“I look at nudity as I would a costume” – the fearless French actress on exploring the murkier side of sexual desire in François Ozon’s ‘L’amant Double’
There’s an early scene in Marine Vacth’s upcoming film L’Amant Double that will surely rank among 2017’s most audacious pieces of auteur cinema. After opening credits that show the French actress getting her hair unceremoniously chopped off, the screen is filled with a mysterious pink material.
Pale and glistening, it could be the inside of a mouth, or a close-up of a particularly visceral artwork by Louise Bourgeois, say, until the camera zooms out and it becomes clear that this is that most intimate and grimly clinical of things: a gynaecological exam. As the speculum is removed, a vulva is seen briefly before dissolving into a sideways shot of Vacth’s tearful green eye. Unsurprisingly, the scene drew admiring gasps when it was screened at Cannes in May. Yet this bold piece of cinema by director François Ozon doesn’t upstage the fearless performance by the actress at the heart of the film, and Vacth plays the gamine with grit.
“François asked me before I read the script if I wanted to do it, if I wanted to go that far, if I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t,” says Vacth in her softly accented English. The 26-year-old made her breakthrough as an unapologetic teen prostitute in 2013’s Young & Beautiful, also lensed by Ozon. With the psychosexual thriller L’Amant Double (‘The Double Lover’), Vacth takes on an even more daring role for the director. Where, in Young & Beautiful, Vacth was credibly affectless as a teenage girl exploring a socially problematic sexuality, in L’Amant Double she dives deep into the murkier aspects of adult sexual desire, playing a character enmeshed in a world of false pretences, both thrilled and repelled by her compulsions. It’s an impressive performance, veering exhilaratingly between fantasy and reality, and a potent indication of where the actress may be headed.
In person, Vacth is delicately poised, warm and friendly, her conversation slipping often and charmingly into French. We meet on the set of this cover story: clad in a tuxedo dress slashed to her navel and sparkly silver Chanel boots, her cropped hair artfully tousled around her exquisite features, she is the cool eye of the shoot. There’s an inscrutability to her, a hidden depth that makes her mesmerising to watch.
To say that Vacth is beautiful feels like a huge understatement. But in L’Amant Double, she flirts with a kind of Gallic androgyny – plain clothes, cropped hair, barely-there make-up – to play Chloé, a psychiatric patient who begins a relationship with her therapist, and an affair with his identical twin brother. The brothers are both therapists, in fact, albeit with very different methods: Paul, Chloé’s bona fide, is gentle and caring, while other-brother Louis is all id, a narcissist who uses rough sex as part of his so-called treatment. There’s a lot of sex in the film, some of it brutal, and Vacth recognises how different the experience could have been on another set.
“I knew how François worked,” she says. “Because, of course, it counts. I don’t know if I would have done it if it was another director. He’s good because he knows it can be difficult, so there were few people on set, and we knew what we wanted to do when we did the rehearsal. It was almost like a cascade (stunt) scene, not at all disturbing. It was fun and we laughed a lot. Those scenes show the purpose of the movie, they’re not gratuitous.” As for the vagina in that shot: “It’s not mine, it’s the vagina of another woman,” says Vacth, laughing. A later scene shows the camera venturing into Chloé’s mouth as she’s in the midst of a shuddering orgasm, her vocal chords looking distinctly vaginal as they flutter open and shut. “That was funny,” she says, “because we did that sex scene, it was very physical and then the camera had to go inside my mouth – not inside, but close – so I had to keep my mouth open.” Cue more laughter.
“My body is that of the character during filming. I look at the nudity as I would a costume” – Marine Vacth
Of course, there’s an unpalatable history in auteur cinema of young actresses being forced into unpleasant scenarios, from Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris to the endless takes Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos endured while filming Blue is the Warmest Colour, which came out around the same time as Young & Beautiful. In the latter, Vacth spent a large part of the film unclothed, lying on beds in anonymous hotel rooms with a succession of johns, until an unexpected event forces her character to stop. That she felt at ease on both films speaks to the trust and respect between her and Ozon. “I never felt this kind of pressure,” Vacth offers. “My body is that of the character during filming. I look at the nudity as I would a costume.” Besides, her career isn’t defined by raunch.
