Illustration by T.A.
Marine Vacth: 'Nudity is a costume too'
Stunning looks and an air of mystery helped win 'striking new talent' and former model Marine Vacth the role of a teenage prostitute in François Ozon's new film, Young & Beautiful
Sunday 24 November 2013
The English title of the film that launches Marine Vacth as a screen star isYoung & Beautiful, which is undeniably an accurate description of the Paris-born model turned actor. But the original French Jeune & jolie, a knowing nod to a now-defunct young women's magazine, simply means "young and pretty". So writer-director François Ozon could have chosen someone merely good looking to play Isabelle, a teenager who baffles her parents by turning to upmarket prostitution; that would have given the character a naturalistic, everyday familiarity.
But there's nothing girl-next-door about Vacth. She's beautiful in a way that is almost hyper-real in its delicate perfection – smoothly symmetrical features, deep grey eyes, bee-stung lips. Together with long blonde tresses, these looks have you checking the floor for splashes of sea water when she walks in; she could so easily have just stepped off the half-shell in a Botticelli painting.
At 22, Vacth is five years older than her character in the film, her cool unreadability in front of the camera creating an unsettling, often mesmerising discrepancy with Isabelle's ostensible teenage gaucheness. Vacth's self-possessed grace is less obviously evident in the flesh. Entering the lobby of a Paris hotel for a pre-interview photoshoot, she stands faintly hunched, shakes my hand lightly and a touch apologetically and says a very quiet hello. She's wearing jeans, boots and a rough-knit shawl and, with her hair vaguely dishevelled, looks as if she's just been auditioning to play the part of Cathy in Wuthering Heights.
I meet her again upstairs after her photos, while she tucks into a risotto and chats in French about how she can't stand social media and the electronic world in general: "The speed oppresses me. I claim the right not to answer emails immediately." Then she leans forward, hand on chin, and looks pensively serious as she talks about her perplexing heroine in Young & Beautiful. Vacth admits she didn't understand Isabelle when she made the film and still doesn't. "I didn't really try and understand psychologically who she was," she says. "I wasn't interested in knowing exactly. And anyway I couldn't, because François didn't tell me anything about her psychology.
"What I liked was there's nothing that fundamentally makes her act as she does. It's something that maybe happens to a lot of adolescents – coming up against a rather violent experience, which you don't really analyse while it's happening."
Vacth – the name, pronounced "Vakt", comes from the Lorraine region – is friendly but reserved, occasionally taking long, concentrated pauses between phrases, her voice sometimes dropping to a near-whisper. A couple of times, she shoots me a direct look with those grey eyes, ringed with make-up of almost exactly the same colour. Then she picks up a cotton pad, briskly removes the make-up from one lid and stares out of the window, the scrubbed redness slowly fading around her eye as she gathers her thoughts.
Before moving from modelling into film, Vacth was more used to having cameras pointed at her than tape recorders. Then in May, Young & Beautifulplayed in competition in Cannes and she was suddenly thrown into a whirl not just of photocalls but also of interviews, in which she was asked to give on-the-spot psychoanalytic readings of the film's heroine. Vacth coolly describes the whole process as "a curious exercise. From what I saw of Cannes, there's a sort of excitation that happens for a few days and not just around the film. It can be fun, depending on how you decide to look at it. But three or four days is enough."
You imagine that Vacth isn't easily impressed by glitz, given how much time she's spent incarnating it for various brands. Discovered in an H&M shop at the age of 14, she went on to be photographed by the likes of Mondino, Juergen Teller and Paolo Roversi, and succeeded Kate Moss as the face of YSL's Parisienne perfume; you can see her strutting with mondaineconfidence across the Pont Alexandre III in its TV ad. She made her first film appearance – basically embodying cosmopolitan chic – as the antihero's model girlfriend in Cédric Klapisch's comedy Ma part du gâteau (My Piece of the Pie) in 2011, then appeared in another feature and a short before working with Ozon.
In Young & Beautiful, Vacth is on screen almost permanently, for much of the time with her clothes off, sometimes straddling, in one case fatally, the clients Isabelle meets in hotel rooms. I sense that Vacth is not entirely convinced by the film's rather shopworn idea of prostitution as a female fantasy. Given Ozon's record, in films such as Under the Sand and Potiche, of creating powerful roles for the likes of Charlotte Rampling and Catherine Deneuve, his new film feels surprisingly glib.
