One of the punkest actresses of her generation, Béatrice Dalle became an icon of French cinema as soon as she appeared on the screen, in 1986’s Betty Blue [37°2 le matin]. Zoom-interviewed, Paris to Toronto, for our “Karma” issue by Canadian director Bruce LaBruce, Dalle reflects on the many things she and LaBruce have in common (an avid need for liberty, a pronounced taste for the provocative), her boundless love for Jesus and Virginie Despentes, and her penchant for bad boys, gay men and “borderline” roles.
BRUCE LABRUCE: [Exclaiming as Béatrice Dalle appears on the screen] Ma belle! Ma belle!
BÉATRICE DALLE: I’ve got a headache, I’m on no sleep, and my face is a mess!
How’d you like to do the whole interview as Nadia, your character from Patric Chiha’s Domain?
That would suit me perfectly!
Shouldn’t be hard! There’s a lot of you in that character. I’ve just rewatched it. I love that film! Did you know John Waters called it the best film of 2010?
[Lighting a cigarette] It’s one of my favorites!
Béatrice Dalle: Coat, Ann Demeulemeester. Pants, Saint Laurent.
As you know, the theme of this issue of Antidote is “Karma.” In my view, there are two kinds of karma: instant karma, where you do something bad and it comes back to bite you later, as a sort of punishment, and “cosmic” karma, where you’re punished in a future life, through reincarnation. How do you relate to karma? I know you’re a big fan of Jesus…
Yes, I’m very much a believer, and a practicing Christian. I believe so strongly in Christ that he’s my karma. I find him so sexy, too! I’ve been talking with him since I was a little girl. I go to churches and ask him if I can do this or that. As long as he doesn’t say no, I do it. Before taking drugs, for example, I ask his permission. And he never says no [laughs]!
Wow. Jesus seems like a really tolerant and understanding kind of guy! So to get myself into a Béatrice Dalle mood, I’ve watched some of the movies you’ve played in, like Marco Bellocchio’s The Witches’ Sabbath – which is magnificent – and Gaspar Noé’s Lux Æterna. I found those two to be oddly similar. People burn in both, and there are murders…
Oh yeah? Bellocchio’s film was my second as an actress. I didn’t yet understand what was happening to me. For Lux Æterna the first direction I received from Gaspar was: “You’re an actress, I’m a director: go on, act!” Unlike with Bellocchio, with Gaspar it was me driving the film. These days I know what I like and what I don’t, so my relationship with the director is much more precious; there’s a real exchange. Now I’ll make a film only for the director. I won’t ever say no. I’m there to deliver what they want, and more. The story and my role in it? I don’t give a damn. It’s like painting. When Van Gogh paints a chair nobody gives a damn that it’s a chair. It’s Van Gogh’s eye and Van Gogh’s soul, so it becomes sublime.
What do you think about being someone’s muse?
A muse is one of the most beautiful things you can be. I remember once at a museum I stopped before some paintings by Titian. I looked at those women he’d painted and realized how much I’d have loved to inspire a painter of that caliber. Him or Francis Bacon, for his vision of people. When I see the way he represents his lover I think: “How lucky she was! What must she have meant to him for him to have painted her like that?”
You’d have liked to sleep with Francis Bacon?
Yes! But my favorite is still Jean Genet.
You like going out with homosexuals, so it could have happened…
It’s true I like the same guys as Jean Genet!
To get back to the idea of the muse, people these days tend to avoid that word, because it suggests a power dynamic: a woman subject to a male gaze. What do you think?
I really couldn’t care less!
Béatrice Dalle: Shirt and pants, Saint Laurent. Boots, Rombaut.
Even the term “auteur” has been set aside by woke culture, because it embodies an object of reverence, an authoritarian figure. What do you think of these woke theories?
They make me sad. It seems to me none of Pasolini’s films could be made today. Take Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, for example. Not for a second can I imagine those actors and actresses doing today what they dared to do in that film.
To get back to karma and reincarnation, do you think you could have been Joan of Arc in a previous life?
I’d have loved that! Giving your life for a cause – it’s like something out of a novel. But in France Joan of Arc has been claimed by the far right. For me she was the first trans in history! We’d have to reclaim her as such.
