Last year, Clea Duvall’s Happiest Season made a case for itself as the first good lesbian Christmas rom-com. But I am here to argue that, actually, that title belongs to Benedetta. Out December 3 after premiering to shock and delight at Cannes, Paul Verhoeven’s latest film tells the sexy, sapphic, completely chaotic tale of the titular 17th-century nun (played by Virginie Efira), whose fervent lust for the Virgin Mary is matched only by her less-platonic lust for a younger peasant girl, Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), who arrives at her convent and immediately seduces her.
Though the movie is based on Judith C. Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, which recounts the true story of a forbidden relationship between two brides of Christ, Verhoeven ratchets things up to hypermaximalist 11, putting his hot gay nuns through every sort of wringer. The two have enthusiastic sex all over the abbey, using a shaved-down wooden Virgin Mary figurine as a helpful implement; take joyful shits next to one another; lick religious statues; plunge each other’s limbs into boiling pots of water during one of many lovers’ spats; experience extreme extralegal torture; watch a fellow nun hurl herself from the top of a church; and witness an ominous comet, among other things.
Though Benedetta is very busy getting busy with Bartolomea, she also has time for an over-the-top religious awakening, hallucinating long conversations with an eroticized Jesus, who is nailed to the cross but still able to make out with her, and who conveniently tells her that what she’s doing is totally fine (though he does leave her with some bloody stigmatas and Exorcist-esque vocal stylings). Before Benedetta knows it, she’s got a big nun promotion, her own bedroom, an on-the-low girlfriend, and a regular stream of helpful prophecies about the coming Black Death and Jesus’s big plans to spare her small Italian town. Everything’s coming up Benedetta — that is, until the haughty Sister Felicia (Charlotte Rampling), suspicious of Benedetta’s legitimacy as a prophet and pure vessel of the lord, starts snooping around through a well-placed hole in Benedetta’s bedroom wall.
Verhoeven and his cast play the whole thing brilliantly straight (which is to say, gay) but with an exaggerated wink — this is Showgirls on steroid-spiked Communion wafers. Benedetta is a pissed-off send-up of the Catholic Church, a joyful nunsploitation romp, and an excessively dark comedy all at once. In other words, it is extremely fun. None of it would work without the provocative, kooky relationship between its two leads, whom I had the pleasure of catching up with over Zoom the week of Benedetta’s premiere — Efira vaping casually in a nondescript hotel room, Patakia smiling in front of a well-stocked bookshelf. We talked about everything from the Virgin Mary dildo to the question of the movie’s feminist bona fides to what it was like to have Charlotte Rampling stand in front of you and call you a “lying bitch whore.”
What were your relationships with Paul’s work before you both were cast?
Daphné Patakia: I had not seen too much of his work; I only knew Basic Instinct. I saw most of it after I knew I was going to the casting. And when I knew I was doing the movie, of course I watched almost everything. And I have to say that my favorite one is Flesh and Blood, which I know is not his most loved one, but maybe because it has the same thematics as our film. And because there is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who’s amazing in the film. It’s very funny. And because Paul doesn’t say much — we didn’t do rehearsals; we talked, but he doesn’t go into deep analysis of the characters — most of my prep was watching his films to be on the same wavelength with him and his work.
Virginie Efira: For me, it was the opposite. I was a big, big fan. I began very simply with Basic Instinct, too. I saw all his American movies before I was in Elle. I was fascinated after seeing Basic Instinct and Showgirls by the way he knows how to tell a story in the Hollywood way and then transgress it. The way that Sharon Stone or Nomi, all of his female characters, were dominating the sexual territory was so great. They’re not strong women — because I don’t like this cliché — just complex women. Bad and good at the same time. His most sentimental movie that I like is Turkish Delight.
You both had quite different experiences being cast in this film. Virginie, he offered you the part right off the bat because of your work in his movie Elle, right?
VE: Yes, I don’t understand why. My casting for Elle was a little part; it was so great to be there, to see how he worked with Isabelle Huppert. But three months after the shooting, I saw him in a hotel, and I said, “Hello, Paul,” and he looked at me like, Who’s this girl? I said, “I’m Virginie, I worked on your movie.” “Ah, Virginie!” I thought, Okay, he didn’t recognize me. Later, I read a book of interviews, and he spoke about Elle and about me: “I met Virginie in a hotel and I didn’t recognize her, because in the movie she’s always really well-dressed.” Meaning in real life I am dressed like nothing! Very nice. So after, when he told me, “I wrote a role for you,” I was surprised.
What was your initial reaction to the script when he sent it to you?
VE: For me, I read five pages standing up, saying, “It’s crazy. It’s crazy. It’s crazy!” Of course the character, but the movie too — it was so funny, so deep. When I read it, I thought, It’s a masterpiece. It was so deeply Paul Verhoeven.
