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The Beauty of the Real
What Hollywood Can Learn from Contemporary French Actresses
By Mick LaSalle
Stanford University Press
Copyright © 2012 Mick LaSalle
All right reserved.
Chapter One Teen Rebellion
EVERY YEAR IN MARCH, the Film Society of Lincoln Center hosts the "Rendezvous with French Cinema" festival, a sampling some of the best French movies produced within the previous year. Some of the films go on to get U.S. distribution, but most go into oblivion, and so, if you want to see French movies, this is something to build your plans around.
In 2008, Sandrine Bonnaire came to the festival to promote her latest film. At the time she was forty years old and had made dozens of movies, many of them classics with some of the best French directors of the previous quarter century: Pialat, Varda, Leconte, Sautet, Rivette, Chabrol. But this new film was particularly special to her in that she had made it herself and the topic was personal. It was a documentary about her sister, Sabine, just one year her junior, who had suffered from a form of autism all her life and was institutionalized. Her Name Is Sabine had become an unexpected hit in France. At Cannes it won the International Federation of Film Critics prize ("the most beautiful film that Cannes has given us this year") and millions watched it when it aired on French television. Bonnaire was given an audience with President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss the plight of autistic people. But in America, of course, the expectation and the reality were much more humble. Following the New York screening, Bonnaire was interviewed on stage before an audience of approximately 150—the only people in a city of some eight million wanting to avail themselves of a chance to meet one of the best actresses in the world.
Bonnaire is no disappointment in person. She is warm, smiling, funny, and has no entourage, just one assistant who is actually rather pleasant. (A typical Hollywood trick is for the assistant to be monstrous, thus allowing the star to seem almost human by contrast.) Very few actors look the same in real life. Bonnaire is smaller than her big presence on screen would suggest, slim and at most 5'3", despite websites listing her as taller. On this day, she wore black and her light brown hair was pinned up in that consciously unselfconscious way that French women have made famous.
To talk with Sandrine Bonnaire is to get the sense of someone with a great and native sensitivity whose attention is directed outward. Without her trying to communicate it, she conveys the impression that she knows what other people are feeling. There is a gentleness about her and an emotional honesty. She seems entirely at home with herself, sure of who she is and content in that her career is where she wants it to be and that her work is satisfying. The one thing that's not clear is whether she knows quite how good an actress she is. I would think that she would have to, but that if she does, she does not confuse talent with moral license or some other form of superiority outside that sphere. She was born working class, and in her demeanor maintains the best of her origins. Nothing about her is lofty or distancing. Talking to her, it's very easy to forget she is, for all practical purposes, screen immortality incarnate—though when she smiles, there certainly is no forgetting that this is, indeed, Sandrine Bonnaire, and that you've just been treated to your own exclusive close-up.
As an actress, Bonnaire's great gift is her emotional accessibility, her empathic understanding of the characters she plays and her ability to show us their emotions—sometimes towering, staggering emotions—with no filter and without the added alloy of discernible technique. She was discovered at age fifteen by the director Maurice Pialat, who wanted to make a movie about a pair of teenaged girls. Movie history is full of cases of filmmakers discovering actresses, yet there are aspects about Bonnaire's discovery that are unique. In almost every case of a directorial discovery going on to supreme artistic distinction, some preselection took place before the director ever got to see the person. For example, Swedish director Mauritz Stiller found Greta Garbo for his film The Saga of Gosta Berling by calling the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm and asking them to send over their two best actresses. In that case, the preselection had been done by Garbo's deciding to become an actress, Garbo's managing to get herself into her country's premier drama school, and Garbo's distinguishing herself from her classmates. Cases of true, out-of-nowhere discovery usually produce humbler results.
But Bonnaire really was discovered out of nowhere. In 1982, two of her sisters answered Pialat's advertisement in a Paris newspaper looking for teenaged girls. Sandrine just went along for fun, but Pialat spotted her, auditioned her, cast her and got so excited about his new discovery that he settled on the idea of making his movie about one girl, not two. This became À nos amours, about a fifteen-year-old coming into her adult sexuality and about her relationship with her family, including her mostly absent father (played by Pialat himself).
