The stars of Paul Verhoeven’s new drama Benedetta discuss to Nick Chen in regards to the movie’s intercourse scenes and its surrounding controversies
When Paul Verhoeven ran into Virginie Efira in late 2015, he didn’t know who she was. By that time, Efira was already well-known in French and Belgian cinema, having gained fame beforehand as a TV presenter. More crucially, Verhoeven had shot Efira earlier that yr in his revenge-thriller Elle. “Paul said he didn’t recognise me because I was so elegant in Elle,” Efira remembers, laughing. “He implied I wasn’t elegant in real life.”
In Elle, Efira depicts a rapist’s spouse, a personality who’s seemingly oblivious till she reveals on the finish she knew her husband’s crimes all alongside. The inscrutability lends itself to Efira’s spectacular flip because the titular nun of Verhoeven’s newest characteristic, Benedetta. Inspired by an actual Seventeenth-century determine, Benedetta Carlini causes a scandal by having a lesbian relationship and claiming to speak with God. The latter happens with Benedetta surrendering her physique to larger powers, which raises a query: when Benedetta moans and groans, her eyes rolling to the again of her head, is she truly faking it?
“If you read about the real Benedetta, it’s implied she was mentally ill,” Efira tells me, through an interpreter, over Zoom, lounging on a settee in Brittany. “But Paul’s the master of ambiguity. We never know what she wants. Is it just to lock the door and make love? Or is it something more transcendent than that?”
Efira, 44, to UK cinephiles, is a talented, auteur-friendly Belgian actor recognized for An Impossible Love, Sibyl, and having a complete episode of Call My Agent! devoted to her. Since 2016, Efira’s obtained 5 César nominations, the newest one for Benedetta, and she or he speaks to me in the course of the shoot for Rodeo, one among her many upcoming options. However, Efira’s 20s had been spent as a French-speaking Claudia Winkleman, internet hosting actuality reveals resembling Nouvelle Star. While UK viewers most likely missed France’s model of The X Factor, Efira’s background emerges in Benedetta’s declarative outbursts.
“I love Showgirls,” Efira enthuses. “I love the exaggeration Paul uses in his filmmaking. I think the tone is reflected in why he chose me for this role. I don’t look ill or weak. I look strong and healthy. I didn’t change my hair. I injected a contemporary element into the film.”
At the convent, Benedetta feuds, flirts, then finally frolics in mattress with Sister Bartolomea, a rebellious nun performed by Daphne Patakia. It’s a thorny relationship that unfolds like a recreation of strip chess. Yet on a separate Zoom name from Paris, Patakia tells me, “When I met Paul, I asked if we were going to do rehearsals, and he said, ‘You know what to do.’ I was like, ‘Wow. OK. I’m not sure I know.’”
Patakia, a 29-year-old Greek actor who grew up in Belgium, was additionally the star of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Nimic, so she’s used to ambiguous auteurs. “Paul would give me a specific direction, like, ‘You’re doing this because you’re in love with her.’ He would turn around, then come back and say, ‘Or maybe not.’ Which, for me, makes sense. Paul’s movies are acrobatic. You never know: is it a comedy or a drama? Is it kitsch on purpose? Is she telling the truth? Is she crazy?”
Though Verhoeven is famed for erotic thrillers (Basic Instinct, The Fourth Man) and subversive Hollywood flicks (Total Recall, Starship Troopers), his lifelong obsession is with Jesus Christ. The Dutch director, a member of the Jesus Seminar, tried for years to make Jesus: The Man, and wrote a non-fiction e-book titled Jesus of Nazareth. Verhoeven even in contrast RoboCop to the son of God. “The two protagonists in Paul’s mind were Jesus and Trump,” Efira says. “May I remind you, we shot it just before the 2018 election.”
So is Efira taking part in Jesus? “Benedetta considers herself inferior to Jesus. But when she’s completely delirious, she feels like she’s not only his equal, but sometimes above him, and completely invincible. She can walk through fire. Nothing can touch her.” What about Trump? “When Paul wasn’t talking about the film, it was all about Trump. He was very concerned about the global situation. For me, the correlation is when Benedetta starts to believe that it’s real. That’s what brings her downfall.”
