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Sophie Marceau - her 'Telling Lies' novel is published
18 June 2001
The article below was printed in the Sunday Herald newspaper of 10 June 2001.
Sophie Marceau.jpg
Intimate and open but not always truthful, the pretentious screen lover’s new novel has come from her heart
Lies and loves of ma belle Marceau
Andrew Billen interview
In The World Is Not Enough she was the spy who tried to shag Bond to death, in Braveheart the French princess who melted Wallace’s heart. In Anna Karenina, Sean Bean tempted her to suicide. In La Fidelite, directed by her real husband, her beauty drove her screen husband to the grave. Now Sophie Marceau – voted by Frenchmen the woman they most wanted to sleep with – has written a semi-autobiographical novel about the histrionic interior-life of a beautiful young French actress. In Telling Lies, Sophie Marceau is – well, she’s pretentious.

This is not just my verdict. Last month, The Times – in a column called Pretentious Moi? – quoted so extensively from Telling Lies that it had no room for any other pseudery. "The chaos, the disorder of fatalities, that is the only god of justice, the only father of truth", was a typical sentence to catch the compiler’s eye. I’d have included: "Chance has no previous existence, it’s only fulfilled as a result of some fundamental will. It draws on that will before making its appearance," which is either nonsense or the chaos theory in brief. In fact, I have every sympathy for Marceau whom, duly chaperoned, I visit in the bedroom of her hotel in Covent Garden. The week before it attacked her, The Times picked an over -extended metaphor of mine for ridicule in the same column. "Tell me about your first," says Marceau, who is wearing a white top, grey trousers and pumps, none of whose designers she can, to her credit, identify for me. Polished so that her face and her hair's highlights share the same burnish, she is the most distractingly sexy woman I have interviewed, giving off, at 34, the pheromonal surges of an extemely knowing teenager. As she says when I ask if men divided between devotees of her and fans of Denise Richards in the Bond film, she hasn’t heard of anyone not fancying her.

Perhaps, I suggest, concentrating, we English fear pretension more than the French do. "Oh, I’m not English, I cannot talk on behalf of an English person. I’m French. I can say about French. They are quite emotional, though, and they talk about their emotions." Asking questions, articulating feelings, they can communicate "under meanings", she says – although her broken English and perfect (French) accent make this an approximate paraphrase. Her book seems to be about a woman trapped in two decaying relationships, one with her career and the other with her lover. Did writing it resolve some issues for her "Words, yes, formulating things, creating something from your heart, it is something very necessary, yes."

I see. Was the unhappiness in the book autobiographical? "To be honest I don’t really know because I really didn’t care when I was writing about mixing up reality with what was not reality. It is personal, very honest, intimate, I would say, but sometimes the story, the anecdote, can be more or less mine – or not mine."

Obviously, I’m not really following this. Like many of her countrymen, she finds the comfort in abstraction that Brits take from concrete detail. I direct her to her heroine’s description of her deflowering: "Fumbled like a piece of luggage – squeezed by surly great hands which dominate your flesh." Was her first time as bad as that? "Oh, I cannot remember." It’s a horrifically memorable passage. "But it doesn’t mean it says anything about my loss of virginity."

I hope that "semi-autobiographical" is a publicity ploy. If Telling Lies is telling the truth then I’m looking into the feline-eyes of a basket case. My favourite passage, I say, is when the furniture starts talking to the narrator and tells her to pull herself together. Has furniture ever spoken to her "Oh, probably." So we might catch her later tonight storming around the room? "Talking to the sofa Yes. But it will not talk to me!"

This is a definition of sanity, I realise: the devout man talks to God; the mad man hears God reply. She is cannier than she seems and is aware of the perils of pretentiousness. One of the least likeable characters in the book is an "oily, vain and stupid" film director with "a mouth full of words" with whom her heroine has dinner: "The last look he gave me was the worst bit of all. A mayonnaise of pretension and oily simplicity." She confirms she has had many such dinners with directors of this ilk.

Since her first film, a 1980s brat packer called La Boum (The Party), when she was 13, Marceau has made some 30 movies. She has played straying wives, prostitutes, buccaneers and party girls. What they have in common is that at some point they remove their underwear. She has said she was tired of being "squeezed into ugly, dirty, second-rate roles that simply aim to serve the fantasies of some guy", but today she seems sanguine about it and more puzzled about why it was so essential that her character Elektra King did not show her nipples in bed scenes in The World is Not Enough. "You have a lot of nudities in all your newspapers."

What, I ask, about Beyond The Clouds, which was made by the ailing Michelangelo Antonioni in 1995 with a little help from Wim Wenders? Which of those directors decided she should strip for her sex scenes with John Malkovich? "That was probably Antonioni, because he loves that."

