Les Femmes Françaises


When it comes to French women on film, the only sure bet is that they aren’t what they appear on the surface. And it’s not just in controversial genre-benders like recently acclaimed French flicks Amelie or the sadomasochistic tour-de-force, The Piano Teacher. Sure, they can sizzle with sheer physical oomph on-screen. But unlike their more physically endowed, brasher and brighter Hollywood counterparts, the French diva is more well-rounded in terms of repertoire and emotional sophistication. And it pays off cinematically.

(Les Destinees Sentimentales)

Written and Directed by: Olivier Assayas (based on a novel by Jacques Chardonne
Stars: Emmanuelle Béart, Charles Berling, Isabelle Huppert
Running Time: 180 minutes
French Factor: Sumptuous costume design and lovingly recreated period sets, spanning early 20th century belle epoch fashion to post-WWI jazz age chic, massive cast. A distinctively French screenplay that thumbs its nose at the waning bourgeoisie establishment while celebrating its most extravagant cultural achievements.

(Comedie de L’innocence)

Directed by: Raoul Ruiz
Written by: Francois Dumas (based on a novel by Massimo Bontempelli)
Stars: Isabelle Huppert. Jeanne Balibar, Charles Berling
Running Time: 100 minutes
French Factor: Chilean director Ruiz clearly understands the French psyche: his psychological thriller about a boy who suddenly declares he is someone else’s son, is eerily restrained yet teetering always on the brink of some unfathomable hysteria. He has the advantage of Isabelle Huppert’s legendary stony expressiveness and Jeanne Balibar’s near-psychotic smile. Hollywood would have botched the film’s understated emotional tension and light-touch denouement.

(Les Convoyeurs Attendent)

Directed by: Benoît Mariage
Written by: Emmanuelle Bada & Benoît Mariage
Stars: Benoît Poelvoorde, Morgane Simon, Dominique Baeyens, Philippe Grand’Henry, Lisa Lacroix
Running Time: 94 minutes
French Factor: Shot with a photojournalistic eye in black-and-white, this tragi-comedy of rural poverty in Belgium at the turn of the millennium and greed is also a subtle indictment of the encroachment of Americanism in traditional French village life -- from Elvis and ambulance-chasers to Management Coaches and celebrity magazines. Naturally, Gallic resilience, pragmatism and family values trump faddish Yankee feel-good fare.

(Sur Mes Lèvres)

Directed by: Jacques Audiard
Written by: Jacques Audiard & Tonino Benacquista
Stars: Vincent Cassel, Emmanuelle Devos
Running Time: 115 minutes
French Factor: A boy-meets-girl hate-at-first-sight love story between an ex-con and a deaf, unattractive woman evolves into a sophisticated noirish tale of deceit and revenge. Apparent deficiencies become sources of breathtaking power; this tale of the underdog made good is classic evidence that French femininity’s source of strength is not looks but a deep undercurrent of passion, intelligence and ruthless guile.

(Le Goût des Autres)

Directed by Agnès Jaoui
Written by Jean-Pierre Bacri & Agnès Jaoui
Stars: Anne Alvaro, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Alain Chabat, Agnès Jaoui
Running Time: 112 minutes
French Factor: The conflicting impulses of Art and commerce, passion and pragmatism face off in a modern-day, suburban comedy of manners as only the French could have carried off with aplomb: replete with theatre, art, unrequited romance and endless, convoluted bed-hopping angst. The ensemble effect is delicate as a souffle, despite its self-consciously didactic series of pairings and juxtapositions.

(8 Femmes)

Written and Directed by: François Ozon (based on a play by Robert Thomas)
Stars: Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine Sagnier, Firmine Richard
Running Time: 103 minutes
French Factor: The reigning divas of French cinema converge on a genre-bending murder mystery musical, and ham it up with convincing panache and verve amid hyper-glam ‘50s costumes and sets. There’s a cracking plot, but the film is more a tongue-in-chic tribute to la femme francaise in all her varied plummage.

