“It’s love, I guess,” says Emmanuelle Seigner, in her French-accented English, of her marriage to controversial film director Roman Polanski. “It’s very strange. I think, even though I was young when I met him, I always saw myself on the same level. So, maybe it’s because I’m arrogant and I was never under him; I was never submissive. Maybe that’s why it’s worked.”
Relationships between film industry folk often have a short shelf life. But this one seemed particularly doomed. After admitting to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977 and fleeing the US, in 1989 Polanski wed a fresh-faced 22-year-old unknown actress, 33 years his junior. Seigner, now 47, who is by turns feisty, self-critical, modest and opinionated, has, after 25 years of marriage, defied everyone’s expectations. The couple have two children (Elvis, 16, and Morgane, 21), have collaborated on four feature films and have overcome some testing times that would have broken many a relationship.
Polanksi was arrested in Switzerland in 2009 at the request of the United States in an attempt to extradite him to face re-sentencing for his 1977 crime. He had served 42 days in a US prison at the time, before being released and fleeing the country. The Swiss jailed him for two months then placed him under house arrest in his luxury chalet in Gstaad while lawyers fought to save the then septuagenarian film-maker from extradition. After ten months, he was declared a free man.
His arrest came as a big surprise, recalls Seigner. “I didn’t really ever think about that happening, especially after all those years. It was a surprise to a lot of people, not just to me.”
She doesn’t like talking about that period but admits, “It was not the best moment. I didn’t know if we were ever going to live together again. We have to live differently because he can’t travel much. But you can’t win them all,” she sighs with a Gallic shrug. “Some people have even worse experiences, have tragic stuff happen to them, so why would we be better?”
The fact that they were eventually able to return to a reasonably normal life in Paris, gives their new film, Venus in Fur, special significance. “But I would still rather not have gone through all of that.”
Venus in Fur (in cinemas from Friday 30 May) is a smart and sexy two-hander, adapted from the play by David Ives. Seigner plays Vanda, an actress who auditions for the lead in a stage production based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s sado-masochistic love story. It is the kind of role that Seigner admits she has been waiting for, having felt underused for most of her career.
Her breathtakingly uninhibited performance in Polanski’s darkly camp psychosexual 1992 thriller Bitter Moon should have led to bigger roles. Seigner claims that the artist Julian Schnabel – who cast her alongside Almaric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – thought her work was Oscar-worthy, but says she “had a hard time, because I was criticised a lot for that movie. People hated me because I was married to him [Polanksi], I guess. And they thought that I got the role because I was his wife. Which was true, in a way. But maybe it was good for me, because it made me become better.”
Despite the raw and explicit nature of the films they have made together, Seigner feels safe working with Polanski. “Sometimes you see a movie that you made and you feel betrayed. I know with him that he will never betray me and will show me at my best. So that gives me a lot of confidence and relaxation.”
The sometimes fraught relationship between actors and film-makers was thrown into the spotlight recently when the female stars of French lesbian drama Blue Is the Warmest Colour publicly attacked director Abdel Kechiche for allegedly treating them like meat. Léa Seydoux told me she realised early on that she would be fired if she didn’t do what he wanted. When I mention this, Seigner lets out a dismissive “pffft” and recounts the story of her battle with the legendary Jean-Luc Godard on her first film, Detective.
“I was 16 or 17, like ten years younger than Léa Seydoux, and I remember the first day he asked me to be without my bra. And then the second day he wanted me to be naked. I said, ‘Listen, I’m leaving. I’m going home.’ He stopped the movie for a week and I came back, and he said, ‘OK, you won your panties.’ So I think nobody obliges you to do something. If you don’t want to do it, you don’t do it.”
Actors only have so much control, though, and she is waiting for the buzz surrounding her latest performance to bear fruit. So far, everything she has been offered has been “boring”. “There aren’t so many great roles for women. And I just want to have something to do, and not just walk around a movie looking beautiful. You know what I mean?”