MARIANNE Faithfull has lived many lives and barely survived some of them. Plucked from a crowded party in 1964 by the Rolling Stones' manager, who called her an angel with a robust physique, she hit the pop charts with a dulcet version of the Stones' "As Tears Go By" and soon thereafter entered into a very public relationship with Mick Jagger. In the years that followed, she played many parts: muse, junkie, trailblazer, icon. In "Irina Palm," Faithfull tries a new and unexpected role: prude.
Faithfull plays Maggie, a 60-ish, small-town widow who becomes desperate for money when her beloved grandson falls ill. Short of marketable skills, she spies a "hostess wanted" placard in a Soho shop window and tromps gamely through the door, evidently overlooking the sign reading "Sexy World."
Inside, the club's owner, played by Serbian actor Miki Manojlovic, explains that the hostess job has less to do with making tea than pleasuring his patrons. Maggie is slow to grasp what sort of place she's stumbled into and repulsed when she finally does. But her determination does not falter. After noting her soft hands, the owner decides to put her to work as part of Sexy World's star attraction: an unadorned hole in the wall through which client and sex worker meet without ever coming face to face.
Maggie grits her teeth, but she sets at her new profession like a red-light-district Rosie the Riveter. Before long, she's packing a lunch, her tea-filled thermos set alongside the tissues and hand lotion that are the tools of her trade. News of her prowess begins to spread, and soon she, or rather her nimble-fingered alter ego, Irina Palm, is a hot commodity for the first time in her life.
At first blush, Maggie would seem a far cry from the actress who plays her, a notion Faithfull does nothing to dispel. "I think I'm very, very different," she says by phone while preparing for a concert in Athens. "That's one of the things that made it such a challenge. Maggie's almost like a saint."
Faithful has been called many things, but "saint" has surely not been among them (although she did play God on the BBC's "Absolutely Fabulous"). The debauchery of her early years -- and her middle years, and some of the later ones as well -- is practically mythical. Her 1994 autobiography chronicles her love affairs and marriages, divorces and downward spirals in unabashed detail. The index entry on "drugs" alone runs to nearly a full column.
By her own account, Faithfull lost a good part of the 1970s to drug use, spending two years living on the same streets where Maggie does her job hunting. But in 1979, she roared back from the brink with her album "Broken English," establishing her own voice once and for all. Her songbird's trill coarsened by chain smoking and hard living, she lit into songs such as "Why'd Ya Do It?," a sexually explicit attack on an unfaithful lover, as if she'd been to hell and come back breathing fire. In the years since, she has embraced the persona of the worldly survivor, bloodied but unbowed. More recently, she has weathered bouts with breast cancer and hepatitis C.
It's not easy to locate that worldly wise woman inside Maggie's shapeless coats and dust mop hairdo. "She's been pretty beaten down, by life and by everything," Faithfull says. "She doesn't have a life. I may have had too much, but she hasn't had any."
But when Maggie's back is against the wall, a glint of Faithfull's ironclad will shines through. "She doesn't give up, does she?" Faithfull says. "I like that about her."
Faithfull, whose picture has been pinned to untold bedroom walls, was also intrigued by the idea of dismantling male sexual fantasies. "There's Irina Palm, who they imagine as this fantasy of some sort of chick behind the wall, and the reality is it's a grandmother in a pinafore," she says.
From the beginning, Faithfull was an actress as well as a singer. She played Irina in a stage production of "Three Sisters," and Ophelia in Tony Richardson's 1969 film version of "Hamlet." (According to her autobiography, she did her first line of heroin to cure a nasty case of stage fright.) But until "Irina Palm," her biggest role was as the star of "Girl on a Motorcycle," an impenetrable slice of psychedelic kitsch that makes ample use of Faithfull's naked body. "I didn't like that feeling of being a starlet," she says. "I felt used, not in a good way."
Although recent years have seen a small uptick in Faithfull's film career, her roles are still few: a world-weary confidante in Patrice Chéreau's "Intimacy," an Austrian empress in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette."
Faithfull, mixing an album for release in 2009, says she would like to act more frequently but not so much that she's willing to take subpar roles. "I'm not a typical actress," she says. "If something really great comes along, I'm sure I would be able to do it, but I get offered a lot of idiotic things. I don't have any problem saying no."
Oh, and one more thing: "I wouldn't mind playing a character that didn't quite have to look like Maggie. I'm sick of that now."