In 2008 French actress Catherine Deneuve (then aged sixty-four) made her 100th screen appearance in Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte de Noel/A Christmas Tale. In the time that has followed she has made at least two more feature film appearances a year, playing a variety of roles such as the trophy wife in the comedy Potiche (Ozon, 2010), a mother who rekindles a thirty year old romance in the musical, Les bien-aimé/Beloved (Honoré, 2011) and Queen Cordelia in the most recent instalment of Astérix and Obélix: Au service de sa majesté/God Save Britannia (Tirard, 2012). Similarly prolific, Isabelle Huppert has appeared in ninety films since making her screen debut in 1971. Now approaching the age of sixty, Huppert has five separate projects in post-production in 2013, with no sign of her work schedule slowing down. Other notable French actresses, such as Nathalie Baye, Juliette Binoche and Sandrine Bonnaire, also continue to build upon substantial careers in which they have portrayed a variety of complex characters. Their female peers are too many to mention, attesting to the strength of French film industry, and particularly, to the French interest in women’s roles and stories. So how does this compare to the situation in the United States?
Drawing upon personal interviews and an analysis of numerous films, American film critic Mick LaSalle’s The Beauty of the Real offers an engaging overview of the work of France’s finest actresses. Through the action of profiling the wealth of French talent, the author calls attention to the variety of roles available for female actresses in France, to the longevity of female acting careers, and by contrast, to the lack of both in the United States. In particular, he sees the last two decades as having involved an explosion of female talent in France, a phenomenon only comparable to Hollywood in the 1930s: “Indeed, today’s Hepburns, Davises, Crawfords, Garbos, and Stanwycks are not American. They’re French” (p. 2). Like their American counterparts, French actresses generally tend to be beautiful, but more so according to the author, because their inner qualities are allowed to shine through in the meaty three-dimensional roles they play.
LaSalle aptly makes the point that, firstly, some of the most interesting foreign cinema is not widely distributed in the US, and that, secondly, American independent cinema is a product of the same culture that produces higher budget Hollywood films, and is therefore no substitute for international offerings to the discerning viewer. Indeed, French cinema, in particular, offers more varied and daring portrayals of women and women’s sexuality. Woman are also prolific behind the camera in France, with many experienced actresses, such as Agnès Jaoui, Josiane Blasko and Sophie Marceau now turning their hand at writing and directing. LaSalle states that “fully a third or more of the actress vehicles filmed today in France are directed by women,” and suggests that the number may be increasing (p. 134). Certainly, the high numbers of female-directed films released in France each year (an average of 36 films per year in the 2000s, or 18.3% of overall production) contributes to the number of varied and interesting roles on offer for women. (1)
Writing in a loose, conversational style, LaSalle’s book takes the form of episodic, short chapters, each profiling a single actress, or a tendency involving actresses in France. Chapter one: Teen rebellion draws attention to the early careers of Bonnaire and Huppert, suggesting that their early roles, of “the young woman just coming into adulthood with her own ideas about her world” represent “a common protagonist in French cinema” (p. 14). The former made her mark in films such as Agnès Varda’s Sans toit ne loi/Vagabond (1985), in which she played a nihilistic drifter who eventually meets her death. Bonnaire, like her peers Isabelle Adjani, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sophie Marceau, made a smooth transition on the screen from teenager to adult, and LaSalle aptly makes the point that by contrast, “a woman’s life on the American screen is more compartmentalized, defined by age, and with specific rules with regard to sexual behavior” (p. 15). This is, he suggests, a result of differing preoccupations with the presentation of ‘moral order’ on film; for example, the French are much more accepting of teenage nudity and sexual expression on screen, whereas such images are considered highly controversial in the US. One could look at Mia Hansen-Løve’s Un amour de jeunesse/Goodbye First Love (2011) as a recent example of this cultural difference, as the actress Lola Creton (then seventeen but playing younger) appears naked in sex scenes with her older boyfriend, without fanfare.
