Last year in Cannes, Léa Seydoux delivered two sexy performances: in Rebecca Zlotowski's nuclear romance Grand Central, and in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, a lesbian romance, which won the Palme d’Or. In an unprecedented move, jury head Steven Spielberg awarded the coveted prize not only to Kechiche, but to Seydoux and her young co-star Adèle Exarchopoulos. Besides Jane Campion, they are the only women to have ever won a Palme d'Or in the festival's history.
Seydoux, recently Marie Antoinette’s maid in the slow-burning period drama Farewell, My Queen and the elder sister to a young boy in Sister, already had filmed Beauty and the Beast for French action director Christophe Gans and was preparing her leading role as Loulou de la Falaise in Saint Laurent, the second, starrier movie on the fashion designer this year. Her numerous films were already propelling the actress, who first came to attention alongside Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, to a new level of stardom in France. So it was interesting that at this point in her career we should meet to discuss her role in Zlotowski’s second film, Grand Central, given that Seydoux had won the 2011 Most Promising Actress Cesar for Zlotowski’s debut movie, Belle Épine. (Interestingly, Seydoux had won the same award in 2009 for La Belle Personne.)
When I went along for my fourth interview with Seydoux, a retiring interviewee who admits that when she reads articles about herself that she “is not easy to get”, I was bowled over by her director, a particularly outgoing type whom I spoke to separately. As it happens, Zlotowski is Jewish, and even if she insists she is “totally French”, she is in possession of a Jewish sense of humour that is far more outrageous than the average French sensibility. (Her father came to France from Poland when he was five. “Jewish people were leaving Poland because it was not a good country for us.”)
Seydoux, who admits that her favourite experience thus far has been with Woody Allen (even if it was a bit part in Midnight in Paris), has gladly become Zlotowski’s muse, first playing Prudence, a troubled teen on the verge of being thrown out of college for repeatedly failing Hebrew in Belle Èpine, and now a fleshy, scantily clad seductress in Grand Central.
Set in a community of blue-collar workers at a nuclear power plant, Grand Central follows the down-and-out Gary (Tahar Rahim) as he takes a job doing decontamination work. The danger he faces is matched by his passion for Seydoux’s Karole, who is engaged to the big and burly Toni (Denis Ménochet).
There are three interesting factors at work here. The Fukushima radioactive leak happened three months after Zlotowski and her Belle Épine co-screenwriter Gaëlle Macé began researching their new film, which they set in this pressure cooker environment; Rahim is a Muslim and refuses to partake in graphic sex, even if it’s in the film; and Zlotowski uses sound in a fascinating manner in her nuclear factory—as she did with the roar of motorcycles in Belle Épine. “In the screenplay we worked hard on the music and sound,” admits Zlotowski, who spoke in English, as did Seydoux, for your interviews.
Where did the idea for the movie originate?
There is the story and the subject and they are two different things. The story came from my scriptwriter. She came in one day reading a book that she loved, La Centrale, from Elisabeth Filhol, and she made me read it. It’s really not a book to adapt for a movie, but it documents these workers at the nuclear plants very well. I read it in one night and it made me think it’s a world in which we have to set a story. We started thinking about the difficulties of this community, the sacrifice and the heroic approach and the fact that nobody ever told us about this community before. We wanted to write a love story set in this industry, and then when Fukushima happened, a lot of press articles and documentation came to us regarding the tragedy and how it was a mess everywhere. It enforced the idea that we should say something about people who work in places like this. We heard terrible stories, like the fact that in certain nuclear plants, the black workers would have their dosimeter changed to pretend they had less does than the others, like in the United States 20 years ago.
For the workers, they go inside and they don’t know whether they will be contaminated or when it leaves them. It became obvious that the nuclear plant could be seen as the perfect analogy for a love story and this became the subject of the film. So the story follows one young guy taken into a nuclear plant from his virginity at the beginning till the difficulties he has at the end and the subject could be: What kind of heroism do you need to abandon yourself to love?
You really wanted Tahar Rahim from the beginning?
