Program of French Stars presents actresses whose fame surpassed the borders of their home country and its great cinema of which they were a part of

Stars of French Films

At the time when the big screen was not dominated only by Hollywood most of them, especially in Europe, could measure up to the popularity of American stars, and even today when circumstances are less favorable, several of them continue to do so. Besides this the program includes a representative selection of films that point to the most important tendencies in French cinema from WW II to the new millennium.

The only film in this program that was made before WW II is Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis, 1944) by Marcel Carné (1906–1996) and represents one of the peaks of poetic realism, an important tendency that dominated the French cinema in late 1930’s.  Besides Jean Renoir the most important representative of this style is one of the great French filmmakers who remained in his home country during the war, Marcel Carné (whose main screenwriter was the great poet Jacques Prévert). Preserving the characteristics of poetic realism he made his best and most important films during the war - The Devil's Envoys (Les visiteurs du soir, 1942) and Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis, 1944) both starring Arletty in her best performances (1898 – 1992) She was an already popular and respectable theater and film actress but it was only in her forties that she became a true star thanks to a clever combination of the role of a vamp woman of fascinating beauty with the awareness of her modest origin and all the effort she has put into obtaining this position. Thus she differed greatly from her Hollywood colleagues due to more life credibility and less mysteriousness. Among these stars the least typical is Véra Clouzot (1913 – 1960), originally from Brazil. During the war, she joined a four-year-long Latin-American tour of a theater group led by one of the greatest French theater directors and actors of the first half of the 20th century, Louis Jouvet (1887– 1951). She remains famous for her only three roles in films that were all directed by her second husband Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907–1977), one of the most interesting directors who became famous during the occupation and immediately after the liberation of France. In an interesting and original manner, he connected the heritage of poetic realism with the action genre framework and thus created an extremely tense action film The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953), which is one of the peaks of French cinema in the first decade after the WW II. It is a period that has unjustly been underestimated in spite of its diversity and intriguing achievements. Partly, this was a consequence of the discontent of the critics of the famous magazine Cahiers du cinéma with their predecessors and who thus created the new wave (nouvelle vague) that became probably the most significant tendency in the history of French film and had enormous influence on the European and international cinema as a whole.

New wave is also represented in this program but rather with authors who were close to it than its real representatives. One of the rare predecessors whom the new wave authors respected was Jacques Becker (1906-1960). In the 1930’s he was the assistant to the great Jean Renoir who displayed his great talent already in his earliest films made during the occupation. After WW II finished he directed many excellent films and some are still considered as master pieces. One of those is Golden Helmet (Casque d'or, 1952), an original and visually attractive combination of a story about an unusual love and conflict between young people beyond the law. With this film we present one of the greatest actresses of French cinema, Simone Signoret (1921-1985), the first non-American actress who won an Oscar (1960) for her role in the British film Room at the Top by Jack Clayton. Even though she appeared on film in the 1940’s, she became popular after the role in Becker’s Golden Helmet thanks to her attractive looks as well as her excellent acting skills and portrayal of passion and strong emotions. She was famous for her roles of women who find themselves in difficult situations and emotional problems and then proceed to (mostly successfully) overcome them with the power of their intellect and personality, which was the case in her later character roles as well. Her career was not closely connected to the new wave as she often worked with directors who were oriented to other kinds of films and appeared in foreign productions.

Thanks to her eroticism and impulsiveness that sometimes transcended to frivolity concealed with intellectualism and cynicism as signs of possible superior intelligence, Jeanne Moreau (1928) was promoted to a representative star of the new wave after her role in the film Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, 1958). This film was made and had its premiere shortly before the emergence of new wave and shared many of its characteristics. However, despite his efforts to seek new ways of film expression and closeness to the new wave its author Louis Malle (1932-1995) was never regarded as a member of that movement. The changes that the new wave and other tendencies introduced to French cinema in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, helped create different types of film heroines. Thus they were hired by modernist directors from other countries, such as Michelangelo Antonioni who worked with Jeanne Moreau in his film The Night (La notte, 1961), while Federico Fellini helped increase Anouk Aimée’s European reputation (1932) by hiring her to star in his films The Sweet Life (La dolce vita, 1960) and (1963). In France Aimée had already appeared on film even before the new wave, such as The Lovers of Verona (Les amants de Vérone, 1949) directed by Andréa Cayatte and Hero of Montmatre (Les amants de Montparnasse, 1958) by Jacques Becker, but her uniqueness was additionally emphasized in one of the most prominent new wave films Lola (1961) by Jacques Demi. She achieved international fame and an Oscar nomination for her role in the romantic drama by Claude Lelouche A Man and a Woman (Un homme et une femme, 1966).

