Fanny Ardant, Changing Roles

One of France's greatest living actors, Fanny Ardant returns to the stage to perform in the adaptation of Laurence Plazenet’s novel ‘La Blessure et la Soif’.

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She is a singular actress in French cinema, both comic and tragic. Fanny Ardant has worked with the greats: François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Michelangelo Antonioni, Sydney Pollack. She recently appeared in Thierry Klifa’s film Les Rois de la Piste (Rachel’s Game), and now stars  in an adaptation of Laurence Plazenet’s novel La Blessure et la Soif at Paris’s Théâtre Marigny. These performances provided the chance for this vibrant actress, who constantly reinvents herself, the opportunity to review her extraordinary career.

On the set of La femme d'à côté

Thierry Klifa’s film Les Rois de la Piste rekindles the pleasure of acting for both spectators and actors. Did you see it that way?

FA It’s been a long time since I’ve been offered a light role. Often, in comedy, you say things without seeming to. I’ve always been very moved by Ernst Lubitsch’s comedies – that brilliant, ironic tone – but then suddenly something is said that hurts you, something important that you mustn’t ignore or let pass, especially in love stories. There’s always a melancholy undertone in Thierry Klifa’s films, and it’s there amid the laughter in Les Rois de la Piste.

Do you agree with some of your character Rachel’s unorthodox statements, such as “to live without a home and without a credit card is to live under the radar, like a stealth plane”?

FA Yes, Rachel is a free, independent woman who loves life. Her children are all that count for her, and she brings them up with a set of morals that differs from those of the rest of society. She often acts in bad faith, knocking her children around and breaking the law. The only thing she’s afraid of is losing the love of her family. And she’s the queen of the kitchen!

Rachel reproaches her son for his orderly new lifestyle, saying: “Soon you’ll have a leg of lamb every Sunday and a Twingo in the garage.” We can tell you’re having a ball speaking those lines.

FA Yes, I like that! I’ve always believed that families can build but also destroy. Love between two people is like dynamite. No authority, no threat has any hold over their love. All social or economic injunctions are powerless against a couple in love. You love each other and don’t give a damn about the world or anything else! But as soon as you start a family, you become wiser and therefore more fragile. When you have children, you want to protect them, give them a roof over their heads, food to eat, shelter. That’s where the difficult equation of obedience and the insolence of freedom begins. Loving one’s family is never an obstacle, even if one takes a different or even opposing path, but an overprotective family can be dangerous. You know the old saying: “Beware the sweetness of things.” When confronted with sweetness, we tend to lower our shield.

Nicolas Duvauchelle plays a trans woman, a role that echoes Nadir Moknèche’s film Lola Pater, in which you played a trans woman.

FA Yes, but we don’t witness her metamorphosis. She’s just there suddenly. It’s as if the white squares on a chessboard suddenly turned black or vice-versa. I love it! Nicolas Duvauchelle and I met on the stage, working together day after day. We are bonded like trees rooted in the earth.

When you watch a comedy like Les Rois de la Piste, you get the feeling that the actors were having a lot of fun on the set. Is that true, or is it just a preconceived notion?

FA It’s both. At the same time, the more serious you are about what your character says, wants, struggles with or pulls off, the more the others have to laugh at the situation. I really liked being called Rachel; it had a Proustian feel to it but also sounded biblical.

When you embarked on your career, were there any actors you admired, who inspired you to work in the profession?

FA No, because I didn’t know much about cinema. I came to it through theater, and I came to theater through opera. I went to the opera at an age when you usually go to the movies. In opera, all the emotions are multiplied by the music, the voice, the tragedy. “That’s what I want to do!” I said to myself. I’ve often said that everything beautiful should be shared, that beauty should burst forth. I would get up on my bed and shout out a poem because it had to be said out loud. I began to learn about cinema when I arrived in Paris.

My sole luxury is that I’ve only done what I love. I’ve never accepted a script just to earn a living. Fanny Ardant

Do you remember the first films that made an impression on you?

FA Yes, my discovery of Italian neorealism, for example. I remember being captivated by Anna Magnani. There was a volcano inside her that threatened to consume her. After that, I discovered American cinema and everything else, in no particular order. I’ve never been attracted by the beauty of actors but above all by their eyes, as if they couldn’t be controlled. I didn’t like Westerns; they bored me. I’m not a film theorist. I can’t talk about shots or how they’re made, just the emotion. In cinema, as in literature, you discover good and evil and forge a much stronger moral sense than any teacher or confessor can give you. In the literary form, your mind and heart are on the alert; it’s much stronger and more dangerous because it’s irrational. I also read a lot.

