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Berlinale 2012: Léa Seydoux On ‘Farewell My Queen,’ American Filmmaking & The Classic French Cinema She Loves

Berlinale 2012: Léa Seydoux On 'Farewell My Queen,' American Filmmaking & The Classic French Cinema She Loves

French actress Léa Seydoux has been bringing her Gallic brand of beauty and skill to Hollywood films for a few years now. But while she was reportedly on one of the shortlists to play Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” she has yet to lead a U.S.-made film, and instead has been slowly increasing her confidence in English-speaking roles by working in smaller parts for well-respected directors like Ridley Scott, Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen.

But a far cry from her lethal but brief appearance as a sexy superspy in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is the role she’s in Berlin to promote as Sidonie Laborde in “Farewell, My Queen.” A young servant in the household of Marie Antoinette, Seydoux is front and centre of almost every scene, and carries the whole film on her shoulders. Officially, Sidonie is the Reader to the Queen, played by Diane Kruger, her job being to select and read books aloud at Her Majesty’s pleasure; unofficially, young Sidonie is utterly in love with her Queen, devoted to and starstruck by her to the point of being blinded to her flaws. Sidonie herself is an enigma, a creature of seemingly no past, but when we got to sit down with Seydoux in Berlin, she explained that not only did the paucity of the character’s backstory not scare her, in fact it was something that particularly attracted her to the role. “What I liked about this part was that you don’t know anything about her, and so I could invent everything. There is one moment that makes you understand everything about her,” she explained. “[A character] asks me ‘We don’t know anything about you…do you even have parents?’ This for me was the key to build everything. That’s why she’s so fascinated by the Queen. It’s through the Queen that she has an existence [at all].” 

This covetous love she bears her mistress (“My character is absorbed by Marie Antoinette, she is just her instrument. She is in love with her, when you are in love you do whatever the person wants”) tends to blind her to the world around her – a dangerous situation if you’re living through the days immediately following the storming of the Bastille, in the court of the people’s despised Queen. “My character does not realise that it’s the end of this world, and she is not against this world, she’s not a rebel.” What she is, really, is a flight of fancy on the part of the author of the novel on which the film was based. “She is based on a real person,” said Seydoux, “At that time in Versailles everything was written, there are archives. So when the writer [of the book] did her research she found the reader of the Queen was called Mlle Laborde, and the writer invented everything else just with this information.”

But more was added to the characterisation than existed on the page, mostly as a result of Sidonie playing much younger in the film than in the book. Director Benoit Jacquot asked for a certain gracelessness and clumsiness in Seydoux’s performance “… this is part of her youth, she’s not super sophisticated” said the actress. And it’s true, there’s something refreshing about seeing a period drama set in the splendour of a Royal court, in which our protagonist trips a lot and scratches at her mosquito bites. This relatability was absolutely a concern of the actress as it’s a quality that the corsets and ancient etiquette can alienate. “It helps to play [the part], but I wanted her to be not too stuck in her costume. Usually when you see period films, it’s something very theatrical. I wanted her to be modern, that she has something that she could be from today…,” she said. “To be not too theatrical, that was the big challenge and also because I am the girl who’s watching in the film, it’s difficult sometimes to be filmed just observing.”

This pull between modernity and the past is something the actress herself feels. “I am anxious about…I’m scared about modernity. I don’t really like Facebook and things like that,” she says, going on to enumerate her real influences: the pantheon of great French filmmakers whose films she grew up with. She speaks about those films with such real love that one is forced to wonder if she feels she became an actress at the wrong time. “Maybe I thought this once. It’s true that I grew up as a kid with all those films, Cocteau and Godard and Truffaut. But I feel that I have my place now. I grew up with Internet and cellphones: I think am modern too.” And she swiftly defends the more commercial entries on her CV: “I want to do cinema, and cinema for me is the art of reality. Cinema is a language, so to do a film with Brad Bird in ‘Mission Impossible,’ for me it is cinema, American cinema and it’s a form of American [cinema] language. Americans are very good at action movies, and Brad Bird is a great director. This is cinema. Because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s not cinema.” 

So what are the difficulties she experiences making Hollywood films? “It’s not really difficult. Even if I am not completely fluent in English, when I was a kid I used to go very often to America. I went to summer camp and I grew up with American young girls, so I know the American culture and it’s part of the way of my culture… It was really difficult in the beginning, the young girls were not open, laughing at me a little. [But] my father wanted me to learn English. Now he is like ‘You are in ‘Mission Impossible’! You can thank me!'”

The future looks rosy for the young actress. Her next confirmed project is a version of one of the her favourite fairy tales (“For a long time I was obsessed with fairy tales, so this is a dream…yes, I wanted to be a princess”): Christophe Gans‘ “Beauty and the Beast” with Vincent Cassel. But with her cineaste’s taste how does she feel taking on the same story immortalised by one of her heroes, Jean Cocteau? “Yes, I’ve seen [‘La Belle et La Bête‘]. I’ve seen it maybe 300 times. I’m a very big fan of Jean Cocteau, especially this one. This movie was shot during the war and it’s incredible to see how beautiful and how gorgeous it looks and it was made with so little money…Our version will be very different, more special effects…” Beyond that, nothing is certain, not even the role in Michel Gondry‘s “The Foam of Days” to which she was reported to be attached. Typically, though it is being in demand that may force her to drop out. “The thing is, that I don’t really know yet [about that]…I have another project…” she teased.

So yes, while the French-language “Farewell, My Queen” will be the next chance audiences will get to catch her, it seems Lea Seydoux is determined to join the illustrious ranks of French actresses who have made successful careers for themselves on both sides of the Atlantic. “I’m not obsessed to work in America, but I want to be able to do very different things… When I did ‘Mission Impossible,’ when I worked with Tarantino, and — no, Ridley Scott is not American — but I really like to play in English, and America, Hollywood, is the land of cinema.”

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