Virginie Efira: ‘On the script there was something crazy, sacred, intimate’

Virginie Efira has a confession to make: before playing a 17th-century lesbian nun in Benedetta, she went on a diet and worked out to prepare for the sex scenes. She presents this as if it were a feminist betrayal for which she needs to atone.

“I would like to be able to say: ‘That’s it, I’m not going on a diet.’ I find that idea wonderful. But like an imbecile I went on a diet before the shoot; I did a bit of sport, ate loads of broccoli, that sort of thing,” she says with contrition. “I know, lo so, it’s ridiculous.”

Does the Belgium-born Efira, 44, seriously think anyone would do otherwise? "Bene, all bodies are interesting in the cinema but our appreciation of our own anatomy is not always simple,” she adds warming to her mea culpa. “In real life it’s not always easy to live up to our ideals.”

That is also a recurring theme in Benedetta, the latest French-language film from the 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 shamelessly mercenary abbess Felicita, played by Charlotte Rampling.

The sacred turns profane with the sudden arrival of Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), a motherless girl fleeing her father and brothers’ incestuous abuse. By now the devout Sister Benedetta, played by Efira, è 18 and plagued with bizarre, often erotic visions of a literally sexless Jesus whose loin cloth she removes. When not in a trance, performing minor miracles or saving the town from the plague, Benedetta is enjoying more carnal pleasures with Bartolomea, who introduces her to sex and carves a dildo out of her treasured wooden statuette of the Virgin Mary. Benedetta screams “sweet Jesus” as she orgasms, at which point the film threatens to plunge into parody. Infatti, its harshest critics have accused it of “nunsploitation”, blasphemy and resembling a sleazy cross between Hammer Horror and Carry On.

Efira admits it was sometimes difficult to keep a straight face on set. “It wasn’t too serious," lei dice. “In all 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 it didn’t in any way become melodramatic. This meant there were a lot of moments when we couldn’t help laughing, even when trying to play something super straight, like when I was in a trance shouting: ‘Jesus, I’m coming … I’m all yours.’”

We are talking via Zoom from Brittany where Efira is working on her latest film, Rodéo. “Isn’t this great?" lei dice, turning her laptop round to show me the view from her rented accommodation: a sunny vista over the sea. As soon as her shoot finishes, she is heading back to Paris, where she lives with her eight-year-old daughter, Ali. She currently has five projects on the go. “We are shooting a film about a woman who has her children taken away by social services," lei dice. “It made me think of Ken Loach’s Ladybird, Ladybird, which is exceptional work, a real chef d’oeuvre. How he manages to do such beautiful things is marvellous.And I have three other films coming out, though I’m definitely taking June, July and August as holiday," lei dice, hardly drawing breath.

Efira is chatty, but measured in her answers, as if she is weighing each word. She became a household name in Belgium and France as a television presenter on Star Academy and then Nouvelle Star, both reality shows dreamed up by the producers of the Big Brother franchise, Endemol. Nel 2010 she left light entertainment behind, saying she would no longer do television “unless I have five children who have nothing to eat”.

Her cinema career began with mostly lightweight romcoms. But then in 2016, Verhoeven cast her as the wife of a rapist in Elle, his psychological thriller starring Isabelle Huppert. Since then she has got more daring. Nel Sibyl, directed by Justine Triet, Efira played a jaded psychotherapist who becomes unhealthily, almost obsessively, involved with a former patient. The comedy Bye Bye Morons (Adieu Les Cons in French), which won six prizes at the César awards (France’s answer to the Oscars) including the best film award, saw her in the role of a hairdresser who discovers she has a terminal illness and goes looking for the child she abandoned at 15.

But Benedetta, which was shot four years ago but had its release delayed by Covid, is Efira’s most challenging role to date. The story is taken from historian Judith C Brown’s 1986 prenotare, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, written from archive material Brown found in Florence from the trial of the real Carlini. In the original document, the clerk of the court was so shocked by the explicit details of the sexual acts described by Sister Bartolomea he had difficulty writing them down. Verhoeven’s take on that tale leaves viewers unsure whether the visionary nun is truly a religious fanatic or a fake, with the film touching provocatively on themes of faith, manipulation, power and politics. The film-maker has been accused of prurience in his racy and sexually graphic interpretation of Brown’s account, but Efira will not hear a word against Verhoeven, whom she frequently mentions in quasi-hallowed terms.

“I wanted to do the film even before I read the script because Paul Verhoeven, my favourite director, was doing it," lei dice. “I had seen his films at the age of 15 and I believe the biggest impressions you make as an adolescent stay with you. I adored 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 always have a complex side you don’t see anywhere else.

“Honestly, he could have asked me to remake Little Red Riding Hood and I’d have said yes. Then when I read the script, I loved it. It was truly exciting; on every third page there was something crazy that touched on the sacred, the intimate, the theatrical nature of religion, passion … ” she adds.

Both Patakia and Efira have said Verhoeven made the sexual content of the film clear to them when they first met, detailing how it would be shot. Ancora, things do turn racy in the convent. Was Efira apprehensive?

“I’m quite modest in real life and of course doing something like this is always a bit scary, but sometimes being scared is good," lei dice. “And it was quite interesting being over 40 and playing a virgin! It didn’t bother me being nude, but you can’t do it [sex scenes] with just anyone; you have to do it with directors who are interested in the sexuality and the sensuality [of the scene]. Verhoeven is someone who prepares everything in advance; even before I saw the script he told me there were these scenes – it was all storyboarded as well. So everything was well prepared Daphne and I got on well, and everything was very natural between us.”

She says the film, which premiered at Cannes last year, was well received in France and is not anti-religion. “It poses questions about belief and faith and criticises the dogma without criticising the religion," lei dice. “It shows the force of great faith. This was a period that was very interesting for women, it was an era when religion didn’t go hand in hand with individual and sexual freedoms.”

After our call, I email Efira to ask if she thinks Benedetta is a feminist film; she replies quickly. Like roads and Rome , her answer leads back to Verhoeven. “Like all his films, it’s feminist because it features a complex woman – which I like more than the idea that a feminist film should necessarily feature a strong woman – who struggles in a male environment and power to gain freedom. Long before #MeToo Paul Verhoeven never had a ‘male gaze’; his way of looking at things is always on the side of his heroine, who is never objectified whether she is naked or dressed," lei scrive.

Some would strongly disagree.

Sharon Stone alleges that she was tricked into appearing without underwear during the infamous leg-uncrossing scene in Basic Instinct, an accusation that 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 unshakeable. Whether British cinemagoers will be so ready to worship at the altar of Verhoeven remains to be seen.

Benedetta is in UK cinemas on 15 aprile.

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