I mention Joan of Arc because I’ve noticed that in many of your films, like Bellocchio’s or Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, you end up burning. It’s odd…
The only thing I like is tragedies, and bloody operas. Stuff about daily life doesn’t interest me. Ken Loach does it well, but it’s not for me. I find everyday life boring, so doing it on film holds no interest. Every time I’ve had children on film, for example, I’ve either slept with them or killed them!
I love films where children die [laughs]!
Me too [laughs]!
In fact, I’ve just rewatched Escape Me Never, the feature with Ida Lupino, Errol Flynn, Gig Young and Eleanor Parker. It’s about two brothers, both composers. One, played by Errol Flynn, is very extroverted and sleeps with lots of women, while the other is a deadly bore. Eleanor Parker is going with the latter but falls in love with Errol, because he’s wild. Errol, for his part, is going with Ida Lupino, who’s got a baby. The whole first part of the film revolves around this baby, who interferes with the story of all the other characters. So you come to expect one thing: for the baby to die! When it happens, towards the end, you think: “Thank God! The goddamn baby’s finally dead.” Now everyone can live and screw everyone else [laughs]!
[Laughs] You know, I’ve always heard: “There will always come a time in life when you’ll want a baby.” Well, no! It’s not just because I’m a woman that I’m a breeder! I’ve never wanted a child. I don’t have a maternal instinct at all. So borderline kind of roles suit me to a T! That’s what I like to play on screen. In cinema as in literature you have a right to say and do anything. One day I was appearing on a TV show with some censors and, out of curiosity, I asked them: “Is there special training for censors?” Because to become a baker, a mason or a doctor you go through training… They took it the wrong way, thought I was insulting them! I wasn’t at all, but it turns out there’s no training for that. So on what authority do these people pretend to know what’s good for me and what’s good to show or hide from children?
Béatrice Dalle: Shirt and pants, Saint Laurent. Boots, Rombaut.
It’s terrible! In Hollywood there’s this association called GLAAD that tries to get scripts before the films are made so as to influence the way LGBTQIA+ people are represented. They want control over everything that concerns the representation of homosexuality. I find that to be utterly anti-art! Do you ever debate with your director about the way your character ought to be played?
Depends on the director. With Michael Haneke [Dalle starred in Time of the Wolf, editor’s note], for example, I made no proposals, because I knew he had the film in his head from beginning to end. But if a director asks me to improvise, like Gaspar [Noé, editor’s note], I’ll do everything I can to give satisfaction. I do what I’m asked to do. I’m game for anything, whether it’s improvisation or very specific things. I’m not an actress; I’m a soldier.
I like that idea! A warrior! Which director have you had the most conflict with?
[Pausing to think] Abel Ferrara! He and I would fight every day [banging her fists together]. But it’s okay, because once he says “Action!” he turns into a great director. I must have made 90 films, and I’ve chosen every one of them. I’ve never made a film for money. I’ve simply been dying to do it every time. I truly love all the directors I’ve worked with. If I’ve said yes, it’s because I’ve liked them.
Still, I think there’s always a kind of sadomasochism in the relationship between actor and director. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that all actors are masochists and all directors sadists…
Yes! But I find also that actors are sissies! Especially the men. They’re super fragile. I hate actors who complain. A lot of people live truly hard lives. We have no right to complain in a profession like ours.
I don’t want to play Barbara Walters, but I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about the men in your life. You seem to have an attraction for bad boys. Maybe it’s because men of that stripe are the exact opposite of the whining actors you speak of.
[Laughs] Yeah, absolutely!
How is it that your favorite fishing hole for men is prison?
[Bursting into laughter] Because it’s a very erotic place! It’s a boys’ world, so right away it’s got its own peculiar atmosphere. Also, I come from the streets. I’ve been hanging around difficult guys since I was little.
When I was younger I had a few pen pals who were in prison. Sometimes I’d even fall in love with the murderers I wrote to…
Letter writing is one of the other things that make prison so peculiar a place, because nobody’s writing letters elsewhere anymore. Now it’s text messages. It’s shit. And prison is also a place where you can’t do anything, so everything becomes extraordinary. The smallest little stolen gesture takes on an incredible sensuality.
