In Séraphine, Belgian actress Yolande Moreau gives one of those great female performances more often to be found in French films than in British or American ones. This is not an anorexic Barbie doll with a no-nudity clause in her contract, whose facial expressiveness has been Botoxed out of existence. This is the real deal, a stonking, physical tour de force which makes even De Niro or Keitel’s greatest hits look mannered and actorly.
Martin Provost’s film was inspired by the life of the “primitive modernist” painter Séraphine de Senlis, whose story carries echoes of the Susan Boyle phenomenon, though let us hope Boyle doesn’t end up like Séraphine, who from the outset is clearly a few sandwiches short, but ends up misplacing her entire picnic. It got me wondering why French cinema furnishes women with meatier roles than the British or American film industries: and why so many French movie characters are off their rockers.
French actresses have long specialised in going gaga. Catherine Deneuve’s international breakthrough was as a razor-wielding schizophrenic in Repulsion, while Isabelle Huppert got hers going off the rails in The Lacemaker. More recently, Huppert launched a trend for self-mutilation in The Piano Teacher, followed by Marina de Van, who in In My Skin keeps slices of herself in her wallet, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, hacking away at her ladyparts in Antichrist. Isabelle Adjani, bless her, has spun an entire career out of playing fruitcakes, from L’histoire d’Adèle H and Possession (my friends and I used to do imitations of her bravura three-minute miscarrying-a-monster scene in the subway), to Rodin’s tormented muse in Camille Claudel, and last year’s Skirt Day, where she plays a schoolteacher who wigs out and forces her pupils to recite facts about Molière at gunpoint.
There was a period recently when I couldn’t go near a cinema without being faced with yet another French actress going bonkers. At the start of The Other One, Dominique Blanc looks into the mirror before hitting herself on the head with a hammer. (I’ve had mornings like that – I just don’t act on them.) In Mark of an Angel, Catherine Frot stalks a seven-year-old girl who she’s convinced is her dead daughter. As for what Emmanuelle Béart gets up to at the end of Vinyan, let’s say it’s not pretty. Unless you like the idea of Béart naked and covered in mud. (All right, I grant you there are probably quite a few takers for that.)
Real-life French women don’t strike me as any madder than their Anglo-American counterparts, so how come they’re always going bananas in films? Surely it can’t be that French film-makers (and not all of them are male) think women are unbalanced as a gender? Apologies, by the way, for my insensitive use of words like “bananas”. But the point about all these performances is that even if they are not to be mistaken for serious representations of real mental illness, they’re a long way from the generic Hollywood psycho-killer, who’s about as emotionally complex as the shark from Jaws.
Nutty or not, Frenchwomen in films are still credible, well-rounded characters, just like you and me, except they go a bit further in their failure to grasp reality and masochistic self-loathing, and drama tends to favour the extreme. As Norman Bates said, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” It’s just that few of us go as far as sticking forks into people, like Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue. And we won’t even mention what Dalle gets up to in Inside; suffice to say, it’s a film to avoid if you’re pregnant.
In their Anglophone films, Kristin Scott Thomas or Charlotte Rampling get typecast as brittle aristocrats or in bland supporting roles. In France they get to let rip in things like I’ve Loved You So Long or Under the Sand, where they’re allowed not just moments of madness, but of humanity too. Clearly, if British or American actresses want juicy roles that run the gamut from mildly mental to clean round the bend, they should relocate to France. At least they’ll be less likely to find themselves stuck in chick-flicks about shopping and weddings.
This article was first published in the Guardian 26 November 2009. It can also be found in Anne Billson on Film 2009, an e-book compilation of my film columns.
MY TOP TEN DERANGED PERFORMANCES BY FRENCH FILM ACTRESSES
Isabelle Adjani in Possession
Adjani has spun an entire career out of playing nutty woman, but her nuttiest moment has to be when she miscarries a monster in the subway.
Emmanuelle Béart in Vinyan
Béart goes off the rails searching for her missing child in post-tsunami Asia. Also gets naked and covered in mud.
Dominique Blanc in L’autre (The Other One)
Blanc stares into the mirror, then bashes herself in the head with a hammer. And that’s just the start of the film.
Béatrice Dalle in À l’interieur (Inside)
Dalle is probably the scariest broad on this list. The early stages of this film are very creepy. Then it goes over the top. Probably best avoided if you’re pregnant.
Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion
Deneuve goes mad in South Kensington.
Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist
“Nature is Satan’s church.”
Isabelle Huppert in La pianiste (The Piano Teacher)
Huppert launched a mini-trend in self-mutilation.
Yolande Moreau in Séraphine
Moreau isn’t strictly French – she’s Belgian. But for the purposes of this page she is an honorary Frenchwoman. Here she is hugging a tree in the biopic of “primitive modernist” painter Séraphine de Senlis.
Charlotte Rampling in Lemming
Rampling isn’t strictly French either, but for the purposes of this page she is also an honorary Frenchwoman. In Lemming, she behaves very, very badly at dinner. But the worst is yet to come…
Marina de Van in Dans ma peau (In My Skin)
Of all the films in this list, de Van’s horribly hypnotic study in auto-mutilation is the one that made me feel queasiest.