The lulls in the careers of Diane Kruger and Ludivine Sagnier look to be over, says Kaleem Aftab, who talks to the actresses about their roles as sisters in Lily Sometimes, which won the Art Cinema Award at Cannes
The actresses Ludivine Sagnier and Diane Kruger are far from doppelgangers, yet it's easy to believe in them as sisters in their roles in Lily Sometimes, a film that this year won the Art Cinema Award, chosen by European cinema programmers for the best film in the Director's Fortnight section of Cannes.
That may, in no small part, be down to the fact that their careers seem to have shared a similar trajectory. Both fired straight out of the blocks in breakthrough films and were employed as models before they hit respective lulls, as they struggled to turn early promise into an acting identity. Now, though, the pair are back in the limelight.
At 34, Kruger is the older of the two by three years. Born in Germany, she studied dance with the Royal Ballet in London before an injury ended her nascent career. Returning to Germany, she found work as a model before her career as an actress took off in France when she appeared in Cedric Klapisch's film Ni Pour, Ni Contre, which was released in 2002.
She married Guillaume Canet after she appeared in his debut film Mon Idole, though the couple divorced in 2006, and the success of the film marked her out as a star to watch. However, her choice of bigger roles in the likes of Wicker Park and Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, opposite Brad Pitt, failed to fire the imagination, and while Kruger's career has since seen her take on an eclectic mix of roles in films including Joyeux Noel, Pour Elle and Inglourious Basterds, for every hit she has also appeared in movies that disappointed, such as Mr Nobody and Goodbye Bafana.
Sagnier's story is not a million miles away from Kruger's. The French-born star was also interested in the performing arts at a young age and won her first acting part aged just 10. In 2001, just as Kruger's career was about to blossom, she was named a "Shooting Star" - one of Europe's actors to watch. Her appearances in the François Ozon films Swimming Pool and 8 Women suggested superstardom was beckoning and it was no surprise when she was snapped up to play Tinker Bell in the live action Hollywood version of Peter Pan. Her career then seemed to stall as she had a baby with the actor Nicolas Duvauchelle, and actually hit the skids when they broke up. However, after a second child, this time with the film director Kim Shapiron, a return to form seems to have reached fruition in Lily Sometimes.
Directed by Fabienne Berthaud, who has adapted her own novel, the movie centres on the strained relationship between two very different sisters.
Paris-based Clara (Kruger) is happily married to a young lawyer when she has to take on responsibility for her whimsical, vulnerable and mentally unstable younger sister Lily (Sagnier) after the death of their mother. Through the course of the film, Clara, through looking after Lily, realises the inadequacies of her own life in Paris. The story is funny and touching and manages to avoid being overly sentimental.
The whimsical nature of Lily immediately appealed to Sagnier. "The character is so out of the frame and out of the boundaries that we usually get to play with, so when I read the script I was just overwhelmed and I knew by about page 10 I was going to do the movie," she says.
Strikingly, Sagnier felt close to the character of Lily, despite her obvious eccentricity. "It's her idealism about life, always looking on the bright side, that appealed," explains the French star. "I'm also an extrovert in life like her and I have this appetite for life. I'm much more sensible, I must say, because I'm a woman and I have plenty of responsibilities, but you know there is something common, a childish, impish way to behave that I really feel close to, so I just had to open the tap and let it go in order to be Lily."
Kruger, who had previously worked with Berthaud on Frankie, was offered the choice of roles to play. "Fabienne and I are good friends and I'd read the novel years ago, and she asked me what part I would like to play. I thought about Lily for a second. But then I'd made Frankie and my character was in a mental hospital, so I thought maybe I'll be the sane one then. Except when I watched the final movie, I realised it's my character Clara who's sick!"
Kruger actually says she found it difficult to watch the film. "When I saw the movie I was really depressed, because, the truth is there is quite a lot of me, Diane, in Clara, and I hadn't quite realised this. Let's put it this way, Clara is the person who I have hoped all my life not to become and I was really, really depressed when I saw so much of me in that character and I think Fabienne also sees that, so I just went home and cried."
The issues Kruger has with the character would make some balk: "I never wanted to be a person that was perfectly nice, was always the good daughter and the good girlfriend, and always tries to make it perfectly nice for everyone. You know, I've always been scared of people who are perfectly nice. I really think there is something wrong with someone who is like that."
Kruger explains that she doesn't intend this to mean she wants to be a bad girl either: "It's not about good or bad. To do what you want, even if the road might be difficult, just not become a nice socially acceptable person - they make me want to scream. I want to shake them; I can't stand people like that."
It's little wonder then that she gets on so well with Sagnier, who is another who values her individuality. Their chemistry is apparent on-screen and Kruger says of her co-star: "I do feel like I found a sister. I was really scared because I was a little impressed with Ludi; she's been around for many years, she's been an actress since she was 10 and she makes really great movies in France. I've never worked with women; I've always worked with guys. I've never had a movie where I've had such a close relationship with a girl."
The feeling was mutual. "With Diane it was kind of magical," says Sagnier. "Because even during the audition when I was out of sorts she was so good to me, so generous."
Shot over six weeks in a house in France, which the cast and crew occupied for much of the time, the film's environment, says Sagnier, fostered a family spirit that was replicated on screen.
So has luck changed for the two actresses with this film? Kruger will next be seen starring in Unknown, in which Liam Neeson awakens from a coma to discover that someone has stolen his identity; and she's just finished shooting Special Forces, in which a French journalist is kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Sagnier is also appearing in a film related to the war on terror: she stars in Lee Tamahori's The Devil's Double which is intriguingly about a man who is forced to become the double of Saddam Hussein's son Uday. It promises to be a grand year for both actresses.