All three aforementioned actresses were European stars, but the most popular among them was Brigitte Bardot (1934) who became a phenomenon that surpassed the boundaries of film. She became an international sex symbol of a fast-changing society. The only other actress that was a similar phenomenon was Marilyn Monroe. Bardot’s first husband Roger Vadim (1928-2000) worked with her in his film … And God Created Woman (Et Dieu... créa la femme, 1956) and helped create the type of an almost teenage beauty who despised civic norms and moral reservations. Most of the films in which she starred were modestly successful and usually merely exploited her physical attractiveness, which is why she did not manage to show her full acting potential in them. Nevertheless, lots of articles were written about her, primarily describing her as a specific phenomenon stretching from an idealized image from men’s dreams to female rebellion against the domination of men through independence and approach to love and sex as a realization of one’s own desires, an approach that was at the time acceptable only for men. As an argument for the latter explanation, one can take her role in the excellent new wave film by one of its masters and greatest authors of the second half of the 20th century Jean-Luc Godard (1930) Contempt (Le mépris, 1963). It was based on the novel by Alberto Moravia and besides Bardot, it features several great actors as well as one of the greatest directors of the first half of the 20th century, Fritz Lang (1890-1976) who played himself in this original portrayal of all the problems arising when making a movie including the complexities of male-female relationships. Bardot retired at the age of 39 when she realized that she cannot continue to portray the same character, and this special place among the many stars of French cinema was taken by Romy Schneider (1938-1982). Originally of German and Austrian origin, Schneider made most of her films in France. Besides beauty she possessed an exquisite acting talent for complex dramatic roles, such as those of losers enhanced by extraordinary human values. Famous director Claude Sautet (1924-2000), gave her the opportunity to shine in five of his films, the most interesting being Cesar and Rosalie (César et Rosalie, 1972). Namely, Sautet, as well as Romy Schenider, were never close to the new wave even though at the time of its domination the director made several of his popular but at the same time rather different films. However, the plot of Cesar and Rosalie has some similarities with one of the best films of the new wave, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim, 1962), and so it is interesting to compare the portrayal of an unusual love affair between one woman and two men by a director with a different sensibility and how the protagonist played by Romy Schneider differs from one of Jeanne Moreau’s most famous roles.

An interesting fact about this film by Sautet is that one of the roles is played by the nineteen-year-old Isabelle Huppert (1953), who has been a French film star for many decades in spite of commercial domination (which is extremely important for the status of a real star) of American cinema. She has enjoyed international fame and popularity that is not based on her looks but on exceptional acting abilities and talent for transformation. This year she won the Golden Globe for her role in Elle by Paul Verhoeven, and during her career she was awarded with many other recognitions including the two Golden Palms in Cannes as best actress. Huppert is especially impressive in roles of women whose actions are governed by their suppressed or unwanted desires and end in shocking resolutions. This was announced by her first leading role in the film The Lacemaker (La dentellière, 1977) by one of the greatest Swiss directors Claude Goretta (1929). Several outstanding roles in late 1970’s and early 1980’s additionally strengthened her reputation, the role in the film shown in this program, Loulou (1980) by Maurice Pialat (1925-2003), being one of them. Pialat managed to transform this story about adultery into a complex study of the contradictions between bourgeois morality and freedom as well as irresponsibility of marginal characters who reject the limitations of convention.

Another big star who became famous in the 1970’s was Isbelle Adjani (1955), an exotic beauty whose father was a Kabyle Algerian and mother a Bavarian German. At the age of fifteen she had a leading role on film and at seventeen was hired in the national theatre Comédie-Française where she displayed her exquisite talent. However, she soon abandoned theatre pursuing a film career and her first successful role was in François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H.  (L'histoire d'Adèle H., 1975), for which she won an award in Cannes and a record number of five Césars. For her role in Camille Claudel (1988) she won her second nomination for an Oscar and an award for best actress in Berlin. The author of this film is the excellent cinematographer Bruno Nuytten (1945) who also directed several films. The best among them is his debut about a woman who was at first a student and then a lover to the great sculptor Rodin. Her passion and failure to become a successful sculptor herself, offered Adjani a great opportunity to give an outstanding performance of a type of woman, to an actress a familiar one, who ends tragically unable to fulfill her strong emotions.

Another, somewhat younger, star is Juliette Binoche (1964). She began her career as a young girl (at the age of eighteen) and soon started to win awards – the first of her nine nominations for a César in the film by André Téchiné Rendez-vous (1985). She has so far won only one César for the role in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors – Blue (Trois couleurs: Bleu, 1993), because of whish she refused Spielberg’s invitation to act in Jurassic Park. Nevertheless, in parallel with her career in France she built her international reputation and thus won an Oscar (as best supporting actress) for her role in The English Patient (1996) by Anthony Minghella and a nomination for an Oscar for her role in another British-American production Chocolat by Lasse Hallström. In addition she is one of the few actresses who managed to win the European Film Ward for best actress twice. She also won awards at the three biggest film festivals in Cannes, Berlin and Venice, mostly with French films. Her extraordinary appearance on the screen that combines beauty, a sense of deeply hidden feelings (often sadness and suffering) and a wide range of acting skills undoubtedly contributed to the fact that modern France (although it is rarely admitted to be so) has a great and significant film industry. Afact that confirms the afore-mentioned is her role in remarkable film by one of the most interesting contemporary French authors Olivier Assayas (1955) Summer Hours (L'heure d'été, 2008).

This selection of films that includes some true master pieces is an impressive testimony of the versatility and extraordinary reach of French film over the last sixty years as well as of the way in which these great French female stars and their performances contributed to it. (Tomislav Kurelec)