EDUCATING Sophie Marceau
At 15 Sophie Marceau became one of France's sweetest starlets. At 16 she asserted her independence and played a prostitute bent on revenge. Now, at 19, she has shocked her public even more with her most recent role in police, which opens here in early june. Profile by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.
Watching Sophie Marceau play a North African hustler in Maurice Pialat’s pessimistic film Police, it’s hard to believe she was once billed as ‘the new Gallic Shirley Temple’.
Her character, Noria, is sullen, vulgar, sensual and ultimately deceitful. In a country where anti-Arab racism runs rampant, Marceau risks losing some of the fans who adored her as the cute, sugary and white child star.
But then, at 19, with a five-year, six-film career behind her, Marceau is an exception in the usually unadventurous French film industry. At 13, she signed up with a children’s model agency without telling her parents and was called up to audition for a film. Director Claude Pinoteau picked her from 200 teenagers and her career was launched with his two innocuous comedies, La Boum and La Boum 2. School was abandoned. There was no baccalauréat for Sophie, only a French Oscar for Best Newcomer.
The films were produced by the 92-year-old plane maker Marcel Dassault, a sometime Howard Hughes with a Walt Disney sensibility. He believes in the clean, wholesome values of the French middle class, and has the money to promote them on the big screen.
La Boum, set in one of the more affluent Paris suburbs, was about teenagers going to their first surprise parties and the most daring scene showed daylight necking on a living room sofa with the curtains drawn.
Five million spectators saw it in France alone, and Marceau found herself whisked off on promotional tours of Germany, Spain and Japan (where she eclipsed John Travolta, there to sell Grease). She was a 15-year-old bankable star, and France’s best-loved young actress.
In the beginning, she behaved so true to teenage type that Dassault could never have enough of her on the cover of his other toy, the glossy magazine Jours de France, (‘We only report the good news,’ one of its editors once proclaimed) and the rest of the French press followed suit.
Her first love was her leading man in La Boum, 18-year-old Pierre Cosso. Both touchingly told reporters they wanted to ‘keep it clean’. Sophie agreed to every picture session: in front of her parents’ council house in the kind of Parisian suburb where no Dassault production would ever be shot; with her school chums, with her father, mother, dog, cat; with the ubiquitous Pierre, hand in hand at the Cannes film festival or on the Champs-Elysees.
She cut a forgettable single with the pop singer François Valéry and, such was the appeal of her image, even while she admitted to singing off-key, it sold more than 100,000 copies. She was the ultimate clean-cut teen actress.
Then the image blurred and the clichés vanished. Or perhaps Marceau was moving faster than the eyes watching her. She requested, and obtained, legal emancipation at 16 ‘to be able to sign my contracts myself’. She left her family home in Sceaux (‘No dramas, I just wanted to live at my own rhythm’), bought herself a flat in Paris and her parents a brasserie. Pierre receded gently into the background. She refused 25 screenplays that were little more than Boum series rehashes.
‘I got into the film business quite casually,’ she says, ‘and in the beginning I felt I could just give up if I stopped being successful. But now it’s got me. I’ve got to do it and do it well, and if, with my all efforts, I fail, I’ll work as an extra to keep near the cameras. I come alive on a set. Sometimes it worries me, ordinary life seems less real.’
It’s a far cry from the carefree day when, with her café waiter father, she answered Pinoteau’s casting call.
‘We never took it seriously,’ she remembers. ‘I just thought it would be fun to make a little money. Then we saw all those other kids dressed like models, with their stage-struck parents, when I was just wearing dungarees and a ponytail. Dad thought we’d better leave at once, and I begged him to wait for at least an hour. If no one had called me then, we’d go. He agreed and I was selected, so that hour really made all the difference in my life.’
Today, with years of interview experience behind her, Marceau is more reserved. Her answers remain quite direct, but she sometimes hesitates to find the best turn of phrase. Living in jeans, men’s sweaters, ‘and my latest film’s hairstyle — I don’t really care’, she refuses most picture sessions and very few outsiders are allowed in her home. She also keeps her personal life completely private. No Paris socialite, her spare time is spent working on her country house, east of Paris. At home in her city flat, the front door is firmly shut in the face of prying journalists.
Marceau’s deviation from an innocent image was born out of L’Amour Braque (Mad Love), Polish director Andrzej Zulawski’s modern-day version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Zulawski had been impressed with her performance in Fort Saganne, a big-budget epic about French colonization in Africa, in which she played the daughter of a French civil servant and shared top billing with Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve. A Zulawski/Marceau combination sounded improbable. But the idiosyncratic director, with a reputation for brutalizing his actresses (he gave Romy Schneider, Isabelle Adjani and Valérie Kaprisky their most taxing roles) and a fascination for the darkest human emotions, offered her the part of Marie, a teenage prostitute bent on revenge and self-destruction.
‘I was struck by Sophie’s quality of immediate truth,’ says Zulawski. ‘It could have been her youth. But when we met, it was obvious that it came from inside her.’
Marceau jumped at Zulawski’s offer and shocked her French public with violent and nude scenes in the director’s baroque, excessive style. ‘He gets things out of his actors that they never knew were there,’ she says. ‘Sometimes it hurts, yet you are changed by it.’
But Zulawski also protected, almost nurtured her. ‘He had the dresses redesigned especially for me in Paul Poiret’s Thirties style,’ she recalls. ‘He insisted on a heavy fringe to emphasise my eyes. He corrected my make-up until he found a soft enough eyeliner. He lightened the shadows on my face.’ Friendship grew from such intimacy.
L’Amour Braque was a commercial flop, which she regrets to this day, but even before its release, she’d started work on Pialat’s Police. Her days as France’s favorite sugar baby were over.
Even today, Marceau finds it difficult to talk about Police. After Zulawski’s ultra-professional (and protective) methods, she found herself dealing with the talented Pialat’s messy, improvised direction and his habit of establishing what she calls ‘sadistic’ relations with his actors. She remembers coming to work and being ignored by him for days on end, playing a character whose delineations changed hourly. Pialat indulged in disparaging comments about her looks and weight at the end of shooting. ‘That fat cow,’ he called her, in front of a reporter. That she emerged with flying colors is a tribute to her abilities. But it left her with a bitter aftertaste.
On set, Depardieu was no help. ‘When we’d shot Fort Saganne he was so protective, like a big brother. On the Police set, he was withdrawn, self-centered. But I couldn’t criticize him; I’ve always said myself that selfishness is an actor’s best asset,’ she smiles wryly.
Since Police, she has made an LP, Certitude, a vast improvement on her first single; posed nude in Photo magazine; and is currently working on Zulawski’s next project, a biography of Joan of Arc. After that it’s a Bogart/Bacall-type thriller, La Descente aux Enfers, under the direction of Francis Girod.
Every now and then, Sophie Marceau is asked how it feels to be a star. ‘I am not,’ she says. ‘You need much more work, experience, personality to be one. People pay attention because I’m so young. Someday I’ll be 30 and perhaps, like Isabelle Huppert recently, I’ll only rate two pages in Paris-Match instead of six.’