A former tournament poker player, Virginie Efira knows how to appreciate a filmmaker who plays his cards close to his chest. “For me [Paul] Verhoeven’s films are all full of irony and ambiguity,” Efira tells me on a video call from Paris. “Nothing is ever clear-cut.”
Verhoeven’s latest film, Benedetta, starring Efira as Benedetta Carlini, a real-life 17th-century Italian nun who was tried in court for having a lesbian affair, is no exception. Throughout the film, in theaters this weekend, it is never quite clear whether Benedetta is a manipulative fantasist or a fervent Catholic. “I like playing characters with several layers who hide things from others and hide things from themselves,” explains the 44-year-old Belgian actress.
Verhoeven cast Efira in Benedetta after working with her on his preceding film, Elle, in which she played a smaller part as the devout wife of a rapist. “What I found interesting was that he chose me for Benedetta in spite of my contemporary looks,” Efira says. “I’m quite physically solid, not exactly skinny. That tells me he wasn’t looking to cast someone who corresponded with the story’s epoch.”
Something else that surprised Elfira about the film, written by David Birke and based on the 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, by Judith C. Brown, is that her character starts off as a virgin. “It’s very interesting to play a role like that when you’re past 40,” she says. “I thought to myself, This is the first and last time I play a virgin.”
In France—where Efira moved to, from Belgium, when she was 27 to pursue a career as a television-show presenter—several critics have lately compared her talents to those of the American actress Gena Rowlands. “Maybe it’s because I have a similar hairstyle,” Efira says. “Also, like her, I have played a few drunks, so I watched her movies closely to see how she’d fall down in a scene.”
Efira’s acting career has come a long way since she gave up TV to make her film debut, in Garfield (2004), as the French voice of Dr. Liz Wilson, played in the original by Jennifer Love Hewitt. Over the last five years, she has racked up three French César Award nominations for best actress, in Justine Triet’s acerbic romantic comedy In Bed with Victoria (2016), Catherine Corsini’s An Impossible Love (2018), and Albert Dupontel’s Bye Bye Morons (2020).
Efira’s only regret is that she didn’t begin grabbing hold of such meaty parts earlier. Part of her initial reticence to becoming an actress was caused by a high-school education in Belgium that frowned on the profession.
“I thought to myself, This is the first and last time I play a virgin.”
“There were some teachers at the school I attended, which prepared students for the top universities, who reacted to my acting ambitions as though we were stuck in the 1930s and I was going to prostitute myself,” she says. So now, more than ever, Efira is determined to make up for lost time. She is even practicing her English in the hope that she can land an American agent. (Our interview was done in French.)
For the moment, it’s baby steps. “When I play in English, I see a wall before me, so I don’t feel free,” she says. “I lose my words, but I want to be better. Voilà!”
Benedetta is in theaters now
Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire, U.K.–based writer and book critic