Carla Bruni-Sarkozy doesn’t like to open herself up while she’s lying down—at least not when she’s in therapy.
That’s one of the things that France’s first lady reveals in the television documentary La Première Séance ( The First Session). In a country where therapy retains a stigma in some circles, an array of writers, filmmakers, celebrities, and normal people share their feelings about their first visits to the therapist’s office. The film is sure to garner plenty of attention—especially for Bruni.
The experience, as she described it, was akin to love at first sight. “It has to do,” she says in excerpted quotes, “with the beating heart” of two people who meet.
The public fascination with Bruni runs the gamut, from her supposed fashion faceoffs with Michelle Obama or Spain’s Princess Letizia to her popular Web site focusing on her altruistic and artistic endeavors. It includes reports on old nude photos of her (either stolen or again on the auction block) and her ranking on the latest list of Paris’ most stylish ladies (she’s just fifth out of 10 famous nominees). But one thing is clear: Bruni is a magnet for attention like no first lady before her.
When the documentary airs on Nov. 7, viewers will seek hints about the inner struggles of the Italian heiress-turned-supermodel-turned-pop star-turned French first lady. In fact, the documentary offers just a few—she found her first time on the couch “vaguely boring” and recently switched to sitting face to face with her therapist because it allows her to “speak more freely.” It was only when she found a more suitable therapist that, on an initial visit, she sensed something “incandescent,” spurring her finally to invest herself fully in psychoanalysis. The experience, as she described it, was akin to love at first sight. “It has to do,” she says in excerpted quotes, “with the beating heart” of two people who meet.
Since then, the 41-year-old Bruni, who resisted analysis until she was 28, has spent a total of eight years in therapy. What suddenly drove Bruni into therapy 13 years ago, back when she was still a huntress of men, inspired by the writings of sexual revolutionaries like Simone de Beauvoir and Françoise Sagan? She has said she started therapy to prepare her for the next stages of her life and to overcome her “narcissism.”
• Gallery: The Art of Carla Bruni• Eric Pape: Does Carla Wear Out Sarkozy? It turns out that she dived into therapy after she learned the family secret. While her very wealthy parents were often too busy to be very present in her life—she was sent to boarding school in Switzerland, and then she began modeling to become independent as soon as possible—their complex relationship planted a profound unease in her, even if, for most of her life, she didn’t understand why. But when Alberto Bruni Tedeschi was dying in the mid-1990s, he finally revealed the truth: He wasn’t her real father.
Maurizio Remmert, the very young scion of another prominent rich Milanese family, was a classical guitarist who played with Carla’s pianist mother, it turned out, in more ways than one. Carla was the fruit of their six-year affair that ended around the time of her birth. Discovering the truth “was not a shock, and that is how I knew it was true, because I felt calm when [Alberto] told me that,” Carla told Vanity Fair. “I think lies are toxic for children, much more than a bad truth. Sometimes lies, when you are growing up, make you walk in a funny way to adapt.” Carla, free of the devoutly Catholic upbringing that prevented her parents from even contemplating divorce and after years of therapy, said that everything having to do with denial is “sick,” adding: “My own childhood reflects that.”
A preoccupied father and an entirely absent biological father surely go a long way toward explaining Bruni’s wide array of relationships with established daddy-aged men, whether in music, film, or politics. Her parents’ affairs, including her mother’s with a colleague, offered a model for the recurrent blurring of lines within and between her professional and personal worlds. She called on one ex-lover to produce her first CD and another to direct the videos. Things blurred in many other ways, too. At 21, she began dating Eric Clapton, who was more than twice her age; he turned out to be a stepping stone to an even more successful rock star friend of his, Mick Jagger, who was married to former model Jerry Hall.
It is sometimes said that lyricists subconsciously offer clues to the working of their minds in much the same way that normal people’s dreams do. Bruni threw herself into writing lyrics not long after beginning the introspection necessary in psychotherapy. A number of Bruni’s songs convey a passionate and sometimes all-consuming sense of love, and are infused with, yes, blurred boundaries, regardless of whether they were meant as humorous provocations or not. In one song from her last CD, she wrote:
You are my lord, you’re my darling You’re my orgy You’re my folly, my mix You are my blessed bread My charming prince I am yours...