"He was asking me to do special things," Bonnaire recalled in an inter view for this book. "But for me it was easy, because I was an unconscious innocent. It's what I say all the time now, when you do this work for twenty, twenty-five years, you have to unlearn this work, because I think we are better when we're not in control. If you always think of what you are doing all the time, you are in a kind of performance—you are out of character."
Indeed, in talking about Bonnaire in À nos amours it is difficult to persist in the idea that she is playing a character at all. Certainly, she is playing the character's circumstances. But everything about the film is designed to break down the barrier between her and the role. The justly praised father-daughter scene, in which Suzanne (Bonnaire) comes home from having sex with her boyfriend and has an unexpectedly candid late-night conversation with her father, was filmed with two cameras and unscripted. Bonnaire did not know what Pialat was going to throw at her next, and you can see her looking at him with amused attentiveness. Is this Suzanne appreciating her father or Bonnaire appreciating her professional father? You'd have to say it's both. The scene depicts a rare communion between the characters and a wonderful symbiosis between mature and blossoming talent. It's also the scene that lets you see what it was about Bonnaire that had Pialat so excited—her warmth, her sense of fun, her quality of listening and the way thoughts and emotions light up her eyes like electric currents.
THE REBELLIOUS YOUNG WOMAN—the young woman just coming into adulthood with her own ideas about her world and how she wants to live her life—is a common protagonist in French cinema. Director Benoît Jacquot, for example, has made a number of films built around teenage actresses (Virginie Ledoyen, Judith Godrèche, Isild Le Besco), all of whom have gone on to significant careers. In the case of Bonnaire, the image of youthful rebellion stuck for a number of years. Against her agent's advice, she followed À nos amours with a horrible crime thriller, Tir à vue, playing a vacuous teenager who goes on a crime spree with her boyfriend and ends up dead. (We meet her in a photo booth, with her shirt open, taking pictures of her own breasts. That's the level we're dealing with here.) Hardly better was her small role in the next Pialat film, Police, playing a prostitute. It's '61nother vapid, clueless, overly sexualized teenager, and she is filmed fully naked and in an unflattering light. Years later, Bonnaire told a reporter that she had recovered from Police "in spite of myself." It was at this point that Agnès Varda rescued Bonnaire from what in retrospect begins to look like exploitation and cast her in Sans toit ni loi, known to the English-speaking world by the title Vagabond.
Vagabond (1985), an enigmatic and distinctly French creation, is, in its broad outlines, very much like Sean Penn's Into the Wild (made two decades later). Both movies present characters that leave home at a young age, confront the elements and end up freezing to death. Both movies are told from the point of view of witnesses after the event, remembering their encounters with the person, and the life choice of each protagonist is treated as a philosophical statement. The difference is that the American film presents a charming character everyone loves on sight while the French film presents a withdrawn, selfish, stinking, lazy nuisance. The American film looks at the life as posing a moral question—did this young man do right or wrong? Was he a hero or an idiot? The Varda film is more interested in the mystery of human behavior: What did she do? What else did she do? Why did she do it?
Bonnaire's light brown hair was dark brown in Vagabond, but not from hair dye. "I stopped washing my hair for twelve weeks," she said. "I was crazy." Not by nature a closed, withholding presence, Bonnaire found in Vagabond a chance to play someone guarded and defensive who is determined to go through life completely free of any kind of inhibiting, defining social contact. She is common and damaged, and yet has the dignity of someone trying hard to do something impossible. The film debuted in September 1985 at the Venice Film Festival, and the following year Bonnaire won the César Award for Best Actress. It was her second César—she had won the Best Newcomer César two years before for À nos amours—and she was still only eighteen years old.