It reminds me of Truman Capote. Some say he ended up falling in love with Perry Smith, one of the murderers he writes about in his non-fictional novel In Cold Blood. They say they even slept together in prison!
When you’re going with a criminal you’re given access every two months to a kind of apartment within the prison where you can spend several hours with the person…
You’ve already done this?
Yes! 480 times!
Béatrice Dalle: Jacket, Givenchy. Pants, Saint Laurent.
[Leaping from the chair] And you’ve made love every time?!
Yeah, of course [laughs]! Ten years’ worth of conjugal visits! Besides, when you’re going with a prisoner you realize that you’re essentially creating your own cell. You don’t go out anymore, because you feel guilty whenever you compare your life to his. It’s like putting yourself in prison. I’ve noticed the same thing with other prisoners’ women.
You seem to have burned the candle at both ends in your adolescence. Could you tell me about that?
I’ve always felt I was born an adult. I had absolutely nothing in common with my parents. I’m grateful to them for having fed and clothed me, but I didn’t have anything to do with them. That’s why I left for 20 years. It’s as if I’d been dropped into a family at random. My father is a military man, a special forces commando in the navy. He didn’t have a high rank, so we weren’t rich, but I never went hungry. All the men in my family serve in the military…
So you grew up around strict, authoritarian men?
And the women in your family, what were they like? I imagine they kept more in the background.
Totally! They were caricatures of what I hope never to become: a woman who marries. If you’re going to do it, at least marry a rich guy… But they didn’t even do that. They married just some guy, had children, and that was that. I’m not criticizing. That suited them. But me? Never!
“Right now I’m doing a show with Virginie Despentes. We’re reading nothing but feminist, lesbian and anti-homophobia texts. I’m neither black nor Jewish nor lesbian, but you have to fight for the liberty of all.”
And where did you go at age 14?
To Paris, to live in squats with skinheads or punks.
Good segue. I wanted to talk about punks, because nobody really knows anymore what it meant to be punk. I was punk myself, and the reason to be punk was to offend people, to shock them.
Of course! Being punk was a real political commitment. Like your films, in fact. I’ve always considered you a fighter for liberty. Right now I’m doing a show with Virginie Despentes. We’re reading nothing but feminist, lesbian and anti-homophobia texts. I’m neither black nor Jewish nor lesbian, but you have to fight for the liberty of all.
Do you consider yourself an anarchist?
No. I’m just a free woman.
Your relationship with Virginie Despentes is the most powerful relationship that can exist between two women…
I’m sorry I’m not a lesbian, or else I’d be together with her!
There’s always hope! It’s the same with me. I’d love to be able to have sexual relations with everybody: trans people, women… But I’ve never slept with a woman. I must have mistreated a woman in a previous life, and so I’m not permitted to touch them! My cosmic karma dictated that I’d be born gay [laughs]! Tell me about your life in squats. There must have been torrid episodes, orgies…
Not at all! No orgies! I was so young when I arrived that all the “destroy” guys I lived with always protected me. In any case, when I’m engaged I never look elsewhere. It’s not a matter of morals. I just don’t care. That’s the way it is.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought that straight punks were very conventional when it comes to sex. And that all skinheads were fags!
[Laughs] I love gay skinheads! They’re the sexiest. Gay Russian skinheads.
Who doesn’t! We have things in common, Béatrice [laughs]!
I think so too!
Béatrice Dalle: Coat, Junya Watanabe. Pants, Saint Laurent.
I also wanted to ask if you’d ever fallen apart emotionally on set, or felt you’d been driven to distraction by a director. Do you carry the emotions home with you at the end of the day, or are you able to set them aside?
No, never. In any case, it’s not that I carry the emotions I feel back home with me. Those emotions are in me. Because I can only give what I already have. Sometimes during a film’s press junket they’ll ask me to explain my character. But I am not a character. I live my role, and I think that’s in fact the reason I often get good reviews. I put my heart and soul into it.
So there’s no distinction between the character and the actress?
Do you think your ability to be your characters ties in with the fact that you choose your films?
Of course! And I also think directors don’t choose me to transform me. They know who I am and what I can deliver. That’s what interests them. I’m not a child that you dress up as a shepherd one day and a fairy the next. It doesn’t work that way. When the camera rolls I don’t ever act, I live.
