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Deborah Francois: The Monk

The Belgian actress talks about working with Vincent Cassel and lists three young newcomers to keep an eye out for

Belgium’s contribution to world cinema could previously be summed up in three words – the Dardenne brothers. But now Déborah François is soon to join her two fellow countrymen on the international stage. Which is hardly surprising, given that Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, known for their flair in casting unknown actors, were the ones to first pluck Déborah from her everyday life as a student in her hometown of Liège to star in their 2005 film, 'The Child', which won the Palme d’or at Cannes the same year.

Working with Vincent? Well, he’s just like a big kid really!

After such a prestigious introduction to the industry, the dark-eyed, strawberry blonde François has made over a dozen films, winning a César (France’s equivalent to the Oscars) as best female newcomer in 2009 in the process. Her latest, 'The Monk', is based on a Gothic novel by 18th Century writer Matthew Gregory Lewis, and is steeped in the requisite dark and brooding atmosphere. François plays Valerio, a mysterious and ambiguous character through whom dark forces enter a Capucine monastery and corrupt the virtue of the devout Ambrosio, played by Vincent Cassel.

Dazed Digital: Playing Valerio must have been a particular challenge – besides the very ambiguous nature of the character, you wear a full mask over your face for a number of the scenes…
Déborah François: I love parts that have a lot of constraints. It’s fascinating to work within certain limits. When I was sent the script I pretty much said yes before even reading it, because I really wanted to work with Dominique Moll (Lemming, Harry – He’s Here to Help). And then when I discovered the character… I had to find ways of expressing emotion despite the fact that you can’t see my face, my eyes even, that my voice is distorted. Also, Dominique is a very static director, his shots are planned down to the very last minute, he doesn’t go in for a lot of movement. You have to get over a lot of things, not least the fact that it can be incredibly hot and uncomfortable – frightening even - to wear a full mask for a long period of time.

DD: The setting and the atmosphere are pretty imposing. What was it like to film?   
Déborah François: We were in some very beautiful settings both in France and in Spain, some spectacular monasteries. Since my character isn’t in a lot of the big group scenes, I discovered a lot of the film when I first saw it screened and was really able to lose myself in the plot and ambiance. Working with Vincent? Well, he’s just like a big kid really!

DD: When you answered the casting advert for the Dardenne brothers’ film seven years ago, did you ever imagine that it would lead to working alongside these kinds of actors and directors?
Déborah François: Not really – of course I dreamed it might happen, but I only expected to work on that one project. I was so surprised afterwards to be cast in a second film (Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner). That was another big challenge: going from a part that was very physical and all about externalising emotions to playing someone who has to be very silent and still, wearing these terrible long evening dresses.

DD: Are there any other memorable challenges in your career so far?
Déborah François: I did one film that was all in Flemish, which I don’t speak. I learned all my lines phonetically but it’s very weird to have someone talk back at you and not understand a word. I’ve just finished filming Populaire, a comedy set in the 1950s, with Romain Duris and Eddy Mitchell. I had so many coaches for that: I had to learn to dance, play the piano, and use a typewriter. I don’t know if I was actually any good but it felt like I learned to type very fast. Playing the piano was great – I might keep it up actually.

DD: So many young actresses in Paris seem to enjoy being seen at all the right places, in all the right clothes. What’s your take on that?
Déborah François: I spend some time here for work, but I still live in Liège. I’m not much of a going-out person. Well, I can be when I want to – but I prefer to hang out with my old friends.

Déborah’s Faces to Watch:

Louise Grinberg:
She’s just signed up with my agent, and I think she has something very special. She hasn’t worked very much yet, but she will.

Alice Belaïdi:
We worked together on Tribulations d’une caissière, and she’s a wonderful girl. Again, someone destined for great things.

Pio Marmaï: A great actor and a great person. I chose someone I’ve worked with because you know what they’re really like, and especially whether they’re good in every take, whether they make that extra effort. It’s very important. Pio is like that – and he’s very good looking too.

Text by Nathalie Fraser
Photo by Adrian Crispin

'The Monk' is out now