Stylist’s Julia Maile drinks espresso at the home of Italian icon, actress Monica Bellucci
Photography: Mert & Marcus and Rex Features
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It’s 8pm and I’m in a chic hotel room in Saint Germain, Paris, ordering le hamburger from room service and contemplating which luxury oil to use in the gigantic bath. If my day had gone according to plan, I’d be at home in London now, on the sofa watching Breaking Bad.
I’ve travelled by Eurostar to Paris for the day to talk to Italian actress Monica Bellucci about her new beauty collection for Dolce & Gabbana, the Monica Lipstick Collection and Lace Intenseyes Mascara. The actress was the ideal fit for our tribute to Milan, perfectly epitomising the self-assurance, sexual confidence and cultured sophistication that Italian women are famous for.
The plan was to meet Monica at one of Paris’ most iconic hotels, Hôtel Costes on Rue Saint-Honoré, but like all best-laid plans it’s foiled when Monica falls ill and is unable to meet me. That means a night in Paris for me (sans toothbrush and contact lenses I might add). It also means that tomorrow, instead of the glamorous but impersonal surrounds of Hôtel Costes, I’m going to meet Monica at her house. Without wanting to take advantage of Monica’s ill health, I’m secretly rather glad, as now I get a peek inside her family home in Paris.
I arrive at midday at the terrace house in an unassuming district of Paris that Monica shares with her husband, French actor Vincent Cassel, of Black Swan and Ocean’s Thirteen fame, and their two daughters, Deva, eight, and Leonie, two. I’m shown into a huge multipurpose room that takes up most of the ground floor; it’s part-children’s playroom, part-office and part-gym (Monica’s assistant reveals it’s a great office to work in, but she says it can be a little distracting when Vincent brings his friends over to work out).
A few minutes later Monica glides in, shaking my hand warmly. “I’m so sorry about yesterday,” she says in her softly accented voice. Despite being casually dressed (in a black shirt and blue slim-cut jeans), she’s the kind of woman who would find it hard not to be glamorous. A combination of her long black hair, which she wears loosely, playing with it coyly during our interview, and her subtle make-up, which could have taken five minutes or five hours.
Now 48, Monica originally capitalised on her classic Italian beauty by modelling while studying law at the University of Perugia. But after her career took off, she quit her studies and moved to Milan, signing with Elite Model Management in 1988. She soon made the switch to acting and her career since has included critically acclaimed arthouse films such as L’Appartement, alongside Hollywood blockbusters Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Matrix Reloaded. “I’m so lucky I’ve had the chance to work with so many different directors,” she tells me. “That’s the richness of my work.”
I expect our interview to take place in the playroom/gym/office, but Monica leads me up a steep staircase to the sitting room. It’s a real family room with a comfortable linen sofa, huge dining table and a child’s toy tea set sitting alongside a stack of coffee table books, with Monica’s self-titled tome Monica Bellucci in pride of place at the top. “Excuse the disorganisation, but we’re flying to Brazil tonight,” she says apologising for the (nonexistent) mess. To say that the Bellucci/Cassel family lead an international lifestyle is an understatement; as well as their home in Paris, they have properties in Rome and London, and are planning a move to Brazil at the end of the year. Monica and her daughter Deva speak Italian, French, English and Portuguese, while Monica also learnt to speak Farsi for the film Rhino Season, which she shot this year with exiled Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi. Which all makes me feel that I really should have tried that little bit harder in A-level French.
During our interview Monica is confident, charming and certain of her opinions, speaking passionately about her love for her home country but also openly and honestly about the challenges facing modern Italian women. “It’s complicated coming from a culture where to be a mother is more important than to have a career,” she admits. Monica says this has meant she chose motherhood late, having Deva at 39 and Leonie at 45. “I wanted to have my children when I wasn’t so young, because I was too into my work.” She’s since cut her workload back to two films a year and says her kids are now her main priority. It’s not just rhetoric; when her youngest daughter, Leonie, appears crying at the door midway through the interview, Monica coaxes her in, soothing her tears in a mixture of French and Italian.
Mother, multilinguist and movie star; Monica Bellucci is not a woman to be underestimated.
Dolce & Gabbana gave you your first runway show at the age of 25. How does it feel to be the face of the fashion house now, more than 20 years later?
It’s amazing. It’s a faithful Italian story of love and friendship: the important things in life. I started with them and we’ve stuck together after all these years. When we do photo shoots, it’s not work; it’s like having fun with my friends creating beautiful pictures together. As Mediterraneans we have the same ideal of beauty. If I was French I’d say the ideal is Brigitte Bardot or Catherine Deneuve, but I’m Italian so grew up with actresses like Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren, so they’re our ideal of beauty.
You’ve been quoted as saying you feel more beautiful with age. Is that because you’re more comfortable in your own skin, or have your attitudes to beauty changed?
I didn’t say that. I don’t think I’ve become more beautiful with age, I said that I feel better. Even though you lose the biological beauty of youth, there’s something else that comes in its place that’s very interesting, thank god! I meet women who are 60 or 70 years old who are so beautiful, so interesting, so deep. In France, they call the beauty of youth, ‘the evil beauty’. You don’t have it because of you, but because you’re born with it. The other kind of beauty is your own work and it takes forever.
