Why France is different
The story so far...
Hollywood has announced that from now on it will produce only Batman movies. Britain stopped making films of any sort in the early nineteen-seventies. Film critics still talk in excited tones about the New Iranian Cinema, but they don't really enjoy watching it any more than you would.
This means that only France continues to support a thriving national film industry, producing routinely good and distinctive films.
By distinctive I mean characteristic of the country of origin. And by good I do not mean masterpieces but films with nothing much wrong with them.
One such is Les Femmes de l’ombre, which someone must have had high international hopes for, because it has been rewarded with Amelie-style saturation publicity and a particularly crass re-title (Female Agents).
It’s a very good war film – not great, just very good, and that’s fine – with excellent but unfussy period detail and the refreshing lack of the smug revisionism required by law in Britain. Great. Now the French are showing us how to make World War II movies. Compare it with the vile Dunkirk scenes in that monumental piece of crud Atonement.
Like no other national cinema, France can still surprise.
Blunted a little now by relentless imitation, Amelie was plainly the most original and distinctive movie of its decade. And as Audrey Tautou reminds us, France is also the last country to maintain, support and renew its own stable of iconic stars, who put the silly boys and girls of Hollywood to shame.
Somehow, France finds stars, knows how to present them with real old-fashioned glamour and mystique, and to hold on to them by giving them regular work suited to their talents. They do occasionally pop over to Hollywood to scare the crap out of an amateur-hour co-star or two (recall Béart dwarfing little Tommy Cruise; Marceau gobbling up Mel Gibson and spitting him back into the sea; Tautou and Hanks, the double-act nobody cheered for) but they soon return to the country that knows what to do with them.
They are also all women, of course. There are male film stars in France, no doubt, but their job is basically to give the women something ordinary to contrast with while they're being magnificent.
The French have always understood what Bette Davis meant when she observed that actors are something less than men but actresses are much more than women. (If indeed she did say it: Paula Wilcox said it playing her in the excellent one-woman play Whatever Happened to the Cotton Dress Girl? so it may have been an invention of the playwright. Is it ever true, though.)
Even Johnson, who had nothing but bile for 'players', liked to hobnob with the actresses at Drury Lane; his favourite was an Irish actress called Kitty Clive, unschooled but possessed of a sharp intelligence and a witty, unpretentious wisdom he found delightful. (He eventually had to terminate the friendship, explaining to Garrick that "the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my genitals.")
From the dawn of cinema the women have always been vastly more important than the men; the masculinisation of cinema is a modern invention, another useless side-effect of the sexual revolution, no doubt. Whatever, French cinema will have none of it. As the ploddingly over-explanatory British title at least makes clear, all the stars of Female Agents are women, and they all have something to do. (American films have trouble finding work for one woman, especially, oddly enough, if they're French.)
Then there was 8 Femmes. Again, the title did not deceive - eight female icons of French cinema (including Danielle Darrieux!) in a jeu d’esprit of a kind I had given up hope of ever seeing in the cinema again, each with their own song number. Huppert does an amazing torch song at the piano, Béart a raucous knees-up, Ledoyen some infectious indie-pop.
Hard to imagine America - or anywhere else - trying this and it not coming out campy and disastrous. Meryl Streep gurning her way through a bunch of stiltony Abba numbers or this gorgeously-coloured, ultra-stylish murder mystery musical? People, you must choose for yourself.
Leader of the female agents is Sophie Marceau, whose career tells its own story about how France nurtures and rewards talent. No British actress would have had so many chances, or been given so much time and room to become iconic. She has been allowed to build a career, with stumbles and wrong turns along the way, beginning as a teen starlet and graduating to costume epics, appearances for Michelangelo Antonioni and Bertrand Tavernier and loan-outs as a combined Bond girl and villain in The World Is Not Enough and what could well be the definitive Anna Karenina. Her performance in Les Femmes de l'ombre is a vindication and a triumph.
Here then is my totally subjective list of favourite performances by great female icons of French cinema:
Arletty dans Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)
Nowhere else to fairly begin but here, with Carné's masterpiece, made in extraordinary circumstances under Nazi occupation. A defining example of the lyrical realism that remains part of the enigmatic appeal of French cinema to the present day, Arletty's performance is just one of a thousand attractions in this totally unique and transfixing three hour exercise in audience transportation. It is ironic, but not relevant, that Arletty was briefly imprisoned for a wartime affair with a German officer: that art can achieve a perfection impossible to find in the messy confusion of real life is one of the film's key themes.