For instance, a veteran like Isabella Huppert, who won high acclaim for her charged performance in the title role as the piano teacher, has evidently mastered the art of stony-faced restraint. Her expression, often stern or even blank, is somehow suggestive of an introspective self-flagellating patience.

It’s a remarkable talent she brings to bear in Sentimental Destinies (Les Destinees Sentimentales), one of a clutch of recent acclaimed French titles released on DVD by Comstar in conjunction with last year’s French Film Festival. Huppert plays Nathalie, the protagonist Jean’s first wife, whose silent reproach and indignation at his accusations of her adultery drive him to a ruinous guilt and self-doubt. The love of Jean’s life and his one assurance of happiness is the young, free-spirited Pauline (a steely yet understated Emmanuelle Béart), whose affections draw him out of emotional and spiritual suicide as a faithless Calvinist pastor. Neither are conventionally subservient wives: Natalie’s patina of virtue is nothing short of vindictive, while Pauline defies her husband -- first in order to salvage her sanity, and at the last to save them all from ruin. Jean’s story remains the heart of Destinies, a tale spanning three tumultuous decades of French history and a credible first period flick from Olivier Assayas (better know in Asia perhaps as Maggie Cheung’s ex-hubby). Yet it would have been a profoundly impotent tale -- the mere decline of an Old World industrial dynasty -- if not for the tension between Natalie and Pauline, Duty and Joy, the polar extremes of Jean’s moral universe.

Huppert also appears in an estrogenic face-off in Comedy of Innocence (Comedie De L’Innocence), a decidedly more modern psychological thriller. Young Camille declares, on his ninth birthday, that he is returning to his “real” mother Isabella (Jeanne Balibar) -- a total stranger far removed from his middle-class intellectual family. Is Camille possessed by the spirit of Isabella’s dead son Paul? Is Isabella (whose smile is at once marvelously disarming and unsettling) a psychotic child-napper? And why does Camille’s original mother Ariane (Huppert) calmly play along with her son’s bizarre declarations, to the point where Isabella and Ariane “share” motherhood over Camille under the same roof? The two lead actresses pile on layer after layer of inexplicable behaviour; tussling over Camille on a psychological level, while their physical setting and mutual courtesy remains ostensibly, infuriatingly normal. Yet the whole Freudian construct falls into place in the unquestionably rational conclusion.

Ironically, the most fascinating character in Benoît Mariage’s tragi-comedy The Carriers are Waiting (Les Convoyeurs Attendent) also has some of the fewest lines: 8 year-old Luise (Morgane Simon) is the introspective, sensitive daughter of Roger Closset (Benoît Poelvoorde), an ambulance-chasing, ruthlessly opportunistic photojournalist out to make a quick buck from tragedy and chance. Roger forcibly enrolls his son Michel (Jean-Francois Devigne) in an attempt to break the world-record for opening and closing doors and thereby win a car – with tragic results. Luise has the best scenes – the ones in which a quietly observant cinematic eye roams over the landscape, floating above the petty greed and pain of small town life. Unspeaking and without judgment, she follows her father on his bike out for scoops; she watches and then befriends their neighbour Felix (Philippe Grand'Henry), a reclusive champion racing pigeon breeder. Sadly, Luise is never quite allowed enough screen time to sufficiently flesh out her character, but she already exudes, precociously, an understated air of having seen and absorbed the most startling of secrets.