DP: I did a very basic audition, and then I remember he sent me the script a day before I was supposed to meet him. I didn’t sleep that night. I was reading it and I remember flipping the pages and after each scene, I would say, “Is it possible to get even more twisted?” And yes, it was. But then I was very surprised, because when I read the book, I realized most of the things he writes about are real. Of course there is some dramaturgy and some stuff he changed because it’s a movie. I remember that the first meeting we had, he came with the storyboards of every nude and sex scene. He treats sexuality and sex scenes in such a great way; they always serve the story. And in this case, I feel that they’re funny.
I want to talk more about the sexual comedy in a minute, but I first want to hear about your first meeting together. What did you think of each other? Did you hit it off immediately?
DP: We met in the screen test. I knew that Virginie had the role. I knew her work and I was already in awe of you, Virginie.
DP: It was very easy to act like I’m in love.
VE: You never told me that!
DP: From the beginning we were very much at ease. I remember you invited me before the casting to eat, remember? I was not sure I was going to do the movie, but she invited me to a restaurant, and everything was very cool.
VE: I said to Daphne, “I understand why he chose you, because you’re very close to the character.” And I think of myself — it’s very pretentious — as a very healthy person. But Daphne told me, “You are a little bit crazy like Benedetta.”
What made you think that, Daphne?
DP: Because she can be many things at the same time. I feel that her face — you can project many things at the same time. That’s why she’s so perfect for a Verhoeven movie. The ambiguity is already there. Her face narrates that already.
And what about Daphne made her seem like Bartolomea?
VE: The energy — of her body, of the way she thinks. It’s very fast. Sorry Daphne, this seems not good, but it’s good: There was something about her that wasn’t quite civilized.
DP: I like that!
VE: I was hesitating to use the word “wild.” Her femininity and her beauty didn’t remove the childlike quality. Which goes well with the line at the end: “You’re just a child, and that’s part of your charm.”
How and when did you start talking about your characters’ relationship dynamics and the intimacy of the things you’d have to film together? I’m curious how you got to that comfort level and found chemistry so quickly.
DP: I remember we tried to talk a little bit about the characters and make some analysis ourselves, because Paul doesn’t do it at all. But at some point, we just left that out. Because it’s not the way he works. It was just about having an instinct on set.
VE: We have really different approaches to character. For me, I work a lot before on, “What does this vision mean to her? What does it mean to find sexual pleasure? What does this provoke for her?” A lot of reflection about, “Is she a manipulator, or does she have a very deep faith?” But when we were together, we didn’t talk about our intentions.
I want to return to the idea of the movie being very funny. Paul doesn’t rehearse or talk much about the characters, but how did you get on the same wavelength in terms of the really specific tone? I’m thinking, for example, about the early scene where both of you are just loudly and openly shitting next to each other.
DP: The only thing he said to me was that he wanted a lightness for Bartolomea’s character, that she needed that. And when you see his filmography, there’s always irony. It’s quite clear that he has a huge sense of humor when you meet him, and that transpires in all of his films. So it’s not that he ever said, “I want this to be funny,” but he films it that way. Some of the things, I didn’t realize they were funny until people laughed at Cannes. And Paul doesn’t talk much, but whenever he was telling me something very precise, he’d always flip it around. For example, “You do this because you’re in love with her.” Then he’d turn around and say, “Or maybe not.”
VE: “Peut-être, ou peut-être pas.” I loved that.
DP: I found that very interesting. The moment he gave us some keys, he would take them away. Because there’s no point in this film to having them. Everything is ambiguous, including the motivations of the characters.
VE: When you’re an actor, I think you must have the same faith as Benedetta does in the movie. You know it’s irony, and you must have faith in it. When I did the sex scene and had an orgasm, he told me, “Do it louder, louder!” I was thinking of Elizabeth Berkley like this [undulates her hand like Nomi’s body] in the swimming pool in Showgirls. But I like this! When you’re coming up against certain limits.
Let’s talk about those sex scenes. They’re obviously a huge part of the movie, both in terms of sheer volume and the critical reception. I read somewhere that Paul “warned” you about the Virgin Mary dildo. What did he say, and what was your reaction to it?
VE: When I saw Paul, before we did the movie, he said, “There’s a lot of sex scenes,” and I said, “No problem.” And he said, “With girls,” and I said, “No problem.” And he told me, in English, “There will be a dildo.” I’m not so good at English, so I looked it up after, and [widens eyes]: “Oh! Ah, bon!” If you take this scene outside of the script, it’s, you know, whoa. But inside the story, there’s a unique meaning: It’s the same thing that gives pleasure, that gives death, and also makes you laugh. There’s a filmic symbolism that’s very specific to Verhoeven, and that’s absolutely free of gratuitous provocation.
DP: It’s in the book, as well. It’s not Benedetta and Bartolomea who use it, but Judith C. Brown writes about other nuns using wooden instruments, and writing on them, “For my own pleasure.”