Brigitte Bardot dans Une Parisienne (1957)
French cinema entered its lumpen international phase in the fifties - just before the nouvelle vague came in - and Bardot was by far its most exportable face. But the Vadim movies with which she cemented her reputation have not aged anything like as well as the trifles that preceded and surrounded them. This gloriously inconsequential piece, for example, is a typical throwaway comedy of the period, with Bardot flirty and charming and entirely free of the ennui that forced her early retirement; the photography and colour are impossibly gorgeous, and Brigitte gets to play against a silvery and distinguished Charles Boyer.
Audrey Tautou dans Vénus Beauté (Institut) (1999)
Amelie now seems unimaginable without her, though she was not the first choice and would never have got the part if Jeunet had not seen her on a poster for this film, in which she gives an equally beguiling, and Cesar-winning, performance. One of those heightened slice-of-life films that France does with such arrogant ease, it’s another girls' ensemble (about a Parisian beauty parlour and the women that work there); Tautou, Nathalie Baye and Mathilde Seigner are equally excellent, but it is obviously Tautou that's marked for stardom. The male casting is as weird as the female casting is felicitous: what the Lord gives with one had he takes away with the other.
Emmanuelle Seigner dans Frantic (1988)
Juliette Binoche dans Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993)
One of the great images of nineties cinema is Binoche’s enigmatic face, staring at us from the thickets of Kieslowski’s doomy yet hypnotic meditation on the sort of stuff directors like Kieslowski like meditating on. Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob in the subsequent chapters are fine, but Binoche's work here is one of the great modern screen performances, with reams of psychological and emotional information conveyed in the tiniest gestures and nuances of speech. Even doing nothing at all, as Kieslowski’s camera simply stares at her staring back, or above us, or to one side, she rivets attention without a trace of mannerism or forced feeling. Imagine what a song and dance any American actress would make of a role like this! Binoche does virtually nothing, and says all.
Isabelle Adjani dans La Reine Margot (1994)
I could have chosen Herzog’s Nosferatu, or Camille Claudel or especially L’Été meurtrier, the latter the first time I ever saw her, and probably the first time I ever got a sense that there is this thing called French cinema that is comprised of something more quantifiable (if elusive) than merely a body of films that just happen to have been made in France. But this is the most porcelain of stars in her most swaggering star role, in a film with an epic quality that, again, seems to have deserted all other film-producing nations but this one. Nothing that is going to change your life, but all very monumental; extremely vivid period sense; almost grand guignol at times. Then there’s the scene where she's got the little mask on. Yes, you know exactly the bit I mean.
Mathilda May dans Naked Tango (1990)
A work of distinctly minor appeal, but a dazzling turn for the nude space vampiress of notorious British sci-fi disaster Lifeforce, here sporting a Louise Brooks wig in a weird period underworld melodrama. A great French star that somehow slipped through everybody’s fingers, May never quite made her mark but retains a following; she's always worth watching, her films, alas, usually are not, though she turns up in Chabrol and Bigas Luna and a few other potentially starmaking places. This one, actually made by Hollywood but in one of its arty pretentious moments, is basically pastiche, but it's certainly her best showcase.
Emmanuelle Béart dans La Belle Noiseuese (1991)
The most self-conscious glamourpuss of modern French cinema, Béart is, perhaps, the foremost icon of her generation. Not the most talented, but the most impossibly enigmatic, stylish and quintessential; it's a fair bet that we will talk of her when recalling the nineties as we link Bardot to the fifties. So many great, transfixing performances in so many good movies: Nathalie, L'Histoire de Marie et Julien, Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, Une Femme Française, L'Enfer, Un Coeur en Hiver... But this was the one that made her, perhaps the Frenchest film ever made. Four lovely hours of pretentious dialogue, moody, uncommunicative characters, beautiful countryside, artistic angst and Emmanuelle Béart as nature intended. The most convincing recreation of the process of creating a work of art in cinema; Michel Piccoli's Edouard Frenhofer is my fourth favourite fictitious painter in movies (after Bogart in The Two Mrs Carrolls, Hancock in The Rebel and Adam Sorg in Color Me Blood Red).
Simone Simon dans Cat People (1942)
Once upon a time, even Hollywood knew what to do with French stars. A wonderful logic informs the casting of this masterpiece of stylish horror: who better to play a woman who turns into a snarling panther when sexually aroused than a French actress who looks like a cat? So the purring Simon was brought over and rewarded expectation. The expected star career did not follow, though she's just as great in the sequel, in Mademoiselle Fifi by the same team, and in Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore, an attempt at frothy, Euro-style comedy from Monogram, the Hollywood studio least up to making the attempt. Some nice work in France, too, but she is best remembered now for Cat People, and for having a series of gold-plated keys made for her apartment, which she handed out to specially selected gentlemen.