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Gender equality

‘I’m looking to retire’: Sophie Marceau on Jailbirds and Hollywood’s ageism and sexism

The French actress, in Hong Kong to promote her latest film, has harsh criticism for Hollywood and ponders retirement from cinema

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2016, 12:43pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 11:43am

Sophie Marceau dropped a bombshell when she sat down with SCMP.com. It could be because the French actress was under the weather (she complained of jet lag and lack of sleep during our chat, and subsequently cancelled a public conversation event with the Hong Kong actress Karena Lam the following night) – or it could be because she really meant it.

“I’m looking to retire,” says Marceau, 49, when she’s asked to describe the current phase of her career.

Is she serious?

“Kind of, yeah,” she says. “I’ve done a lot, you know. I like my job, but today to be famous is a lot of pressure, a lot of manipulation, a lot of blah, blah, blah. And, of course ... ” She takes a brief pause, possibly remembering the many offers already on the table. “No, there are a lot of things, but I will be very selective. Very selective.”

When I remind Marceau – who is one of the most recognisable actresses to have come out of Europe in the past two decades – that she wouldn’t stop being famous just by quitting acting, she laughs. “So why should I keep going? You know, it’s done.”

Except it isn’t yet. Marceau was in Hong Kong last week to attend the gala premiere of her new film Jailbirds, directed by Audrey Estrougo and presented here as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Playing a woman who’s imprisoned for helping her criminal activist boyfriend escape the clutches of the law, the actress spends the entirety of the movie navigating her way around the prison system.

The film’s five-week shoot, which took place in an abandoned prison in the city of Rennes in northwestern France, was particularly difficult due to the lack of heating on site – if not also its bad “energy”.

“I believe in feng shui and all that,” says Marceau. “When you spend time in a prison, the energy is really, really heavy.

“On Friday night [during the shoot], when I was going back to see in my daughter in Paris, I was like, ‘Le liberté! Freedom! And love! And sweetness and civilisation!’ It’s just delicious. And then on Monday morning, going back there, crossing the main gate of the prison,” she lets out a dramatic gasp, “it was really difficult.”

Although Marceau enjoyed an impressive spell in English-language productions between 1995’s Braveheart and 1999’s The World is Not Enough, in which she played the Bond villain Elektra King, she has since kept her focus on French cinema and had no second thoughts about the decision.

“I didn’t want to spend my time there,” she says of Hollywood. “They didn’t need me either, to be honest. And I’m fine with this part of the world. It’s too tough for me [there]: I’m not in [it for the] competition; it’s terrible for me, I don’t fit in that.”

Marceau believes that European cinema is “more sensitive and feminine” when compared to its American counterpart, which she considers “more macho”.

“We have a lot of female directors. In America there are two: Kathryn Bigelow, and I don’t know the name of the second one.”

It turns out that the actress is joking about the latter. “I said two but I just know one, actually,” she clarifies with a giggle.

While it’s a regular occurrence in Tinseltown for actresses to bemoan that they’re deemed too old for meaningful roles, Marceau says she hasn’t faced the same problem in her home country.

“In France, women are more friends to each other [than enemies]. So even at my old age, I’m offered lots of characters and I’m happy about that. But I know it’s not the case everywhere. That’s one of the reasons I would not go to work in Hollywood, anyway, because there’s like a run after youth.

“Cinema is about attraction and glamour. It’s true that at 50, 60 or 70 years old, you don’t have the same impact on men, probably, than when you’re 20. But I’m not going to change for men. They have to change. It’s not me who’s going to make them change.

“I think those guys who always want to hire very, very young, it’s a fit for the part if you’re gonna play Lolita – even a 25-year-old is too old to play the 13-year-old girl. But all the movies are not Lolitas. And the old guys, one day they will be [labelled] old-fashioned if they think that a 50-year-old woman cannot be sexy. As long as [those] men are afraid of women, they will always take women that are younger [for the roles].”

Still, there is a chance that Marceau’s stance might end up becoming merely academic: she has already planned for life after she calls it quits. Having written a 1995 semi-autobiographical novel (which was published in English as Telling Lies in 2001), she is looking to return to writing, because “I like that”, she says.

“Or [I’ll turn to] gardening, or dreaming. I like this idea also to question myself: ‘OK now, I don’t have anything [to do] anymore. What am I gonna do?’ I like that too – it’s like a challenge as well.”