When I inform Patakia what Efira mentioned, she’s stunned. “I’ve never heard Virginie mention Trump before, but it makes sense.” For her personal preparation, Patakia watched Verhoeven’s filmography (her favorite is Flesh+Blood), learn Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, and imagined Bartolomea’s childhood on a farm. “She used to have sheep, so I thought of her as a wild, little goat.” Patakia pauses. “I don’t know if that sounds ridiculous: my inspiration was a goat!”
When the duo’s sexploits contain a Virgin Mary statue as a dildo, the “yes, God, yes!” jokes write themselves. Subsequently, the movie was banned in Singapore and protested on the New York Film Festival. So far, so Verhoeven. However, Gerard Soeteman, who co-wrote 9 of Verhoeven’s motion pictures, requested for his title to be faraway from the script. “From what I heard, they fell out, and Paul’s quite sad about it,” Efira says. “I hope this isn’t the end of their collaboration. It potentially might have been around the fact that Paul really wanted to focus on them being lesbians.”
“We had a sex scene that took two days to film. After the two days, me and Daphne actually thanked Paul because it was such a joyful scene to work on” – Virginie Efira
I carry up one other piece of on-line gossip: earlier than Isabelle Huppert took on Elle, it was allegedly rejected by Hollywood A-listers resembling Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman. Are European actors bolder of their selections? Efira defends Moore and Kidman, asserting that they tackle “brave” tasks, however says, “In France, there’s less of a puritanical approach to sex. Paul’s films, including Elle, are very feminist, but they’re feminist in a way that’s not obvious. They’re over-the-top. They’re sexually explicit. That’s not something you really see with women over 50 onscreen. So maybe that’s scary. In the US, issues around sex and religion are more taboo than they’d be in France… But I discovered Paul through Basic Instinct and watched all his films. What I felt, even before #MeToo, was that he portrayed women as sexual beings that also had brains. One didn’t negate the other.”
Recently, Verhoeven declared that if Benedetta had been filmed right now, he’d decline an intimacy coordinator. Efira agrees. “When you have a director that’s intelligent, kind, and professional, and you have a partner that’s onboard as well, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be done without respect and consent,” she says. “With this movie, we got here in ready. There was numerous communication. Everyone knew what they had been doing. Everyone had their boundaries revered, and other people weren’t afraid to talk out.
“We had a sex scene that took two days to film. After the two days, me and Daphne actually thanked Paul because it was such a joyful scene to work on.”
“Sex is part of Paul’s cinematic universe,” Patakia provides. “The sex scene in Basic Instinct isn’t sexy, it’s scary. You’re anxious about when she’s going to take the ice pick and kill him. The sex scene in Showgirls is so over the top, that it’s funny. And in Benedetta, the sex scenes have humour to them. They’re always about many things.”
While some filmmakers are famed for a visible aesthetic, Verhoeven’s fingerprints are extra tonal. In Benedetta, a hen shits onto a person’s face; when a statue collapses, the picket nipple lands, of all locations, proper above Benedetta’s open mouth. Efira, a specialist in zany comedies like Bye Bye Morons, thus delivers an outsized efficiency that appears possessed in additional methods than one. After takes, Efira would stand behind Verhoeven’s monitor and modify her positioning accordingly. “I had a lot of leeway to offer suggestions,” Efira says. “Sometimes Paul would say, ‘It’s weird, but I like it.’”
Before she returns to her movie shoot, can Efira share an instance? “When Benedetta has an orgasm, I wanted it to be completely over the top, to really exaggerate the reaction so that it looks like she’s queen of the world. She feels extremely powerful. It’s very exaggerated because it’s not like in a few days you discover sex and then you’re suddenly the master of it.”
Efira provides, “The character of Benedetta, I had to understand what would drive her because the actions didn’t always make sense. She prays, and then she masturbates. I had to dig into those impulses that she has, and I chose to express them this way.”
Benedetta is out in cinemas within the UK and Ireland on 15 April