It's not uncommon for distinguished French actresses to make their first films while still in their teens. Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Carré, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Marie Gillain, Sophie Marceau, and Ludivine Sagnier—you'll hear more about them later—all made an impression before their twentieth birthday. That teenage actresses can regularly, naturally and seamlessly move into adult roles is illustrative of French cinema's way of seeing a woman's life as all of a piece, as one smooth flow from childhood to youth to maturity to old age. That's how American cinema sees men's lives. We see the boy in the old man and find that engaging, and we recognize precociousness in pubescent boys, including sexual precociousness, as something to be expected. But with girls and women in American cinema, the situation is different.
A woman's life on the American screen is more compartmentalized, defined by age, and with specific rules with regard to sexual behavior. Phase One is childhood, which ends at sixteen or seventeen, in which sex is simply not allowed and must either be trivialized, romanticized or criminalized. Phase Two is prime womanhood, which extends from roughly seventeen up to some vaguely delineated endpoint somewhere between forty-five to fifty-five (corresponding roughly to the onset of menopause). These are the sexual years. And finally, there is Phase Three, cronehood, lasting from approximately fifty until death, in which sexual feelings either mercifully do not exist or are presented as either grotesque or as subjects fit only for hopeless, nostalgic or wistful contemplation.
French cinema, lacking such ironclad divisions, allows teenagers to be more sexual and allows actresses of a certain age to make movies highlighting their emotional, personal and sexual lives. I suspect that most Americans, at least in theory, would applaud the latter. And indeed, as the baby boomers age, you're seeing Hollywood's cronehood line being pushed northward, in films featuring actresses such as Meryl Streep and Annette Bening. But France's relaxed portrayal of a teenaged girl's sexuality would be a little more challenging to the American sensibility.
In À nos amours, Bonnaire was filmed nude and cuddling with a boyfriend when she was barely sixteen. Sophie Marceau was not yet fourteen in La Boum, in which the story turned on the possibility of her losing her virginity. And Marie Gillain was on the cusp of sixteen when she played a fourteen-year-old discovering her sexual feelings (and her own newfound allure) in Mon père, ce héros. In all three films (the latter two are comedies), the girl's sexual impulses are presented as neither ludicrous nor terrifying, just normal, and the loss of virginity is treated as an inevitability, one best delayed, but no catastrophe in any event. This tradition continues in recent times with films such as Céline Sciamma's Naissance des pieuvres (Water Lilies), about a fifteen-year-old lesbian's sexual awakening.
Americans may see the French treatment of teen sexuality as shocking or cavalier or simply very French. Yet our own treatment of teen sexuality is hardly more virtuous, just more twisted, a bizarre combination of denial and prurience. For a bitter taste of both, take a look at the American version of Mon père, ce héros, remade three years later as My Father, the Hero with the same star, Gérard Depardieu, in the title role. In both films, the daughter—embarrassed to be vacationing with her father—tells everyone at a seaside resort that Depardieu is her lover. In the American version, the girl's age is changed from fourteen to sixteen, young enough, but still the age of consent in many states. Also in the American version, the father and daughter don't stay together in the same cabin (a charming, true-to-life detail in the original) but rather in a big hotel suite with a separate section for each of them. Yet at the same time, the daughter in the American version (Katherine Heigl) walks around in a thong bathing suit that's considerably more revealing and disconcerting than anything worn by Marie Gillain in the original.
Overreaction and titillation—that's the American way—and the result is that a movie that was touching and funny in the French incarnation, the story of a father recognizing his daughter is no longer a child, becomes tin-eared, ugly and salacious in the American version. (It doesn't help that the remake portrays the girl as a spoiled brat who despises her father. How could anybody hate Gérard Depardieu?) Libertines need puritans to rebel against. Puritans need libertines to define themselves as virtuous. Thus we have in America an obsessively sexualized, pornographic culture that, at the same time, is always in a state of outrage. Alas, the results of Puritanism and libertinism are inevitably the same: to make the normal ugly.
Excerpted from The Beauty of the Real by Mick LaSalle Copyright © 2012 by Mick LaSalle . Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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