The chapters that follow provide insight into the work of celebrated French actresses including Valerie Bruni Tedeschi, Sandrine Kiberlain, Nathalie Baye, Géraldine Pailhas, Isabelle Carré… the list goes on. Generally speaking, LaSalle succeeds in showcasing the work of these talents, but structurally, some chapters feel less coherent than others. Chapter Three: Juliette Binoche, Emmanuelle Béart, and the Temptations of Vanity, for example, gives a somewhat brief overview of Binoche’s career before then giving more time to Béart, particularly noting her history of plastic surgery. The connection between the two actresses is tenuous, except perhaps for their similar age. Both came to prominence in the 1980’s- Binoche with André Téchiné’s Rende-vous in 1985 and Béart with the international success Manon des sources/Manon of the Spring in 1986, and have since created a formidable body of work.
Chapter Seven: The Allure of Hollywood notes the successful transition to American cinema made by Juliette Binoche (The English Patient, Minghella, 1996), and more recently, by Marion Cotillard (Public Enemies, Mann, 2009, Inception, Nolan, 2010) and Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino, 2009), but also charts the failure of such celebrated talents as Huppert to break into this market. Referring to Emmanuelle Béart’s ‘bland’ role in Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996), LaSalle writes that “there’s an important moral to be gleaned from this, and it’s not simply that Hollywood tends to diminish French, European or foreign actresses. Rather it’s that this kind of diminishment is happening to American actresses every minute of the day, but we never recognize it, because in most cases we simply don’t have a reference point to show us what these women can do” (p. 89). Anglo-French actress Kirstin Scott Thomas presents another case in point when looking at British cinema. Whilst still playing a range of complex sexual roles in France (an unfaithful wife in Partir/Leaving, Corsini, 2009, and an ex-convict with a secret in Il y a longtemps que je t’aime/I’ve loved you so Long, Claudel, 2008), she is cast in the role of the mother-in-law in the British production Easy Virtue (Elliott, 2008). “At forty-eight, Kirstin Scott-Thomas was already an old lady in England” (p.98). Not so in France.
Chapter fifteen: The New Talent charts the somewhat recent climbs to success of actresses such as Audrey Tatou, Ludivine Sagnier and Marion Cotillard. It is interesting to note that younger actresses such as Lola Creton, who came to attention in director Catherine Breillat’s Barbe Bleue (2009) are noticeably absent from this chapter; indeed all of the actresses listed are on the other side of twenty-five. While this may be related to the book’s publishing schedule, one could ponder if LaSalle’s focus on more ‘mature’ women reflects a similar tendency in France, where it certainly seems that actresses ‘come of age’ as women older than their American counterparts. The idea that Tatou could still be considered a newcomer, at age thirty-six and with more than thirty screen credits, is in itself telling.
Noteworthy actresses such as the veteran Jeanne Moreau, and the younger, offbeat Beatrice Dalle are noticeably absent from LaSalle’s text, and little time is given to comic talents and/or unconventional beauties such as Josiano Balasko, Valerie Lemercier and Yolande Moreau (the latter won the French César award for ‘Best Actress’ twice in the 2000s). One can imagine that, for a book attempting such a monumental task, focus has fallen on actresses with whom the author was able to secure an interview, or in whom he has a personal interest. Writing about the book as a whole, LaSalle comments on the challenge of ‘having to decide, moment by moment, when to move in for a close-up and when to pull back for a wide shot; when to slow down and observe one thing and when to stand back and take in the panorama’ (p.205). While the text is at some moments uneven, the author has certainly succeeded in providing the reader with a series of enthusiastic insights into the work of a number of French actresses, and consequently, in drawing attention to the shortcoming of his own country’s cinematic offerings.
The Beauty of the Real is clearly aimed at American readers, with the final chapter and appendices offering suggestions on how to market and view films revealing the wealth of French female talent in the US. LaSalle provides a comprehensive list of noteworthy French actress-vehicles, which is a useful tool for further research; however, the author’s advice on marketing French films in America seems somewhat simplistic- “French cinema needs to be branded in the American public mind as the land of women’s cinema” (p.216) – and fails to consider the different value system that has, in part, contributed to the scarcity of complex female film roles on offer in his home country. So what can Hollywood learn from contemporary French actresses? LaSalle’s text suggests that a study of their roles and careers offers a means of revaluating American screen stories for, and about, women. Thinking beyond Hollywood, I would suggest that American audiences can also learn much from French actresses, as the complexity of their roles provide a fresh and/or different take on a wealth of women’s experience and imagination.