In The Innocents, one of the successes of the recent French Film Festival, writer-director Anne Fontaine not only uncovers the abuse of Polish nuns by Stalin’s soldiers in the aftermath of World War Two, but provides a showcase for luminous French actress Lou de Laâge. After her two nominations as best newcomer in the Césars for 2013’s Jappeloup and 2014’s Breathe directed by Mélanie Laurent (where she played a rebellious teen together with Joséphine Japy) De Laâge appeared alongside Juliette Binoche in The Wait. Now The Innocents gives her all the attention as well as providing her first fully-fledged adult role.
In this so-called “pregnant nuns movie”, the 26-year-old, who turns 27 on April 27, plays a French Red Cross doctor who secretly helps the nuns in a Polish Benedictine convent. They are in horror-struck denial and are convinced that their ordeal must somehow be their fault.
The gritty drama marks a change of pace for Fontaine, who is known for the frothier Coco Before Chanel starring Audrey Tautou, The Girl from Monaco starring Fabrice Luchini as an attorney falling for a local weather girl, and the widely derided Adore (available at SBS On Demand) which was set in Australia, and starred Naomi Watts and Robin Wright as women who fell in love with each other’s sons.
Fontaine explains that the story of the pregnant nuns was unknown even in Poland, though Polish historians advised her that the writings in a diary she’d been given by the nephew of French nurse Madeleine Pauliac were true.
“It was not just one convent but several. Some nuns were raped; some were killed. There were nuns who became pregnant, and there also were abortions. It was handled differently in different places. These soldiers didn’t feel they were committing a reprehensible act: they were authorised to do so by their superiors as a reward for their efforts. This type of brutality is unfortunately still widely practiced today as women continue to be subjected to this inhumanity in warring countries around the world.”
Fontaine created a fictionalised story around Pauliac’s experiences with the help of other screenwriters, most notably Pascal Bonitzer with whom she wrote her previous film Gemma Bovery starring Gemma Arterton.
“Here we have a Red Cross doctor, Mathilde, a girl who does not believe in God and believes in reason and science, who is going to discover that’s not enough in this situation,” Fontaine notes. “She has to be able to feel and think differently, and that for me is the passion of this story. We see the movie through her expressions, the world outside the surgical world. We know the Jewish Red Cross doctor she works with is besotted by her.”
Fontaine says De Laâge was her perfect casting for a story that is told from Mathilde’s point of view.
“I was very impressed by Lou’s work in Breathe. She possesses a strong, distinctive beauty. I sensed this grace, combined with her slightly stubborn side, a freshness and a fragility that lies just beneath the surface. I think she has a big future in France."
Helen Barlow: You’ve had leading roles in The Wait and The Innocents in quick succession. How did that happen?
Lou De Laâge: I don't know. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do a movie in Italian when I don't speak Italian, and now playing this Polish girl when I don't speak Polish. And I don’t know anything about horses and I was cast in Jappeloup alongside the horse-loving Guillaume Canet, who really helped.
HB: Did you know about the history of the pregnant nuns in The Innocents?
LL: I knew nothing about it because nobody knows this story. For that reason I’m happy to have done this movie because it brings the subject to light.
HB: How was it to work with Anne Fontaine and the rest of the cast?
LL: Anne’s very nice and knows exactly what she wants. The Polish actresses (Agata Kulesza from Ida is a stand-out as Mother Abesse) were so great and helped me a lot. They protected me.
HB: You were a fish out of water like your character.
LL: Yes, there’s a parallel with my character because she had to introduce herself into this new world, and I was the same with the Polish actors and technicians.
HB: Are you Catholic?
LL: I was brought up Catholic, my family is Catholic, but I’m not practicing. My character is not Catholic, she’s Communist but it was not her obsession. Her obsession was to save people. She had a Communist education but she’s not really a Communist. She begins to think about that when she meets these religious Polish women.
HB: Would you like to make movies in English?
LL: I have to speak better English first. I can’t dream of it now. But I’d like to work with people of different nationalities because that gives you something more in your acting and it gives you other experiences. Though I’m busy for the moment because I’m working with friends in the theatre in France. Last year I appeared in Mélanie Laurent’s theatre directing debut (The Last Testament) after I worked on her first film. She’s very generous and gives you many things.
HB: How do you approach your roles?
LL: It depends on the project. For The Innocents I worked with doctors. I think it’s important to learn the physical aspects of your character. When I was in Breathe I went to parties. I was trying to be her.
HB: You played an unlikable character in Breathe.
LL: I like this job because you can explore different types of human beings.
HB: What is your family background?
LL: My father is a journalist at the Sud Ouest newspaper in Bordeaux. I have very good parents because they are supportive in whatever I want to do. If I am happy they are happy.
HB: When did you decide that you wanted to act?
LL: I’ve wanted to be an actress since I was six, but I don't know why. It was like an obsession. My mother put me in this children’s theatre company between the ages of 10 and 12 and it freed my passions.
"I admire many actresses, but to have a role model means to be like someone, and I don't want to be someone else. I’m just me."
HB: You’ve worked a lot in television. What is the difference with movies?
LL: You don’t have a lot of time. The work is very fast, so it’s complicated. But it’s becoming better and the projects are better.
HB: Where do you live?
LL: I live in Paris and all my friends live around the same area.
HB: Do you have free time to pursue other interests?
LL: When you have a passion it’s all your life. When I’m not in cinema I’m in the theatre. But with this job it’s important to meet people and speak with them in the streets or watch them in bars. Everything gives you more material.
HB: Do you like it if people recognise you in Paris?
LL: I like it when people see a movie and they look at me afterwards and they say, “You’re not the same”. And I’m like, “Yes! Thank you!”
HB: Do you have any acting role models?
LL: I admire many actresses, but to have a role model means to be like someone, and I don't want to be someone else. I’m just me.
HB: Did Juliette Binoche give you any tips?
LL: She’s so cool. She only advised me to learn to speak English.
HB: Is there a difference between working with women and men directors?
LL: To me there is no difference. The difference is that everyone has a different mind. It's not about what sex you are.
HB: The Innocents is such a strong women’s story. Was it good that the director was a woman?
LL: If the director was a man I don’t know that the movie would be so different. For me Anne has something masculine about her. She could be either sex.
Watch Lou de Laâge in 'Jappeloup' at SBS On Demand:
What's it about?
A true sports story that utterly defies the odds, Duguay’s film captures the wild ups and downs of the Olympics-bound career of legendary equine star Jappeloup and his troubled rider, locked in a tense relationship with his horseman father and forever uncertain of his own skills as an equestrian.
Watch Anne Fontaine's film 'Nathalie' at SBS On Demand:
What's it about?
Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) and Catherine (Fanny Ardant) have been happily married for many years when Catherine discovers that Bernard has been cheating on her. As a form of revenge, or perhaps for more complex reasons of her own, she hires a prostitute (Emmanuelle Béart) to seduce her husband under the name Nathalie – posing as a 'regular girl' – and report back to her on what takes place.