Actress Zazie de Paris arrives at the 71st Venice Film Festival with all her charm, to present the film ‘Les Nuits d’été,’ (Summer Nights), the first feature by Mario Fanfani – in the section Giornate degli Autori (Venice Days).
The story, with a delicate touch, explores the topic of gender politics in a provincial French town, through a solicitor’s secret penchant for cross-dressing. The drama is set in the late 1950s, when the Algerian war claimed the lives of many young men and women, who slowly started to rebel. The manhood required in that era by males, violently clashed with the main character’s urge to step into the shoes (literally) of a woman. The movie thusly explores elegantly and gently how each human soul encloses a feminine and masculine side.
In this exclusive interview Zazie de Paris discusses the themes within the movie:
How did you get involved in Mario Fanfani’s first feature film?
I met him at a dinner with Jeanne Balibar, who also acts in the film and is a very good friend of mine. Mario was very fascinated by my life. He said he had a movie in his head about gender politics and he wanted to write a part for me.
So you inspired him, like a muse?
He was inspired mainly by a book by Susan Basow, it’s a portrait of men in the 50s, who were dressed like ordinary bourgeois women. It was very touching because they are white collar heterosexuals, who are married and do this secretively, because they have the urge to be a woman for a few hours. This doesn’t mean they are sexually homosexuals though.
The film is set in the French province during the Algerian war, when manhood was very important, do you think the gender issue is enhanced by this setting?
It’s crucial for the atmosphere on masculinity: the war, and young people being sent to die. The loneliness of the war was alleviated by going not only to brothels but also to cabarets.
What do you think scares people of de-structuring genders?
I think people mainly fear transgenders like myself. They are scared of those who actually choose to switch gender. During the transition between one sex to another it’s something very new and in the 50s it was like being an alien. I always think of the cankerworm before it turns into a butterfly: to begin with the animal is ugly, then it has to be in a cocoon in order for the transition to occur and then the most beautiful and colourful creature comes to life.
How was your transition?
I started as a ballet dancer when I was a “he”. I was very young and had the chance to work at the Opera in Paris, with Maurice Béjart, and then in Alcazar, which was the craziest cabaret that you can imagine, I danced completely nude. I was handsome so that helped. But when I realised that my life as a dancer was bound to end in my thirties I decided to get a world map, spin the globe and pick a place with a pencil keeping my eyes closed. Japan came up. So at 23 I went to Japan: I was struck by Kabuki and N? theatre and realised I wanted to play the female roles. Then the ‘68 student revolution came up and when I was back in Paris I found out a cabaret was opening in Saint Germain Des Prés where they were looking for dancers, so I went there and they hired me. This cabaret had 50 artists on stage, with a live orchestra, we had to play many roles during every performance. It was a fantastic experience.
Is that how you become an actress?
The cabaret was an excellent training because I was playing 22 roles every night, for four years. I was being a young man during the day and a young woman by night, then I decided I wanted to be the whole thing together. My generation was very political of course, against the War in Vietnam, and that was when I went to Berlin to start my transformation, taking my hormones and I became a woman. I then opened a nightclub giving the same atmosphere I learnt at the Alcazar and brought it to Berlin, which was rough and tough, northern and cold, and I filled it with paillettes. That was the time when David Bowie was there and we were all sprayed punk. In the ‘80s I started working in the theatre with Jérôme Savary and Peter Zadek, of whom I became the muse.
How about cinema?
Movies came with Werner Schroeter, a flamboyant experimental film director who casted me for a film with Isabelle Huppert, called ‘Deux’ and it was his first film at the time. Just like Mario Fanfani for ‘Les nuits d’été’. I like to work with first time directors.
What are you up to now?
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of television too, I’m part of the permanent cast of the television series called ‘Tatort.’