Is there a difference for you when you work with female rather than male directors?
[Pausing to think] As it happens, I’ve worked mostly with gay directors, and I like that, because when the director who chooses you is gay there’s no other thought lurking in his head. It’s just because he likes you as an actress. It’s often those directors who magnify women the most. You see it in Pasolini’s films. In Teorema Silvana Mangano looks like a Greek statue. Gay directors are very good at that.
Absolutely! And Patric Chiha did the same for you in Domain!
I really enjoyed working with Abel Ferrara, for example, but there was a sort of low-key seduction going on, all the same. I don’t have time for that. I think 80% of the directors I’ve worked with have been gay. And the difference is plain to me.
Eighty percent! I want names! No, I’m just kidding. I know there’s Christophe Honoré, Gaël Morel…
But, you know, it’s just like in my real life. I’ve gone out with more gay men than straight men!
Interesting! You’re the French Judy Garland [laughs]! To get back to bad boys, what was it like to work with Vincent Gallo [Dalle and Gallo acted together in Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day, editor’s note]?
He’s an incredible actor, very special, and has undergone some genuine trauma. I’ve known him for 30 years. I know people find a lot of what he says shocking, but I couldn’t care less. He’s intriguing, and singular. On set he wouldn’t speak with anyone, except Claire [Denis, editor’s note], because they’re friends. He spent the whole shoot clinging to my leg [miming the gesture].
I’m very fond of the guy, love him to death.
In any case, he’s not gay! But he often wears women’s clothes, so let’s call him an honorary gay man [laughs], even if some have accused him of homophobia…
[Laughs] That reminds me of something I’ve always found very strange! I often go out with gay men – as I’m doing right now, for example – and it’s always the gays who complain! It’s very strange! Before, when I was going out with JoeyStarr, who’s black, it was other blacks who’d say things to me like: “You’re a whore for blacks!” But I don’t care, because I’ve never made any distinctions. I’ve gone out with plenty of gay men, and it was perfectly fine. I don’t want to be erecting barriers for myself. I take love as it comes.
It’s the same with me [laughs]! You know, I’ve directed two gay pornos where the actors slept with women. It was almost experimental filmmaking. The actors were testing their limits, too. But pornos are about sexual performance, so why not try to perform with a woman? It’s an actor’s portrayal. I find it fascinating, because I’ve always considered myself a repressed straight man. What about you? What have your experiences with gay men been like? What do you like about them?
When people talk about a virile man they often imagine a Canadian lumberjack. But for me a virile man is first of all a man who takes full responsibility for all that he is, whatever he does.
Béatrice Dalle: Shirt, Saint Laurent.
And you think gay men take fuller responsibility for who they are?
Those who’ve come out, yes, totally! My current lover, for example, the one I was telling you about, is gay and a prostitute, and he takes full responsibility for his acts! He tells me everything, so I trust him completely. I don’t care that he prostitutes himself. What matters is that I feel good when I’m with him.
I’ve had prostitute lovers, too. And even if they fucked other people all the time, I knew that when they got back home I was their one and only.
That’s absolutely what I think!
I don’t know if it’s the case in France, but there’s a sort of neo-Puritanism in Canada and the United States. For example, I have feminist friends I’ve known for years who suddenly think that a 40-year-old guy going out with an 18-year-old girl must signify a power imbalance. It’s a very narrow view of sexuality and sexual attraction, if you ask me. A person much younger than you might find you attractive for all kinds of reasons.
I’ve always gone out with younger guys, and my current guy is 27 years old, so just imagine the kind of nonsense we hear!
Right now I’m going out with a 25-year-old guy, and people are constantly telling me that he’s with me only because he’s after something else, like a role in one of my films. Yeah, so? Where’s the problem? I don’t get it… Now that I mention it, do you have any films coming up?
Yes! I’m going to be in Patric Chiha’s next one! And in Fabrice Du Welz’s too.
I love Fabrice Du Welz! I met him at the Toronto International Film Festival, he’s incredible! Okay, Béatrice. That’s all I wanted to know [laughs]! And I’m sure we’ll be working together soon!
It’s a dream of mine!
I can sense it! It’s in our stars!
I love you, Bruce!
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