But for Vacth, the film is more about Isabelle's coming of age than anything else: "She becomes a woman who arouses desire, that's how she enters the adult world. She becomes aware of adults looking at her – men and women alike." She doesn't believe that the film is really about prostitution, but about Isabelle's parents not understanding her: "It's about how, within the family unit, we accept that there's something that eludes us."
Although Young & Beautiful has divided critics, reviews generally agree that Vacth is a striking new talent. In interviews, Ozon has talked about being struck by her "opacity". When I later phone the writer-director and ask him to expand, he says: "I could only make the film if I had an actress who was fascinating to look at. Because the film is quite oblique, because it's not about psychology but behaviour, it had to be an actress that the viewer, and myself, wanted to look at – almost as you'd look at an insect." In auditions, he says, all the other actresses played it naturalistically, but not Vacth. "There was a mystery, a strangeness about her. I had the feeling that she was thinking about something else."
In Cannes, the film's contentious presentation of young female sexuality was somewhat overshadowed by another French film about teenage sex, the Palme d'Or-winning lesbian drama Blue is the Warmest Colour, also notable for its nudity. That film has caused a storm, with its lead actresses claiming that the sex scenes were an ordeal. By contrast, Vacth seems to have taken Ozon's bedroom sequences entirely in her stride. "Nudity is a costume too. I didn't necessarily feel naked." Besides, the shoot was relaxed, even a bit of a lark. "François likes to joke around on set – he has a very ironic take on the world. He likes to do things in multiple inverted commas."
Talking about her modelling career, which she has now more or less given up, Vacth sounds detached, to say the least. "It was something I experienced with a lot of distance. It never fascinated me – it left me neither hot or cold, really. I just saw it as a rather peculiar world of its own, which could be rather ridiculous at times. Sometimes, there's this whole cavalcade… there's a side to it that can be pretty crass and not really justified."
Modelling, Vacth says pragmatically, is just something that she was able to make the most of. "I decided to take what I could take from it, leave what I didn't like, and not get too caught up in what was finally pointless." The best thing, she says, was that the job allowed her to travel and to be financially independent. Sometimes, she concedes, the experience yields something extra; she's particularly happy with a recent shoot for Acne Paper, in which she and photographer Benjamin Alexander Huseby channelled Monica Vitti and early 60s Italian cinema. "I love being able to tell a story through photos, but you don't often get the chance."
All in all, Vacth comes across as nothing if not contemplative. "She's a very deep girl," says Ozon. "She has a deep inner life, although she finds it quite hard to express herself." But in interview, Vacth doesn't remotely seem to have trouble expressing herself; if anything, her spoken French has a poised, slightly literary formality.
Her family, says Vacth, is nothing like Isabelle's liberal bourgeois clan in the film: "It was more disciplined." She grew up in Bois-Colombes, on the northern outskirts of Paris. Her mother was an accountant, her father a lorry driver who had his own company and named it Marine Transport. The enduring passion of Vacth's youth was judo, which she did for seven years until the age of 17, reaching brown belt: "I stopped because my teacher left – I couldn't see myself being taught by anyone else."
Asked whom she admires, Vacth says she has a few leading lights, "people who make you feel a bit less alone". It's an unorthodox list: veteran actors Gena Rowlands and Michel Piccoli, Egon Schiele and Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese modernist poet celebrated for his adoption of multiple alter egos. "That really touched me – the way he decided to be several persons and not just one." There weren't many books around the house when she was growing up. "All the things I've ended up reading or seeing, it's down to me. I wasn't really educated – culture was more or less absent in my background, so it all came a lot later."
Vacth doesn't have any concrete acting projects at the moment, and in any case is expecting a baby in spring; her partner is photographer Paul Schmidt, who recently shot her in a decorous nude spread for Vanity Fair. I ask Ozon how he imagines his new muse's screen presence developing. "She could have a major career, but I don't know if that's her ambition," he says. "She's very different from all the young French actresses who want to make one film after another and work in Hollywood. She just wants to follow her own path."
Her future is not something that appears to worry Vacth excessively. In any case, she says, her whole career has been a matter of chance. "Things have just suddenly happened to me and I never had time to sit down and say, 'I have to choose something precise.' I've had several experiences in a row like that. Cinema came along in the same way. And for all kinds of reasons, I'm going to carry on with it."
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