Do you enjoy the process of transformation involved in photo shoots and red-carpet dressing?
I enjoy it, but it’s because I don’t do it more than twice a year. I like to be in the spotlight once in a while and then I like to be in the shadows. It’s really regenerating. My everyday beauty routine is simple; I just clean my face, use a very light cream, a bit of mascara and some gloss.
Fashion is so synonymous with Italians. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s more a femininity that Italian women have. I grew up in Perugia, Umbria, in a world outside of fashion, so I didn’t learn about it until I was older and moved away. In Milan the women are really into fashion and all the big fashion brands are based there, but I don’t think they feel pressure to look good all the time. Italian women take care of themselves; they have a special relationship with beauty and in Milan it’s even more exaggerated. The style there is more elegant and conservative compared to Rome.
What does Italy, and being Italian, mean to you?
Even though I travel around the world, I’m Italian; it’s in my heart and I think I really am the place where I come from. I like the food, seeing my friends and my family is very important; all that comes from my culture. I keep Italian traditions going without even realising, it’s in my DNA.
My fantasy of life in Italy involves lingering over a long lunch. Do Italians still do this, or are they starting to eat on-the-go like us?
People eat for hours because it’s so much more than just eating. How a person eats tells you so much about them; the way someone eats, or doesn’t eat, or eats less. It’s a private moment and in that convivial moment of exchange, you learn so much more about them.
Do modern lifestyles mean that everyone is in such a hurry they don’t appreciate these little things anymore?
Italians have a real sense of beauty, not just in architecture or art, but beauty in the sense of life. We think, ‘Today is like this, tomorrow is going to be another day’. It’s taking the best of life. It’s a beautiful attitude but sometimes it’s also our defect, because it’s a lazy attitude.
You’ve said you started studying law because you wanted financial independence. Do you think other Italian women seek this?
Women have to fight for equality all over the world but in Italy it’s even more [of a problem] as, like all Mediterranean countries, they have a macho culture. Women think, ‘I’m going to have a career but how am I going to be a good mother?’ It means women don’t want to have children until they are 37, 38 or 39 and then sometimes they have problems. People are not having children, or having just one, so it means Italy isn’t a young society.
In Britain, we seem to be a generation of women who feel guilty all the time. Do you think it’s the same for Italian women?
I think the sense of family in England is different to Italy, but I don’t know which way is good or which is bad. In Italy some kids are so protected that even when they’re 34 they still live with their mother because she makes the best pasta and no other woman is going to be like her. It’s a childish attitude that some men have in Italy. In England, I’m not sure that women take care of kids the same way, because that kind of protection is not part of the culture, so maybe they’re more independent.
According to a recent survey, 76% of Italian women are unhappy, largely due to a lingering culture of machismo. Do you feel this too?
I play an Iranian woman in the film Rhino Season, and people would ask me, “How could you get into a culture that’s so far away from your own, because you’re a free woman?” And I reply that I come from a culture where until 50 or 60 years ago, a woman could get killed by her husband and he wouldn’t go to prison because it would be described as a crime of passion. And I come from a country where until a few years ago, virginity was still an essential element of marriage. I can understand because I come from a macho culture. And I come from a country where women had to fight for their rights and are still fighting.
ABOVE: Monica in 2000 Italian drama Malèna
Are extra-marital relationships between the sexes generally frowned upon in Italy, or are they more acceptable than they might be in other cultures?
I don’t think it’s more acceptable, but at the same time Italy is a culture where people charm each other. Flirting, you look at me and I’ll look at you, but nothing happens. I have friends that say, “When I come to Italy, I finally become a woman. Men look at me.” Then I have friends that say, “Oh my god, how can you stay there? It’s impossible getting stared at like that.” When pretty Italian women I know come to France or go to London they say, “Are the men all gay over there? They don’t look at me.” Each culture has its own evolution, we’re all different.
Your children have a French father and an Italian mother; what traits of each culture do you see in them?
I don’t know; they’re not me, they’re not Vincent. They’re just themselves. I said to my kids that they are already better than me. “You speak Portuguese without any accent, I don’t. You play the piano, I don’t. And you’re only eight. You’ll be amazing.”
I saw a photo of you recently wearing a stunning Cartier emerald pendant at the store’s opening in Milan. Is luxury important to you?
It wasn’t mine! For me luxury is freedom. The freedom to go where I want to go and do what I want to do. I’m more attached to people than things. That’s why I have a family and a lot of friends because I like women, they inspire me. But things? No.
How is the process of making films in Europe different to the US?
In Italy, cinema is not like it used to be. We still have good directors and talented actors but the problem is money, we don’t have enough for art, opera, ballet or films. During the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies our leading ladies like Claudia Cardinale and Anna Magnani were huge iconic actresses. I had to [leave] Italy and I’m happy that I did, because otherwise I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with different directors. But Italy will always be home.
Monica Bellucci is the face of Dolce & Gabbana Monica Lipstick Collection and the Lace Intenseyes Mascara