In Wes Anderson’s new starred film, The French Dispatch, Léa Seydoux (No time to die) plays a prison guard who becomes the muse of an inmate.
It’s the latest in a long line of sensual and enigmatic heartbreakers that the in-demand actor has embodied since his pivotal role in the French arthouse film La Belle Person in 2008, and refined in later films. as varied as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Cannes-acclaimed lesbian romance Blue is the hottest color and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
Her recent turn as Daniel Craig’s secret lover, Madeleine Swann – whom critics have dubbed “the antithesis of the Bond girl” – is perhaps the epitome of her mercurial onscreen persona.
“For some reason people think I’m mysterious. Which I’m not at all!” the actor laughs, speaking from Paris via Zoom.
“I don’t know… I think it’s because I’m melancholy,” she said, calming down.
In The French Dispatch, Simone is a mixture of fire and ice. Guardian of the prison of Ennui, she poses naked for Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), artist sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, source of inspiration for the radically abstract paintings which made him famous worldwide.
“Simone is Benicio’s inspiration, she is the object of creation,” explains Seydoux.
Back in her uniform, she snaps her fingers and orders him sharply.
Anderson wrote the role of Seydoux, who is now a regular in his ensemble, having recently voiced the glamorous-King Charles cross poodle Nutmeg in the French version of Isle of Dogs.
For their latest collaboration, Seydoux says the few lines Anderson originally sent him were “pretty abstract” – but he goes above and beyond to bring his cast to life.
“He’s funny, Wes – not many people know that, but he does a little animated film of the script. When you get on set, it’s on an iPad, so you can watch the movie before it even gets it. either [made]. It’s like a beautiful work of art, ”she explains.
“He does all the vocals, he plays all the characters. So he’s played Simone before.”
Seydoux describes Anderson’s new film as “like a comic book”, and his vision of his home country as “idealized”.
“But I think it works… I mean, it’s part of Wes,” she said.
In this cinematic wunderkammer, even the smallest detail is carefully crafted, from the fine stitching of Simone’s fitted uniform to the clever poses she takes (composed with seasoned choreographer Philippe Decoufflé) in a series of paintings: hanging from the ceiling like an acrobat; perched on one leg on a stool; or bent, in profile, arched like a cat.
Seydoux appears in the first of the film’s three long chapters and only has a handful of lines. But of the Hollywood ensemble, his presence is arguably the most memorable; his icy gazes and borderline mechanical movements are imbued with unexpected humor and pathos.
“It’s funny, and at the same time it’s deep, it’s moving, there are a lot of contrasts. It was a lot of fun to do.”
When I ask Seydoux if she recognizes herself in Simone, she answers me in a badass voice: “Oh, I’m as tough as Simone, yes, I’m really like that”, then bursts out laughing, throwing a radiant smile with gaping teeth.
“No, no, not really…” she said, suddenly becoming shy.
This change of temper is reminiscent of how many of his performances have turned over the years, from courageous determination to intense vulnerability.
“When you act in a movie, you always have your subjectivity,” the actor says.
“What I liked about this character is that it’s very hard and dry – or it’s totally in it, and suddenly it opens up. Like the scene with Benicio [Del Toro], when you lie down and he says: “I love you”, and I say: “I don’t love you” – at the same time I have tears in my eyes.
“It’s always a balance between this distance and the very close, like ‘first degree’. I like this paradox”, explains Seydoux.
Playing the muse
Alongside The French Dispatch, Seydoux performed in three other titles this year at the Cannes Film Festival (although she was unable to attend after testing positive for COVID).
She received particular praise for her performance as a celebrity news anchor in Bruno Dumont’s satire France – a cast piece that perhaps leans on the Seydoux family’s ties to major French film studios Pathé and Gaumont.
And she appeared as a muse – again – in Arnaud Desplechin’s Philip Roth adaptation of Deception, playing an adulterous English lover to a writer named (ahem) Philip.
Both films are expected to hit Australian screens in 2022. (The busy actor also honors upcoming films by writers David Cronenberg and Mia Hansen-Løve.)
Directors and casting agents may equate Seydoux with a certain impenetrable femme fatale figure – but she seems amused by the image that is building around her.
“In France, you have a lot of actors who have a strong nature. It’s not like American cinema [whose actors] tend to perform. It is the reverse in France; they don’t really play, they play with their own nature.
“I think I’m a mixture, I’m a nature but I also like to transform myself. So maybe it’s hard for people to put me in a box. I think that’s why they fantasize a little about me, like I’m a blank page.
In the past, she has suggested that this ability to transform onscreen allows her to slip naturally into a filmmaker’s world, where she says she feels most comfortable.
Critics, who find it difficult to articulate her allure, have compared her to iconic sirens of French cinema such as Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve.
As flattering as the intention may be, she says of these comparisons: “I can’t recognize myself.”
“It might be pretentious to say, but I think I may have invented my own way of doing things,” Seydoux mused, before collapsing once more into bursts of laughter.
La Dépêche française is now in theaters.
No Time to Die is now in theaters.