One of the most interesting extended essays I've read in a long time. No doubt my love of film is at the heart of this engagement, although I find Rick LaSalle's perspective compelling, persuasive and abundantly illustrated via the careers of some of the best actresses currently working. Testing out the author's claims also requires me to view some of the finest movies now being made - so, in sum, my fascination is no small wonder.
In any case, the argument here goes that actresses are central to French cinema, and are regarded and utilized in ways that radically differ from their treatment by the US movie industry.
Note the title: this is not about French actresses' beauty, but about their being real - something, LaSalle holds, that currently eludes Hollywood. Women of consequence are seldom portrayed in US films, which are all action and struggle and violence in the outer world. Only Meryl Streep or Ashley Judd occasionally play the kind of characters that were once routine to Bette Davis, Crawford and Hepburn. So, unlike their US counterparts, French actresses now and over the past 20 years have been playing women with intriguing and even "overwhelming passions... [and] the actions resulting from [them] ...are worthy of interest, depiction and examination." (140)
French filmmakers' lower budgets presumably account for the turn inward: toward women, the intimate, and the interpersonal. LaSalle's "French zone" is about "exploring the intricacies, ambiguities and contradictions of human behavior, without assigning blame." (122) US cinema, by contrast, is over-preoccupied with right and wrong. Any culpability for having sex, for instance, requires dealing with human emotion, thoughts and motives (7) - which is precisely why, LaSalle argues, first-time lovers in US movies never manifestly decide to have sex. Instead, they generally "fall through the door and proceed to demolish the apartment," or they conduct their proceedings, most improbably, standing up (6f).
French filmmakers don't feel compelled to derive moral lessons from every circumstance, thereby gaining "...freedom to be more specific and detailed in presenting adulterous situations, even if those details make us more uncertain as to the proper course, not less." (142)
One should add at least Maggie, Blanchett and Mirren, and possibly Bening, to LaSalle's list of actresses playing meaty parts. This, in turn, blurs his clarity about how "Male box-office dominance has become a permanent condition." (p 7) Even so, much that he says is worth considering.
Bilingual Kristin Scott Thomas and Charlotte Rampling regularly float in and out of French films, and Rampling revived a dormant career with rich French roles relatively late in life. Scott Thomas is an even more telling example of the thrill for actresses of working in France - and of what, for LaSalle, afflicts English-speaking film-making. He lists several movies she made in France portraying "sexy ...neurotic, dangerous, high-strung" women (96), and goes on to add that the English roles Scott Thomas played both before and after them depict women focused on who they once were, or "...regretting lost youth or worrying about [a] child." In `Easy Virtue' she is not "the lead but ...the spiteful mother-in-law of the heroine, played by Jessica Biel." LaSalle sees Biel as among the "...most lightweight and unskilled of American actresses" (98) - which is hard to dispute, at least since the roles she chooses make few demands on her. She made no special impression in 'Easy Virtue,' her first real opportunity to show her acting chops, and who knows if her last. (Then again, Brad Pitt and Demi Moore have developed hefty portfolios of 'last-chance' opportunities.)
In any case, all Scott Thomas "...had to do was cross the English Channel, and at forty-nine, she was young again." (98) More accurately, she could play women of consequence.
LaSalle devotes a brief chapter to each actress in his long list, and scrutinizes some to a fine granularity. In passing, he also discusses the longer 'shelf life' of French actresses, who are often seen as plausible in romantic parts even after 50 (Deneuve, Moreau, Fanny Ardant, Nathalie Baye); how Huppert has "...incarnated some uniquely sick individuals" (171); botched adventures in plastic surgery (Béart - who, like Faye Dunaway, could not resist leaving beautiful enough alone); how Adjani has failed to make the most of her opportunities; directors who seek to "bring out new colors in" their actresses; the most promising talents from the past 20 years (Adjani, Huppert, Binoche, Bonnaire, Pailhas) and those worth watching downstream (Kiberlain, Carré, Jaoui, Bruni Tedeschi). On the borderline between these last two groups I'd certainly agree about Karin Viard - even if the 5 films I've now seen differ from those that LaSalle touts, excepting Embrassez qui vous voudrez (see my review). I'd especially single out her brilliant performance in 'My Piece of the Pie' (Ma part du gateau) with Gilles Lellouche, and thought she also played to perfection a secondary role in Le Couperet (see my review). I have not yet been overwhelmed by Sandrine Kiberlain, although the single film of hers I've seen, Mademoiselle Chambon (see my review), was certainly striking.
An actress to watch among the dozens that LaSalle presents in this book is Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi (see the book's cover). Like Viard and Kiberlain, from many angles she is not particularly beautiful, yet her directors don't shy away from these angles (note, again, the book's title), as she is in command of a definite magnetism and sensuality (note her shoulders), and is always completely feminine. Her background is one of privilege, with a sister who, until recently, was France's first lady. For all that, Bruni-Tedeschi has a special way with depicting working-class women, conveying with her eyes uncanny emotional depths at the same time as something very knowing.
There are more, such as Fanny Ardant. As I saw in Vivement Dimanche ! (see my review) Francois Truffaut renders with her a very fresh idea of an independent female lead. This light noir was the director's last movie, although it was far from his most highly-touted with the gamine Ardant. For me, that means there are more treats to come...
An unexpectedly good read. Those who delight in good film, French or otherwise, may agree.