Exclusive interview with Sara Forestier, star of “The Names of Love”

The Names of Love is a French hit movie that’s making a splash in the States. It takes on some massive issues and handles them with a quirky humor, pitching hippie sexuality, magical realism, and even a top French politician, into a piece that’s somehow simultaneously a farce and a refreshing shake-up of some of the biggest issues French, or any other society has to face.

Key to the success of this very bold gamble is the outstanding performance of Sara Forestier, playing the role of Bahia, a girl who sleeps with right wing politicians so that she can convert them to the left. I spoke to Sara about her role, and the film.

Did you have any idea this movie would be such a hit with the public when you took the role?

The thing is you never know what it’s going to be like until you see the edited version. So you have to place enormous trust in the director. When I choose a role I don’t think about how the movie is going to do at the box office – I am like a spectator. I read the script and I want to be entertained. I want a great story. Before it is complete a movie is a very unstable thing: it can so easily fall apart. But you are right – people love it, and many have told me how it makes them rethink some of the issues it addresses.

So what was it about this script that prompted you to take a part in it?

I loved the way it takes such an off-beat approach to French society. This script covers some of the most difficult themes in today’s France: the themes that have been treated so heavily and awkwardly, either as taboos or as political footballs, so people aren’t able to discuss them in a meaningful way. The debate gets to be so sterile. But here we cover them: pedophilia, the colonial war in Algeria, the holocaust, immigration, and yet it’s such a funny film. I love films that are open and engaged like this – finding new ways to make their points.

France seems to be hung up on identity right now?

There’s been so much about national identity. The politicians are using this subject to win votes. But the problem is the “debate” is simply polarizing views. Take the ban on the Islamic veil. Some French people are saying that they know what is best for the women that wear these veils, and that they are forced into it by their families or whatever. I think it is a bit arrogant for us to presume we know what is best and who is being forced. Many of them are doing it as a mark of respect for their own religion, and we should respect that.

Do you think the references are too French specific for American audiences to appreciate?

No, I don’t. The themes are universal: all Western countries have issues around immigration, social cohesion, coming to terms with history, and so on. We’ve taken a few characters and shown their specific situations but out of that comes a sense for everyone. It’s already been very well received in Germany, for example, and in Quebec. Maybe the only bit that I would say is really very French-specific is the way the characters discuss politics even when they are out shopping!

Your character tells the male lead “Between us we represent the whole of France”. I found all the characters seemed neurotic. Is that a true representation of France for you?

Well it’s a bit like Woody Allen’s work isn’t it? I guess the neuroses in this movie are representations of the way people’s identities are influenced by the terrible historical events that impacted their families. If you take my character’s parents, and the parents of Arthur, they have completely different backgrounds but similar anxieties.

Did you change the character at all?

Bahia, my character, is a hippie child in the wrong era. That’s what makes the film so unusual and so funny. When director Michel Leclerc approached me I was initially a bit daunted – Baya is a very free, brave and generous girl, but she seemed to be a kind of superwoman with amazing sexual potency. I wasn’t sure that I could do that. But then I started to bring little pieces of humanity into the part. We worked on getting the character to become more impulsive and chaotic. That’s why I was glad to get the nude scene back in. (This is the scene when Baya comes out of the shower, gets a phone call and forgets she is naked. She walks down the street and goes into the subway, gets on a train, and sits opposite a woman with an Islamic headdress, still naked.)

You pushed for that nude scene?

Yes it was in the original script, but the girl who was originally going to play the part refused to do it, so they dropped it. Then when I came into the role Michel Leclerc mentioned it to me in passing, that this scene had been cut, and when I read the script I saw immediately that this was the key moment, when Bahia shows just how impulsive and reckless she is. After that the part falls into place and the film becomes so free. Later in the movie there’s a scene where (former French Prime Minister) Lionel Jospin comes into the room. Normally that would have seemed really odd, but after the nude street scene it was less of a shock.

Was it difficult to do that scene?

No, not really. We were like naughty schoolchildren, giggling about what we were up to. And besides, I wasn’t completely nude – I was wearing a pair of pink boots.

How has this role impacted your life?

It’s very rare to get such a role. I’d been really stretched and able to shine in my part in “L’Esquive” (a superb social drama about kids from a rough neighbourhood putting on a play, for which Sara won an award), but since then I had been getting roles that were quite good but left me feeling like a dried out plant.
If you want an exceptional performance you really need an exceptional part, and that’s what I had here. I felt like suddenly the highway was before me and I could put my foot down!

When you got the (French Oscar equivalent) C├ęsar award for best actress, you were very moved – can you describe why getting an award like that seems to be such an overwhelming experience?

When you make a film you spend ages working with a sense of doubt. You don’t know if what you are doing is going to work. It’s a key part of the creative process to be uncertain of the result. That means its very stressful and exhausting. Every evening I cried just from the stress. So getting a prize like that is a kind of momentary pacification. It’s just such a soothing feeling.

Will we be seeing you working in the States one day?

I would love to work in a US production. I just have the impression there’s such a concentration of talent all inspiring each other. I so admire Sam MendesRyan GoslingJames GrayJohnny Depp…there’s so many. I suspect I might do best in the independent side. I’m not so interested in becoming a big star, more in becoming a great artist. I was delighted that “The Tree of Life” won the Cannes festival this year – it is such a wonderful piece of art, a truly intimate thing. It’s Malick’s prayer and by the end of it I felt it had been such a personal experience, it was like he was my brother! I really felt bad for him when there were some people booing. He deserved the Palme.