What kind of books?

FA I read certain novels – Proust, for example – when I was much too young, before I had the keys to life. It’s actually good to read when you’re young; you don’t understand everything, but you’re alerted – you learn to recognize what’s urgent, what’s absolute. It’s like walking through a dark forest without knowing the way, but knowing that it’s a kingdom.

Quite early in your career, you met François Truffaut, with whom you made two very different films: the tragic melodrama La Femme d’à côté (The Woman Next Door) and the comedy mystery Vivement Dimanche! (Confidentially Yours).

FA I remember that Truffaut got the idea of making a black-and-white comedy mystery while we were shooting La Femme d’à côté. In the scene where Mathilde goes to the abandoned house to join Bernard, he filmed my shadow walking along a stone wall. That made him think he’d like to make a black comedy. He had been fascinated by the film The Big Sleep, in which not everything was understandable, but the charm worked.

Truffaut understood how films were produced; he always knew how to make the films he wanted to make. I admired this quality, which I noticed just after the success of Le Dernier métro (The Last Metro) when, instead of making another big-budget film, he made La Femme d’à côté, a small, intimate movie that was shot in five weeks. The New Wave filmmakers always knew how to juggle their finances and their artistic independence.

Truffaut also used to say that he made each film to contrast with the previous one, which is obvious with La Femme d’à côté followed by Vivement dimanche!

FA Completely. And I think it goes back to the fact that in every human being, there’s light and darkness, tragedy and comedy, things that hurt and things that feel good. I’ve always said that a person’s greatest wealth lies in their contradictions. You can live with your contradictions; it’s other people who need to be reassured by pigeonholing you. Truffaut’s usual theme was “chercher la femme” [“find the woman”], as in Balzac or Stendhal. It’s often said that there are no roles left for aging actresses, but I always say, “Not true!” We have so much French literature written since the 17th century in which a woman is the central character: La Princesse de Clèves, La Duchesse de Langeais, La Chartreuse de Parme, Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein.

In cinema, as in literature, you discover good and evil and forge a much stronger moral sense than any teacher or confessor can give you. Fanny Ardant

Vivement dimanche! was a modern story, with the woman in the starring role leading the investigation.

FA Yes, but it wasn’t emphasized; that’s just the way it was. I’ve always admired women like Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi because while they were women at the top, people noticed their qualities, not their gender. Today, the emphasis is on gender, and I find that reductive. I thought that the more we progressed, the more we would talk about human beings before talking about men or women. When I played Lola Pater, I said that a human being is never represented by what their passport says – after all, we’re much more vast, complex, rich and contradictory than what it says on our passport!

How did you react when you read the script for La Femme d’à côté?

FA Truffaut had mailed me a five or six-page synopsis, without the dialogue. It was long. Ahhhhh! It was everything I believed about life: that you could die of love! For Gérard [Depardieu] and me, there was a very vibratory dimension to this shoot because we were moving as if on a tightrope over the void. François would write the script from one week to the next, and I liked being on the razor’s edge. There was a sense of urgency about the film, of living as if you were jumping into a river.

You made three films with Alain Resnais: La Vie est un roman (Life Is a Bed of Roses), L’Amour à mort (Love Unto Death) and Mélo. Was Resnais more cerebral in his work than Truffaut?

FA No. Resnais had that shy, reserved side that François also had, but he had a passion for detail. Passionate people can’t be cold. On his shoots, there was a great deal of respect, no noise. It intimidated me because I love chaos. He would say of his characters, “He’s read such and such books, seen such and such films,” feeding the actor with a host of elements that are invisible onscreen. For L’Amour à mort, Resnais tried to introduce me to 12-tone music. I told him I didn’t like it, that it didn’t inspire any emotion in me. But I liked the pedagogical desire to open the actors’ minds.

You were in Al di là delle nuvole (Beyond the Clouds), Michelangelo Antonioni’s last film. He was already very weak. What was that experience like?

FA He walked on the arm of his secretary and couldn’t speak, but he knew exactly what he wanted and expressed himself by drawing. Until we arrived at exactly what he wanted, the discussion continued through drawings and nodding. He’d look at everything in the combo, and when he was happy, he’d cry. I found the whole experience very interesting, as if the process for making art involved silence, mystery and, suddenly, light. For Antonioni, everything in the image provided information; every bit of the shot counted. He worked like a painter.