Vacth’s first role was in a French comedy, 2011’s My Piece of the Pie, and after Young & Beautiful, she starred in a family drama directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, perhaps best known for the 1990 Gérard Depardieu vehicle Cyrano de Bergerac. Even her fashion campaigns, for Louis Vuitton, Miu Miu and others, have tended to be more classical than sexy. Her ad for jewellery house Chaumet caught some heat when locals in the Paris suburb of Pecq took offence at a different kind of double lover: an image of Vacth seemingly on the cusp of kissing a twin image of herself. But she was spared the furore that surrounded the Miu Miu SS15 campaign, in which she appeared alongside Mia Goth and Imogen Poots. (The UK’s Advertising Standards Agency banned the image of Goth, claiming it appeared to be sexualising an underage girl, though the Nymphomaniac actress was 22 at the time). “There are a lot more serious subjects than that to take offence over,” says Vacth. “Ignorance, fear and frustration are some of the triggers that set up this type of censorship.”
“I felt something with Charlotte (Rampling) was beyond acting. She has something special. She represents something qui n’existe pas beaucoup” – Marine Vacth
Ozon read the book on which L’Amant Double is based – Joyce Carol Oates’ Lives of the Twins, written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith – soon after Young & Beautiful premiered, and decided he wanted to turn it into a film. He had to wait, Vacth tells me, to get hold of the rights, but the delay between projects (Ozon directed two other films in that time) allowed Vacth to catch up with the more adult character in the story. “Since Marine starred in Young & Beautiful we became friends and she became a woman,” Ozon told Variety in May. It must be heady, to be offered main roles by a director who has worked with almost every great French actress you can think of – his 2002 musical 8 Women alone starred Emmanuelle Béart, Fanny Ardant, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and veteran star Danielle Darrieux among the titular eight. Aged just 22, Vacth ably held her own in Young & Beautiful, sharing a powerful scene with a luminous Charlotte Rampling, another regular collaborator of Ozon’s. It was an experience that marked the young actress.
“I felt something with Charlotte that was beyond acting,” she says. “She has something special. She represents something qui n’existe pas beaucoup.” I say I like the way that Rampling keeps away from the celebrity playground, always maintaining a slightly bemused cool, and Vacth agrees. It’s an attitude that could be applied to Vacth herself. Her approach to the red carpet is unfussy, and she doesn’t use a stylist: “I prefer to do it myself, even if I’m late, each time,” she says, laughing. A mother to young son Henri, you suspect she has little time for hoopla. She avoids social media, though her face can often be seen on Instagram alongside Euro arthouse muses such as Anna Karina, Jean Seberg and Brigitte Bardot.
No doubt it can be a burden, and a bit of a bore, to be thought of as that outdated entity, the muse, even as Vacth is clearly now one of Ozon’s go-to actresses. Perhaps there’s something outdated, too, about objectifying a particular brand of French feminine allure. I ask Vacth if she thinks there’s something special, something extra, that sets French actresses apart from their Hollywood counterparts.
“I don’t know,” she says, before deadpanning, “Maybe they’re French?”
L’Amant Double is in UK cinemas from October 20
Hair Chi Wong at Management + Artists using Bumble and bumble., make-up Gemma Smith-Edhouse at LGA Management using Chanel, nails Mike Pocock at Saint Luke using Chanel Le Gel Top Coat and Body Excellence Hand Cream, photography assistants Juan Jose Lorenzo , Matt Kelly, styling assistants Raul Castilla, Adriana Lacaita, Andreea Georgia Radoi, hair assistant Yuichi Ueno, make-up assistant Izzy Kennedy, production Nina Fourie at Management + Artists