Savage Beauty

Photo: Albane Navizet/Corbis Outline

In the beginning, Jacqueline Bisset was beautiful. After playing a Bond accessory (Miss Goodthighs) in the 1967 satire Casino Royale, she broke out in Steve McQueen’s button-down oxford shirt (and nothing else) in Bullitt, nearly eclipsing McQueen in her five minutes of screen time. Ten years later, she turned a middling thriller, The Deep, into a box-office smash with a wet T-shirt. Hers is the body that launched a thousand barroom contests. “Isn’t it amazing? I hope it’s not going to be my epitaph,” says Bisset with restrained amusement. “I wasn’t used terribly well, but you have to learn somehow.”

In 1973, when François Truffaut cast her in Day for Night, she began to be famous for her talent, becoming an actress who also happened to be beautiful, most notably in Rich and Famous with Candice Bergen in 1981; as a doomed housewife in Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie in 1995; and playing a former madam named James on the fourth season of Nip/Tuck. “I’m fairly fearless,” says the half-Scottish, half-French, London-raised Bisset of her choices, “and just want some challenges.”

In the profoundly unsettling Death in Love, which opens this week, Bisset gets her wish tenfold, playing a Jewish concentration-camp survivor whose willing romance with the camp’s Nazi doctor—a man who tortured her fellow prisoners—destroys the lives of her American husband and their two sons 50 years later. “She’s monstrous,” says Bisset of a role that’s equal parts horrifying and fascinating—a line the actress walks with nearly predatory seduction. She says the experience of playing the woman (unnamed, as are all the characters in the film) was difficult: “I wanted to be as raw as the director needed me to be.” But she was compelled by the film’s central idea of a haunting obsession. “I was attracted to how love can last forever and you can’t escape it,” she says, “and of coming back into a love that’s never gone away.”

“As I described the part to Jacqueline, I never wanted to get to know the character too well,” says Death in Love’s writer and director, Boaz Yakin. “I wanted her to be someone you were afraid to get close to, even as a viewer—like watching a lioness in a nature documentary.”

Yakin says Bisset was the first actress he approached. “When she was younger, she was this incredibly beautiful but distant presence. I never found her sexy,” he says. “As she got older, I began to notice a fragility and sadness—her emotional baggage was filling her up. And then when I met her for the first time, I was bowled over by how sexy she was.”

Now 64, Bisset onscreen is breathtaking in a way moviegoers rarely see anymore—that is, naturally and distinctively aged. “I sit in cafés and see lots of good-looking women, but they are all so similar,” says Bisset, who has lived in L.A. for decades. “There’s nobody I want to follow—no one with that allure or mystery that’s so important.”

Bisset’s elusive magnetism is now oddly quaint. “Young actors today are afraid of being unpleasant,” says Yakin. “They are so protective of their images. Bisset is there for you. Like other actors who came up in the sixties, she’s willing to try anything. She’s quite a lady—she has that British reserve and proper veneer—but she also has balls.”

Savage Beauty