What was that day like on set? Did you have any sort of intimacy coordinator, was any of it improvised, was it choreographed completely by Paul?
VE: We didn’t have an intimacy coach. We didn’t need it, because we talked a lot about it before, with the storyboards. Daphne and I are very free about that. And I think Paul was a little impressed, because for him, everything was very choreographed, but together, we proposed some things sometimes that were not in the script. He was surprised that we would do that. Because he worked in America before; I heard a story from him one time where he said, “No American actress would do this.” And I said, “Oh, why?” And he said, “It’s not possible to do this in America. The actresses don’t do sex scenes like that.” Maybe it was very prudent with us, but Daphne and I were very free. And we proposed some things that were not in the storyboards — a caress on the face, something else with the body.
DP: Because we were in such a safe place — we had the storyboards, we knew exactly what it was about. In all of his movies, there’s sex that’s very interesting and not only about sex, or very voyeuristic. And Paul was always waiting for us to make a proposition, and then come and work on it, weave something from it.
VE: When you see Basic Instinct, a long time before Me Too, he took the perspective of Sharon Stone, not of the men who were looking at her. I’ve read about the male gaze, the female gaze — to me, Paul has no gaze at all.
DP: At some point, we were shooting the sex scene, and they were trying out some framings, where to put the camera. I remember he went back to the monitor to watch, and he did, like [mimes horror], “Oh, no! No!” I don’t know why; maybe it was too close to our exteriors. I saw the image as well, and I thought, That’s beautiful to me, but … But when I see the film now, I feel like you’re with Benedetta and Bartolomea; you’re part of the experience with the two girls.
Paul has spoken about how he thinks American audiences are more puritanical about sex; that in Europe, these sorts of things aren’t as big of a deal. Did you talk on set about the way the sexual aspect of the movie might be received differently here versus there? Did you have any concerns that it might dominate the conversation?
VE: I’m curious about your point of view, because to me, the American fiction films I see are not so puritan. But maybe I only see the good ones. I know this was something Verhoeven was very worried about. Personally, though, I thought more about the French resonance. I thought maybe people would think it was aggressive, or not like it — but in France, there’s another relationship to God, a different relationship to sex, so it was received in a totally open way with no problems and no friction. The only thing I heard was that it was “not feminist at all.” Someone who didn’t see the movie said, “Oh, there’s a lot of sex scenes, and it’s the men who are watching it, and it’s instrumentalization.” But it’s not feminist to say that! Because I’m a woman, my opinion is subjected to his? I am automatically an instrument? That’s not true. But it is true that the movie is contrary to the idea of the religious and political institution.
To that point, there are so many absolutely wild things going on in this movie for both of your characters. You’re possessed by the spirit of the devil, you have various hallucinations of a sexualized Jesus, you experience stigmata, there are extreme torture and suicide scenes — what was the day on set where you were most like, “I cannot believe this is my job”?
VE: Every day I said that: “I can’t believe this is my job.” But after, there was COVID: “Okay, life is not a Paul Verhoeven movie. Dommage.”
DP: I remember one day on set he was watching something with his director of photography, and I was trying to take a sneak peek, and usually directors don’t want you to know what the discussions are with the DOP. But he said, “Oh, come! Come so you can listen.” I was in between them as they made plans, watching where they’re going to put the camera, and of course I didn’t say, “Oh, yeah, let’s do it this way,” but it was so great to include me. I remember he said at some point, “Shooting is a democratic procedure.” He was really listening and asking everyone’s opinion.
VE: I have a question for Daphne: Do you miss him sometimes?
DP: Yes! So much. Right before, I was watching an interview of his, and I was like, “Ahhh. I miss him.” And you?
VE: Of course. Oui!
I know there was a huge gap between filming and the premiere at Cannes because of COVID. What was it like to watch it with that distance and with a huge audience? Were you surprised by their reactions, were you nervous about it?
VE: We shot the movie three years before. I thought the movie was going to be released when I was 68. I can’t believe it exists, really. But when the audience sees it, the movie belongs to them. In France, I like to read the critics, both the bad and the good. The different readings that different people have of it, that’s really the most fascinating thing for me.
DP: For me, usually when I see a film I did, I’m too self-conscious. But because it was so long ago, I had more distance and ability to really appreciate the film. It was exactly what I imagined it to be. But I was still impressed by it, the fact that it’s not tangible. You cannot grasp it. The moment you think it’s more of a drama, then it’s a comedy. What is it? I realized I never grasped it. Not while I was reading it, nor while we were shooting it, nor when I was seeing it. That’s why it’s so desirable.
Virginie, before we go: What did it feel like to have Charlotte Rampling call you a “lying bitch whore”?
VE: It’s a great honor.
DP: I would have loved her to call me that as well.
VE: You’re jealous?
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.