Virginie Efira: ‘On every third page of the screenplay, there was something crazy, sacred, intimate’ | Movies
VIrginie Efira has a confession to make: before playing a 17th century lesbian nun in Benedetta, she dieted and trained to prepare for sex scenes. She presents this as if it were a feminist betrayal for which she must atone.
“I wish I could say, ‘That’s it, I’m not on a diet.’ I find this idea wonderful. But like a fool I went on a diet before shooting; I did a bit of sport, I ate a lot of broccoli, that sort of thing,” she says apologetically. “I know, I know, it’s ridiculous.”
Efira, 44, born in Belgium, does she seriously think anyone would do otherwise? “Well, all bodies are interesting in movies, but our appreciation of our own anatomy isn’t always straightforward,” she adds, warming up her mea culpa. “In real life, it’s not always easy to live up to our ideals.”
It is also a recurring theme in Benedetta, the latest French-language film from RoboCop, Showgirls and Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven. Released in the UK later this month, the film is set in the Convent of the Mother of God in Counter-Reformation Italy, where Benedetta Carlini is admitted as an eight-year-old novice by the shameless mercenary Abbess Felicita , played by Charlotte Rampling .
The sacred becomes profane with the sudden arrival of Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), an orphan of mother fleeing the incestuous abuses of her father and brothers. Now the devout Sister Benedetta, played by Efira, is 18 and plagued by bizarre, often erotic visions of a literally sexless Jesus whose loincloth she removes. When not in a trance, performing minor miracles or saving the city from the plague, Benedetta enjoys more carnal pleasures with Bartolomea, who introduces her to sex and carves a dildo out of her precious wooden statuette of the Virgin. Married. Benedetta screams “sweet Jesus” as she orgasms, at which point the film threatens to descend into parody. Indeed, its harshest reviews have accused it of “nunsploitation”, profanity, and sounding like a sordid cross between Hammer Horror and Carry On.
Efira admits it was sometimes hard to keep a straight face on set. “It wasn’t too bad,” she said. “In all of Paul Verhoeven’s films, there is an ambiguity in the situations. So we were doing things that were obvious and not-so-obvious, with him insisting that it didn’t get melodramatic in any way. That meant there were a lot of times when we couldn’t help but laugh, even when trying to play something super straight, like when I was in a trance screaming, “Jesus, I’m coming… I’m all yours.”
We talk via Zoom from Brittany where Efira is working on her latest film, Rodeo. “Isn’t that great?” she says, turning her laptop over to show me the view from her rented accommodation: a sunny view of the sea. As soon as her shooting is over, she returns to Paris, where she lives with her eight-year-old daughter, Ali. She currently has five projects underway. “We are making a film about a woman who has her children taken away by social services,” she says. “It reminded me of Ken Loach’s Ladybird., Ladybug, which is an exceptional piece of work, a true masterpiece. How he manages to do such beautiful things is wonderful. And I have three more movies coming out, although I’m definitely taking June, July and August as a vacation,” she said, barely catching her breath.
Efira is talkative, but measured in her responses, as if weighing every word. She established herself in Belgium and France as a TV host on Star Academy then Nouvelle Star, two reality shows imagined by the producers of the Big Brother franchise, Endemol. In 2010, she left light entertainment behind, saying she wouldn’t do TV anymore “unless I have five kids who have nothing to eat.”
Her film career began with mostly lighthearted romantic comedies. But in 2016, Verhoeven chose her as the wife of a rapist in Elle, his psychological thriller with Isabelle Huppert. Since then, she dares more. In Sibyl, directed by Justine Triet, Efira played a jaded psychotherapist who becomes unhealthy, almost obsessively involved with a former patient. The comedy Bye Bye Morons (Adieu Les Cons in French), which won six César awards (France’s answer to the Oscars) including the best film award, saw her in the role of a hairdresser who discovers that she is terminally ill and goes in search of the child she abandoned at age 15.
But Benedetta, who was shot four years ago but whose release was delayed by Covid, is Efira’s most challenging role to date. The story is taken from historian Judith C Brown’s 1986 book, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, written from records Brown found in Florence during the trial of the real Carlini. In the original document, the court clerk was so shocked by the explicit details of the sex acts described by Sister Bartolomea that he had trouble writing them down. Verhoeven’s take on this story leaves viewers unsure whether the visionary nun is truly a religious fanatic or a fake, with the film provocatively tackling themes of faith, manipulation, power and politics. The filmmaker has been accused of laxity in his racy and sexually graphic film interpretation of Brown’s account, but Efira won’t hear a word against Verhoeven, whom she frequently mentions in near-sacred terms.
“I wanted to make the movie before I even read the script because Paul Verhoeven, my favorite director, was doing it,” she says. “I had seen his films when I was 15 and I believe the biggest impressions you make as a teenager stay with you. I loved him because he is someone who succeeded even in the vicious system that was Hollywood in the 1990s. He worked at the heart of the system but was transgressive – and his heroines still have a complex side you don’t see anywhere else.
“Honestly, he could have asked me to remake Little Red Riding Hood and I would have said yes. Then when I read the script, I liked it. It was really exciting; on every third page there was something crazy that touched on the sacred, the intimate, the theatricality of religion, passion…” she adds.
Patakia and Efira said Verhoeven made the film’s sexual content clear to them when they first met, detailing how it would be shot. Still, things get racy in the convent. Did Efira have apprehensions?
“I’m pretty modest in real life and of course doing something like that is always a bit scary, but sometimes being scared is fine,” she says. “And it was pretty interesting being over 40 and playing a virgin! I didn’t mind being naked, but you can’t do that [sex scenes] with anyone; you have to do it with directors who are interested in sexuality and sensuality [of the scene]. Verhoeven is someone who prepares everything in advance; before I even saw the script, he told me that there were these scenes – everything was also scripted. So everything was well prepared Daphne and I got along well, and everything was very natural between us.
She says the film, which premiered at Cannes last year, has been well received in France and is not anti-religious. “He asks questions about creed and faith and criticizes dogma without criticizing religion,” she says. “It shows the strength of great faith. It was a very interesting period for women, it was a time when religion did not go hand in hand with individual and sexual freedoms.
After our call, I email Efira asking if she thinks Benedetta is a feminist film; she responds quickly. Like roads and Rome, his answer leads back to Verhoeven. “Like all her films, it’s feminist because it portrays a complex woman – which I like more than the idea that a feminist film necessarily has to portray a strong woman – who struggles in a and male power to gain freedom. Long before #MeToo, Paul Verhoeven had never had a “male gaze”; his way of seeing things is always on the side of his heroine, who is never objectified whether she is naked or dressed,” she wrote.
Some would strongly disagree.
Sharon Stone alleges she was tricked into appearing without underwear during the infamous uncrossing leg scene in Basic Instinct, a charge Verhoeven has repeatedly denied. And the jury is still out on whether Showgirls, which ruined Elizabeth Berkley’s career, is a movie about misogyny or a misogynistic movie. But Efira’s faith in the director is unshakable. Whether British moviegoers will be so ready to worship Verhoeven’s altar remains to be seen.
Benedetta is in UK cinemas on April 15.