Yes. What leads you to an actor is such a mystery. Sometimes it’s just that you love him and sometimes it’s more cerebral because he represents something in the French cinema that you want to work with and transform. Tahar had emerged in France in jail [in A Prophet] and I also remembered him in the stunning Chinese film, Love and Bruises [by controversial Chinese director Lou Ye]. So I saw him as someone in jail and someone very sensual. My film is about these guys who live somewhere where they think they are free but it’s like jail without bars, and Tahar’s Gary is experiencing something totally new in his life, which is passionate love.
Due to his religion, Rahim is restricted with what he can do in sex scenes.
He’s Muslim and I respect what he said before agreeing to do the film. I never filmed him naked and he never touched Léa’s body, really. I mean he never touched her pussy; he never touched her breasts. He was very, very respectful and shy—even if we cannot tell in the film. [Laughs] I worked, I worked. I did my job. So I wanted Léa to be twice as erotic in the film to provide a counterpoint. And it works; it provides a balance.
She’s the new Scarlett Johansson with her sultry sexiness.
Yes, totally. But I think she has something like Jodie Foster as well. She has an unusual femininity.
And she was cool about the sex scenes?
Yes, because she came from the Kechiche film where she was having sex and eating the pussy and the ass of another woman. She was like, “Oh, yes please”. This one is very romantic, and to be serious, she knows that women look at her in a good way. When you are a woman and you direct women, there’s no way I want to see her naked if it’s not motivated by the story. She knows I want the body to be beautiful. I would never film what women want to hide. My film is not that much about nudity in any case.
It’s not really about nuclear power plants either, yet the film shows they are still very dangerous. I’ve been told that anywhere you stand in France there’s a nuclear facility within 60 kilometres.
I’m not qualified to say how safe or dangerous they are, but I know we have 19 nuclear power plants and 48 reactors in France. It’s a lot because 80 percent of our electricity comes from nuclear energy. But I’m not approaching this subject as a critic; I’m approaching it as a form. It’s the relationship between the people involved in the central nuclear plant that interests me. [The film was shot at a non-functioning nuclear power plant in Austria.]
What's it like to do these edgy movies, Blue is the Warmest Colour and Grand Central?
I often play brave characters, don't you think? I always like when they are fighting for something.
What attracted you to Grand Central?
Rebecca, I think, her vision and the way she wanted to tell her story and the fact that also it was a love story because I enjoy that.
Your character Karole works in such a masculine world. Is that something you like too?
Oh yeah, totally, I do like it. I like when it’s not cute. I like her vulnerability, but I like the fact she is like a soldier.
Did you know this world at all because it’s such an enclosed environment?
Yes, claustrophobic. But it’s not claustrophobic for me, because Karole is always in the fields.
She is very sexy too and there is full frontal nudity.
Yes, that’s true. It was just after I did the Kechiche film, but I don't know if I really liked the nudity. In Rebecca's film, I like it because it’s meaningful in the scene, so it was necessary to do. I also like that it’s fleshy and we need that in cinema today. Now everything is too polished, too clean. We need to have real people; we need to have reality. But it’s true that I am not a huge fan of sex scenes.
I read how you felt a bit humiliated by the long sex scene in Kechiche’s film?
You can feel humiliated, yes. The one in the Kechiche film is different because it’s not about being naked; it’s more than that. So I do it and I try to not think about it. I try to escape from myself.
Can you look at it when you are in a full cinema? Is it awkward?
Yes, I just look at it to see if it’s nice, if I look okay. Not pretty, but okay. I don't look as a spectator. I don't think it’s something that I really like to see. I like to see eroticism, I like to see sexy people, but I don't like to see rough sex at all.
Tahar Rahim makes a strong lead in Grand Central.
I thought he was brilliant in A Prophet and people are saying that he is as good in Grand Central. It’s true because Rebecca is very smart and she knows how to direct actors. There was something about Tahar that she really liked and he was like the character, because he has this child-like quality.
Grand Central screens at the 2014 French Film Festival. See the official website for further details.