Léa Seydoux is coming to Cannes. She’s starring in four pictures at this year’s film festival and our interview is booked for noon on Saturday, possibly on the beach. The beach is good for weird distractions and local colour. I once interviewed Juliette Binoche on the beach at Cannes while she was accosted by wandering vendors trying to sell her straw hats. “Non, merci,” she kept saying. She was very gracious about it.
Seydoux is coming to Cannes and then all of a sudden she’s not. The 36-year-old actor has tested positive for Covid: the biggest casualty of an event marked by tight security, 48-hour spit tests and a constant background hum of tension. She was supposed to be on heavy red-carpet rotation. Instead, she has spent the festival isolating in Paris.
When we finally speak on the phone, a few days later, she insists that, by and large, it’s OK. Seydoux is asymptomatic; her only problem is boredom. “I’m all day locked up in my house. Now and then I’ll have some coffee on the terrace. I had one just now, because I needed some fresh air. Otherwise, yeah, every day shut up in the house.”
At Cannes she appears in virtual form, 10-foot high on the screen. She plays a prison warden turned artist’s model in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a sailor’s spouse in The Story of My Wife and a journalist in crisis in Bruno Dumont’s France. But I’m most intrigued by her role in Arnaud Desplechin’s slippery Deception, in which she is “the English Lover”, muse to an adulterous author who sticks her in his book. The film is based on a Philip Roth novel and navigates a #MeToo minefield with its close framing of sex, art and exploitation. Co-starring as Roth’s alter ego, the French actor Denis Podalydès stares at Seydoux like a starving old wolf who’s just been shown a jugged hen.
In the UK, Deception’s subject matter would be treated like unstable nitroglycerin. In France, perhaps, they are more blase. “Yeah, well, that’s history,” she says. “All the great artists have been inspired by something. Beauty, a muse, whatever it is. And art is a sexual energy. It’s libidinal. It’s the highest form of creation. We’re inspired by love. We all know that. When you’re in love, energy, desire, creation comes easy. Eros produces. That’s what makes the world turn.”
I’m wondering how this fits with her own experience. Back in 2013 Seydoux worked with director Abdellatif Kechiche on the gay romance Blue is the Warmest Colour. The picture won the Palme d’Or and was hailed as a classic. But the actor balked at Kechiche’s working methods: the six-month shoot, the 200 takes, the centrepiece sex scene that took 10 days to film. She later said that making the movie made her feel like a prostitute. It sounds to me as though she hated every second.
“No, I didn’t hate it exactly,” she says. “Things in life are never black and white. It’s always more complex. I’m really proud of the film. I think he’s a great director. What I hated was the feeling that I was being objectified. So there were things that I hated and other things that I loved. But yes, being objectified is a really horrible feeling.”
Seydoux was born into French film aristocracy. Her grandfather was the chairman of Pathé; her granduncle the chair of the Gaumont Film Company. The newspaper Le Monde has likened her to Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Adjani. Other journalists have noted the Bardot-style gap between her front incisors. Maybe it’s the fate of every talented French actor to be viewed as the product of a long, noble line, like a beautiful foal at a prize-winning stud farm.
As a child, she spent six holidays at a summer camp in the US. This gave her a good grip of English and laid the foundations for a vibrant sideline in American movies. She explains that she likes not being stuck in one place all the time. “When I make a film in France, I know I’m going to be judged. It’s a little world. But English is more international, more universal. So I like crossing borders.”
She’s about to shoot a science-fiction thriller with David Cronenberg. Later this year we’ll see her reprise her role as Madeleine Swann in the much-delayed Bond film No Time to Die. It strikes me that the role of a Bond girl is perhaps even more loaded than that of a muse, but Seydoux’s not so sure. “The challenge with Bond is adapting to a different genre,” she says. “I’ve done more independent films in my career, so to be on a big machine like James Bond is interesting. And yes, of course, it’s an entertainment. It’s not about relationships, or love, it’s made to entertain. But it took me out of my comfort zone. Also, it’s fun. Great stunts, great locations. Something bigger than life, it’s good to experience that.”
She used to live in Chateau d’Eau, a drab neighbourhood of central Paris, which she felt kept her feet on the ground even though it horrified others. “I remember that one day I spoke to Mick Jagger,” she recalls. “You know Mick Jagger? Anyway, the first thing he said to me was, ‘You live in Chateau d’Eau?’ Like he couldn’t believe it. He thought it was so weird. Because it’s the neighbourhood of Gare du Nord. It’s where you take the train to London, that’s all it is.” She laughs. “But yeah, no longer, goodbye Chateau d’Eau. I’m in the south, a bit more fancy, near Gare Montparnasse.”
If she stepped on a train she’d be in Cannes by sundown. But it’s not going to happen; her best-laid plans are in tatters. “After the year of pandemic, I was looking forward to celebrating and seeing all the directors I worked with again. So it’s sad, it’s a shame, but that’s the way that it is. This is the world we’re all living in now.”