Virginie Efira stars in the 2019 Cannes Film Festival competition film Sibyl. She also plays a 17th century lesbian nun in Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta.
Much was made of there only being four women directors in the Cannes competition this year and three of the films were awarded prizes from what might be considered a left-of- field jury. Celine Sciamma took out the screenplay award for her widely appreciated Portrait of a Lady on Fire (a slow-moving art film literally about art, as well as a lesbian affair), Atlantique, the first competition film by a black woman filmmaker, Mati Diop, won the Grand Prix or second prize (the prize met with resounding boos from the press) while Emily Beecham was awarded best actress for Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe.
The fourth film, Justine Triet’s Sibyl, starring the hugely popular local star Virginie Efira, and featuring French actress Adele Exarchopoulos (a Cannes winner for Blue is the Warmest Colour) was never going to win a prize from this jury. It is however doing gangbusters at the French box office, and is way ahead of other Cannes releases including Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die and Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory.
Sibyl is a commercial kind of film that should have screened out of competition. Triet calls it a dramedy in the vein of her previous award-nominated film In Bed with Victoria also starring Efira. Its (overly) convoluted plot follows Efira’s psychotherapist who wants to return to writing, a career she pursued a decade earlier. Maintaining five of her patients she draws inspiration for her fiction from Margot (Exarchopoulos), an actress seeking advice regarding having an abortion. Margot then tries to commit suicide on the set of her new film, which stars the famous actor (Gaspard Ulliel) with whom she had the affair and the film is being directed by his partner (Sandra Hueller) on the Italian island of Stromboli. Sibyl comes on set to help but she is reminded of her own past—an alcoholic mother, a failed relationship–and spirals out of control.
Still one imagines that Efira’s major international moment is yet to come with Benedetta, which given its Italian Catholic setting and Verhoeven’s controversial candour, would make a huge splash at the Venice Film Festival. Though it’s apparently not ready. Verhoeven clearly came to appreciate Efira’s talents when she played the wife of Isabelle Huppert’s neighbour in his award-winning Elle.
I sat down with the down-to earth self-deprecating Belgian actress just before her film’s premiere. Surely though she was horrified by her shoegate moment as her strappy heels kept unravelling as she mounted the famous red steps—a moment that went viral as her castmate and real life boyfriend Niels Schneider came to her rescue. The actress is deserving of a Hollywood screwball comedy for sure!
VIRGINIE EFIRA: The most important thing is to feel confident with the way they work. Sometimes you have a very clear idea about the character, but that wasn’t the case with Sibyl. I had to try a lot of things and it was constructed during the editing. We did many takes for every scene, from comical to very dramatic. The main thing was not to be afraid of trying many things and to be able to put yourself in Sibyl’s state of mind, because she doesn’t know what’s going to happen. On Stromboli what I was doing was very bizarre. When she’s drunk it was a more a physical kind of acting.
Are you in any way like Sibyl?
VIRGINIE EFIRA: What I have in common with Sibyl is that I hide my vulnerability and I pretend that I am strong.
You’re having a strong moment in your career, with the French hit, Sink or Swim, and now two prominent leading roles.
VIRGINIE EFIRA: Sink or Swim was a smaller role as was Elle. The great thing is to have the chance to do a second film with the same director. When I made Sibyl I already knew I was to do Benedetta. It took three and a half months to film and it’s a very special character with special energy.
Did you know Verhoeven’s previous films?
VIRGINIE EFIRA: I discovered his work with 1992’s Basic Instinct and I saw all his American films. For me Turkish Delight is a masterpiece. I felt so lucky to get to work with him. With Justine it was great to go back and do a second film as we had become very close friends. For many years I was only offered romcoms with stereotyped characters. Now that I’m older the roles are more complicated so it’s wonderful and I hope it will continue.
You say that Benedetta is very special. It’s an erotic film (based on Judith C. Brown’s book) about a lesbian nun. I interviewed Paul Verhoeven for Basic Instinct and he told me at the time how he cut two seconds out of the film. When I asked what they were he licked with his tongue! He’s an outrageous man. Did you have to do outrageous things in the film?
VIRGINIE EFIRA: Extremely, yes!
Could you say what they are?
VIRGINIE EFIRA: No!
Is there anything you wouldn’t do?
VIRGINIE EFIRA: I would do anything for a director like Paul or Justine, who are intelligent, interesting and passionate about their work. I have my own opinion about the parts and what I’m asked to do and I think as actors we are responsible for what we choose. But I have no consciousness of what my limitations are. If someone asks me to do something and I’m confident and like the proposal then I’m just going to go ahead.
Have you worked with a hysterical director like in the movie? Could you compare Paul Verhoeven and Justine Triet?
VIRGINIE EFIRA: Paul is a very calm person but Justine is a burning fire as I discovered when we filmed In Bed with Victoria. She’s very demanding but gives you a lot of freedom as she finds her own order in the disorder.
You’re working with your real-life boyfriend, Niels Schneider in Sibyl and you’ve worked together before. Does it add another layer to the intimacy?
VIRGINIE EFIRA: It’s easier because we’ve discussed it, so you’re not afraid to be too harsh. But when the film premieres tonight in front of my parents I’ll feel like a teenager! When you’re shooting those scenes there aren’t many people on set, so it’s very intimate. Niels said to me, and I agree, that sex scenes tell more about the director’s life and sexuality than that of the actors.
Like Paul Verhoeven? Wait until your parents see Benadetta!
VIRGINIE EFIRA: I’ve already warned them!