You worked with Sidney Pollack on the remake of Sabrina. Did you dream of being in Hollywood movies?

FA No. When I went to New York with Truffaut to present La Femme d’à côté, we gave a press conference. A journalist asked me in English if I dreamed of an American career, and I said, “Oh no, I’m much more interested in Russia!” François leaned over to me and whispered, “You can kiss your American career goodbye,” and I whispered back, “I don’t care!” Only in France is the box office measured by the number of spectators; everywhere else, it’s measured in dollars. I’m reminded of the dictum: “I’d rather be first in the village than second in the city.” But I really liked Sidney Pollack. He was ironic and intelligent, and he had the charm of a true New Yorker.

At another point in your career, you were in Pédale douce, for which you seem to have reinvented yourself, becoming a gay icon and even a pop icon. How did you feel about the making of the film and its success?

FA It’s mostly other people who saw something new. When I played Eva, I saw a lonely woman waiting for love. I didn’t see it as a comic role. I liked her solitude and her free spirit. I never thought I had a comic nature; it’s my lines or situations that are funny. It’s actually the writers who are funny and wonderful, sometimes more so than the actor. The actor shouldn’t try to make people laugh because the laughter is already written into the text. I have very fond memories of shooting Pédale douce. Transsexuals would come in, disappear into a room and then reappear as Coco Chanel or Maria Callas. They’d leave with a wink: “Did you see me? Wait till you see me again!” I loved that – the idea that you could have several lives.

Portrait of Fanny Ardant in 1979

You’ve made a lot of films with young auteurs like François Ozon, Tsai Ming-liang and Nadir Moknèche. Did it make you happy to be sought after by young filmmakers?

FA Yes, but I’ve always thought that a great filmmaker is like a beginner with every new film. In this business, you can’t take anything for granted; you have to start from scratch every time. I’ve often been told that making first films is courageous, but why? I never judge the importance or status of a filmmaker.

You’ve directed three films. Is this another way of reinventing yourself, of starting from scratch?

FA I used to have long engagements in the theater, and when I’m in a play, I can’t do anything else, so in the afternoons, I wrote scripts, often as if I were smoking illegal substances. Then one day, Tony Gatlif said to me, “I’m going to produce you.” In the end, he couldn’t, and I met Paulo Branco. I like this man a lot because he trusted me. He gave me the means to make a film, but not too much. It was like a deal between mafiosi, and I liked that. I wanted Ronit Elkabetz, and he said yes. I wanted wolves, and I told him, “If you take the wolves away from me, I’ll stab you!” [Laughs] During the shoot, I realized that I didn’t know how to talk to actors. I spoke to them as I would have liked to be spoken to, that is, not as if I were teaching them how to think but, more concretely: “Talk faster, walk slower, etc.” For me, a great director is someone who is very pragmatic. I think it’s the body that carries emotion, and then emotion sweeps away what you thought you were building.

Did you start directing because you were tired of acting?

FA No, my love of acting has always remained intact. Basically, my sole luxury is that I’ve only done what I love. I’ve never accepted a script just to earn a living. But when I liked one, I went for it, and afterward, it didn’t matter if the film was unsuccessful or bad because when I was acting in that film I was happy, I believed in it, and no one could take that experience away from me. What counts is the present moment.

We recently saw you in Maïwenn’s ADN (DNA) and in Carine Tardieu’s Les Jeunes Amants (The Young Lovers). Do you believe in the “female gaze,” a concept that has recently been developed in film criticism?

FA No. For me, there are just human beings. A man can be feminine, a woman can be masculine and so on. To speak of a “female gaze” is very restrictive. I know men with a very gentle gaze, and I know women with a very violent gaze, so who does violence belong to? Who owns gentleness?

Is an actor’s life a life lived under the radar?

FA Yes, completely! But we blur the lines. Because as soon as you turn off the spotlights, an actor is no longer an actor. So, at what point are we real? Did we play a role that represents our secret self, or did we project ourselves into a person completely foreign to ourselves? To play a role, I have to like it, not necessarily resemble the character but like it. I know why I don’t like a certain role, but I don’t know why I love one. Love is obscure.

This feature was originally published in Mastermind 15 – buy it here.

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