies that are free."
She says she and Pitt helped each other with the sex scenes. "We became more and more confident. The film was shot in sequence and so we didn"t shoot the sex scenes on the first days.... When I did the naked scenes, I felt I was on another planet, or on drugs, or stoned. It's such a big thing. You go beyond yourself and you stop being self-conscious. I surprised myself. You don't have time to think. It's a good exercise, just to focus on the scene and forget everything around you."
Some filmmakers, when shooting sex scenes, insist that the technicians strip as well as the actors. This was not Bertolucci's method. "No, no, no" Green laughs. "He was like our dad! But sometimes I was looking at the sound guy and getting paranoid that he was looking at my breasts."
As for the cloying, incestuous relationship which Isabelle has with her brother, there was little in Green's own experience she could draw on to help her with that. She has a sibling, a not identical twin sister two minutes older than she is, but they aren't especially close. "I don't really get along with her. We're very, very different, even physically," Green says. "She is blond. She's down to earth, more concrete than I am. She's in business school and she doesn't really like theatre."
Working together so closely, the actors developed a rapport almost as close as that between the characters they were playing. It was clearly a wrench to step away from the movie. "I was very depressed after the film was finished," Green admits. "It was very hard to go back to reality - to go back to my flat."
Pitt was actually supposed to be doing press today, but Green notes casually that he's "disappeared." She says she and Louis Garrel felt protective toward him from the beginning. As she points out, Pitt (who looks like a rougher, meaner version of Leonardo Di Caprio) is strangely naive. He is a high school drop out with little formal education who lived on the streets for two years as a teenager. When journalists interviewed him in Venice and he claimed not to understand their questions, or their use of words like "puritan" they all thought he was being antagonistic. In fact, Green realised, he really didn't understand what they were asking. "My first impression when I saw him was that he was rebellious guy who wanted to break all the rules," Green recalls. "I'm not English, but sometimes I would know words that he didn't know.... He's like an outcast, very lonely, but he's very, very vulnerable. Sometimes, he can seem very, very rude and provocative, but it's just a mask."
Green wasn't at all surprised that The Dreamers had to be cut in advance of its American release. "It's paradoxical," she says. "There's a lot of violence in American movies. You can kill a baby and it's OK. A ten-year-old boy could watch such a movie, but naked people is impossible. It's so puritan and uptight!"
Since The Dreamers, Green has finished another film, Jean-Paul Salome's Arsene Lupin (in which she co-stars opposite Kirstin Scott-Thomas). Predictably, she has also already been offered another role in a movie about a ménage à trois. This time, there are no naked scenes, but she is still not sure if she'll take the role. "It's too much the same," she sighs as she lights up another cigarette.
'The Dreamers' is released 6 February
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