I’m sure she made an old man very happy. "He’s like eightysomething. He’s in a wheelchair. He doesn’t speak. He had a stroke 10 years ago which paralysed half of his mind and half of his body, but, you know, I was moved. I was moved because I loved his movies before and I got very interesting experience from that shooting. It was 15 days. It was very short and I don’t like the movie, to be honest, I don’t like what I do in the movie – but I liked having the chance to share with him a film."

Perhaps she would have had a nearer fully-clothed career if there were more women directors? "But maybe it is not a job for woman. I don’t know. I think we have different capabilities." She doesn’t consider herself a feminist because she does not have any "systematic, dogmatic" way of thinking. So she won’t be seeing the Vagina Monologues while in London "I was asked to do that, but I said no, actually." Why "Well, are you interested in that vagina stuff? I’m not." (Mind you, she has a Wilhelm Reich text on her table, which suggests she is interested in that orgasm stuff.)

The stuff I am really interested in is her relationship with her boyfriend – she calls him her husband – Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, with whom she has made five films. They met at Cannes when she was 17 and known for the two Boum movies. He was 42, an auteur specialising in psycho-sexual drama. He cast her in L’Amour Braque, a version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, in which she played a teenage prostitute, and persuaded her to do her first nude scene. "I’ll tell you a secret," she says. "It is something actresses need to go through and I think they look forward to being naked in a movie. I don’t know why, but it is something you need to exhaust from yourself."

Her parents, a truck driver and shop assistant who brought her up in a modest flat in a Paris suburb and divorced when she was nine, were, one imagines, horrified, and she says they still do not get on with Zulawski: "But it doesn’t matter." Five years ago they had a son, but she admits she is as amazed as anyone that they are still together after 17 years. They fight "like scorpions in a nest" and he is notoriously critical of her work, not least of Telling Lies, which he encouraged her to write and then reviewed unfavorably in print.

There seems to have been something of the Pygmalion in Zulawski’s relationship with this beautiful, under-educated teenager. Having created her as serious actress, however (and recommended to her the books so liberally quoted in her own: Paul Valery, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Virginia Woolf), he has looked on uneasily at his creation. lt was reported they broke up when she took the Bond role. "That was crap. Exactly the opposite and I am telling you the truth," she says. He apparently thought it an excellent choice. "But when he sees a love story with me and James Bond, he doesn’t like it. It’s uncomfortable for him. Which I understand. But that is normal. That’s good. Otherwise it would be very bizarre."

Maybe that is why he was critical of the novel: too intimate? "Yes, maybe that part I understand." He is a jealous man? "Yes!" Yet he directs her in films in which she makes love to other men. "You must ask him about it." Where is he? "In the bathroom," she says playfully. Last year Zulawski plunged fresh depths of masochism by directing her in a three-hour stinker called La Fidelite, in which Marceau flirts with a younger man while her infatuated older husband stands back helpless. How, in real life, I ask, does she cope with the fidelity issue? "Very well, thank you." Touche.

Telling lies proves that stream of consciousness can be a shallow rill, but while Marceau is no latter-day Virginia Woolf or Dorothy Richardson (and I’d like to have seen them do sex scenes with Pierce Brosnan), her writing is not without its felicities. I liked her calling her sofa bed a "mechanical skeleton", her description of a curled telephone cord as a "pasta spiral" and the waspishness of her portrayal of her oleaginous director: "Even from a distance, there was something perverse about his shoes."

Refreshingly, for the author of a book about lying, she is honest enough to admit when she has fouled up. Presenting the Palme d’Or at Cannes two years ago, she meandered through an interminable speech ranging through topics from sick children and warfare to the superficiality of film. The host, Kristin Scott Thomas, had to tell her to stop. "She did her job and I didn’t do my job. She was right and I was wrong. I felt very bad. It was like black hole for me. I didn’t understand where I was."

The drink, I suppose? "Oh no, I heard I was drugged or I was drunk. I don’t drink and I don’t drug myself. I was perfectly clear-headed but I was hungry and I had just arrived from a very different world outside Cannes." What happened aftcrwards? " I went back to my hotel and I heard people from the street outside saying, ’You’re right, Sophie. Very good’."

Actually, I say, that was the furniture speaking. I am rewarded by her laughter which, as you can imagine, is an agreeable sound to rnale ears. As to the real Sophie Marceau, it is, as she might say, bizarre – but 100 pages and 90 minutes on, I still haven’t a clue.

Tellirig Lies by Sophie Marceau is published by Phoenix, 6.99

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