It’s refreshing to see the amount of control French cinema is willing to hand over to its female characters, even in a genre as traditionally male-dominated as the crime noir. One shudders to think what Hollywood might have done with the script for Read My Lips (Sur mes lèvres). No doubt it would involve some brawny brat-packer sweeping Marlee Matlin away from a life of mundane abuse into a world of glamorous danger and high-jinks. To be fair, it’s the sort of mindless slapdash that may suggest itself in the first 15 minutes of director Jacques Audiard’s film – hunky, hungry paroled convict Paul (Vincent Cassel) gets hired by plain Jane, hearing- and romance- impaired office assistant Carla (Emmanuelle Devos). The film redeems itself with an ever-accelerating cascade of plot twists while the romance is teasingly, seductively deferred time and again. Scene after scene of near-misses and almost kisses jack up the emotional tension of the film to nerve-racking tautness. But Read My Lips could be read more as an account of the birth of a criminal mastermind than a love story: the plot really gets moving once Carla’s gets Paul to exact revenge on a colleague, all the way to a final dizzying set of subterfuges which save their skins (and the money). It’s clear who holds the reins to the plot and its resolution: refreshingly, the male hero Paul really is just a himbo, albeit with a ruffian’s street instincts. It is Carla who shines. Her handicap, perversely, grants her almost superhuman abilities -- she can read lips from a distance and selectively tune in and shut out the world with her hearing aid.

Strong-minded women also play pivotal roles in ensemble pieces such as Agnès Jaoui’s The Taste Of Others (Le Goût Des Autres), that swept four César Awards in 2001 including best film. This delightful small town comedy of manners features an intricate, intertwined series of plot threads and characters. Boss Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri), tired of his mundane capitalist existence and shrill wife Angelique (Christiane Millet), is suddenly and irrationally captivated by actress and English-teacher Clara (Anne Alvaro) after her performance in Racine’s Berenice. His comic attempts to wind his vulgar way into her world of intellectual sophistication, high-taste and genteel poverty results in a series of unlikely encounters and relationships -- including a bed-hopping love-triangle involving his bodyguard, his driver and an attractive independent minded, dope-dealing barmaid called Manie who also happens to be Clara’s close friend. Manie, played by director/writer Jaoui herself, is a deliciously watchable, wilful figure, whose elusiveness, pragmatism and inability to commit lead her to loneliness. The unassuming and dowdy Clara, however, too high-minded to accept Castella’s initial monied advances, comes to be genuinely moved by his sincere if misguided attempts to enter her world.

A film like François Ozon’s campy murder mystery romp, 8 Women (8 Femmes) is less an ensemble performance than a simultaneous showcase for top divas (down to the lighting, painstakingly arranged so as to favour ALL of the leads equally on screen). It has all the archetypal caricatures out on display: The seductive femme fatale in blazing scarlet. The demur housemaid with a gift for service. The elegant mistress of the house. The dutiful catholic schoolgirl and her free-spirited sunny younger sister. The spinster aunt. The kindly crone grandma. Yet delightfully, each of these silver screen sirens hides a secret so powerful it threatens to disrupt the delicate balance of power in the household, while the notional patriarch, Marcel, is noticeable only by his absence. Being the murder victim, his sole relevance is as the object of internecine and feminine intrigue over his wealth and affections.

The artifice of 8 Women may be self-conscious, but it’s still a sheer delight watching the most eminent French actresses of the age ham it up on screen. It’s their aplomb, cool intelligence and sheer force of character on screen that prevents high camp from collapsing into farce. As if to demonstrate her dramatic versatility, Isabelle Huppert once again steals the show – this time as the uptight spinster sister-in-law, sending up the stern roles she tends to take on. She remains completely convincing once her character undergoes a dramatic makeover near the end of the film. It’s a real pity that each character’s individual musical monologues (in which much of their inner landscape is revealed through song and dance) have not been translated.

So what is it about la femme française that shines onscreen? It’s not exactly the looks – none of these celebrated divas (with perhaps the exception of pouty Emmanuelle Béart who plays the buxome housemaid) are classically attractive dames. Yet they bring to the screen that rarest of pleasures: mystique -- the fascinating countenance and intriguing smile beneath which a thousand secrets are concealed.

Kudos to Comstar for bringing in a catch of refreshing French titles that stand out among a crowded field of banal crowd-pleasers and testosterone-soaked blockbusters in the DVD scene. The series should please art house fans impatient for the film fest as well as film followers ready to encounter some screen dames with a touch of real class.