Such lyrics are hardly unheard of for provocative songwriters, but that was on a CD that came out after she was France’s first lady. Amid the blur of celebrity and power that is her marriage, the CD was distributed to France’s entire Council of Ministers. On another song, she sang: “I am a child, despite my 40 years, despite my 30 lovers, a child.” She took on all-consuming relationships in “Tu es Ma Came” (“You Are My Dope”), written prior to meeting Sarkozy—but since dedicated to him:
You are my dope More deadly than Afghan heroin More dangerous than Colombian white…
Yes, Carla’s life has been full of contradictions. When her family moved from Turin to Paris, her father claimed it was because the Red Brigades, a violent radical Marxist-Leninist group in Italy in the 1970s, was threatening to kill him. Despite—or perhaps because of such warnings about the far left—Carla became a leftist (albeit a more moderate one).
Whether conscious of it or not, she has followed in many of her mother’s footsteps, walking between the lap of luxury and music rooms, passion and role-playing. Both had a love child in their mid-30s with much younger men. In Carla’s case, it was with philosopher Raphaël Enthoven.
In the two years before Bruni met Sarkozy, she went through two transformational shocks that likely played a role in her return to therapy. Her brother, Virginio Bruni Tedeschi, died of complications of AIDS in 2006. The next year, Enthoven—whom she never married—left her.
In late 2007, Bruni, who was approaching 40, asked a well-connected demigod of the French advertising world, Jaques Séguéla, if he knew of any interesting single men. At a dinner at his place, she found herself sitting next to the French president whom, Bruni has said, she immediately fell for. Sarkozy was a short, schlumpy, frenetic workaholic president who campaigned as a hard right-winger, avoids alcohol, and suffers from migraines. Many who know, work for, or cover Sarkozy as journalists describe his personality as “too much” in most anything that he does. And yet Bruni says she found a surprisingly charming, funny man who she believed was more handsome than he seemed in the media. And, she has said, he seemed to have “five or six brains.”
So it is that a woman who entered therapy to overcome her “narcissism” and the loss of her father has ended up with an all-powerful older man who continues his too-much ways in his adulation of her. The normal situation, for people their age, she said, would have been to date slowly, “but he’s not a slow man. He said, ‘I’m completely in love with you, and I’d really love to marry you.’” Their wedding was less than three months later.
Now Carla Bruni-Sarkozy visits a Buddhist temple to meet the Dalai Lama one day, and another finds her at a reception offered for Pope Benedict XVI (where her husband is caught sending text messages). She’s lunched with Laura Bush at the Met to discuss a global literacy campaign and collaborated with Queen Rania on trying to reduce poverty and improve women’s rights.
Some traditional French conservatives are increasingly troubled by Bruni’s life and her influence on the president. Her once-exuberant sexuality and libertine bohemian intellectual friends—such as the controversial gay minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterrand—are increasingly unacceptable to them. (Mitterrand, who wrote a book called The Bad Life, recently acknowledged on national television that he has paid young men for sex in Bangkok to stave off accusations from the far right that he was a pedophile.) In some ways, Bruni’s life has gone so far beyond normal social norms—even for France—that she could undermine the president with some of his core supporters. Sarkozy, after all, campaigned against the excesses of 1960s leftism. That is part of why the former model now tends to come across more as an actress, doing her best to channel demure and saintly elements of Jackie Kennedy, Lady Di, and Princess Grace, both through her altruistic endeavors and through her impeccable and newly restrained fashion sense.
Her role, like her life, is atypically complicated. She is an Italian woman who could well end up posing for France’s national statue of Marianne. She is a leftist who married the man the French left loves to hate. The woman who said monogamy is a “bore” portrays the happily married wife on a global stage. But rather than deny her contradictions, Bruni will surely continue to embrace them—not on the public stage, but in therapy.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl . He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Le Courrier International, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.