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5.0 out of 5 starsFrench Touch!
Reviewed in the United States on August 19, 2019
This book is a tribute to the pantheon of modern French actresses. For the author, Mick LaSalle, this is obviously a labor of love, one that he gives great attention to. He shares his admiration for French cinema, and the incredible talent of the actresses of France.
I've been reading Mick LaSalle for many years, first for his weekly reviews of film and literature, and then for his histories of early American films, actors, and actresses. In all cases it's been a delight to read him and to learn from him.
I didn't know if I'd be interested in reading about French film and French actresses, but I haven't been able to put down the book since I started reading it. And now I'm considering renting and/or buying some of the films he describes (as long as they have English subtitles!
LaSalle is one of our most eloquent writers and thinkers about modern film. We are so lucky to have him!
Barbara Hendrickson, Retired Professor, English & American literature
5.0 out of 5 starsThe portrayal of substantial, sometimes ineffable women
Reviewed in the United States on April 8, 2013
One of the most interesting extended essays I've read in years. No doubt a love of film lies at the heart of this engagement, although by any measure Rick LaSalle's perspective is compelling, persuasive and well illustrated through the careers of some of the best actresses currently active. Testing out the author's claims also requires viewing a few of the finest movies being crafted - so where, you might ask, is the down side?
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. But note also the title: it's 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 characters 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, even "overwhelming passions... [and] the actions resulting from [these passions] ...are worthy of interest, depiction and examination." (140)
French filmmakers' lower budgets presumably account for this 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 manifestly decide to have sex only seldom. Instead, they generally "...fall through the door and proceed to demolish the apartment," or 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 at least some 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 roles relatively late in life, just by taking the Chunnel southwards. 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 adds that the English roles she played 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 given the undemanding roles she chooses. She made no special impression in 'Easy Virtue,' her first real opportunity to show acting chops, and perhaps her last. (Then again, Brad Pitt and Demi Moore developed hefty portfolios of 'last-chance' opportunities.)
In any case, Scott Thomas just went to France and "...at forty-nine, she was young again." (98) More accurately, she could play women of consequence.
LaSalle develops a meaty and compelling study of film more generally by devoting brief chapters to a long list of notable actresses, scrutinizing some to a fine granularity. In passing, he discusses the longer 'shelf life' of French actresses, who are seen as plausible in romantic parts even after 50. Deneuve, Moreau, Fanny Ardant, and Nathalie Baye are cited; he elaborates on 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 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 two last groups I'd certainly agree about Karin Viard - even if the 5 films I've now seen differ from those touted by LaSalle, excepting
Embrassez qui vous voudrez
(see my review). I'd 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
(see my review). Not yet overwhelmed by Sandrine Kiberlain, although the single film of hers I've seen
(see my review) was certainly striking.
Actresses to watch, among dozens that he discusses, include Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi (on the book's cover). Like Viard and Kiberlain, she is not particularly beautiful from many angles, yet her directors don't shy from these angles (note, again, the book's title). She certainly commands a magnetic sensuality (note the shoulders, in league with Elizabeth Hurley's). Her background is one of privilege, including a sister who was recently France's first lady. Yet Bruni-Tedeschi can depict working-class women, conveying with her eyes remote yet knowing depths, as well as a hidden determination.
There is also Fanny Ardant, as I saw in
(see my review). Francois Truffaut renders through her a very fresh idea of an independent female lead. This light noir was his last movie, and far from his most highly-touted with the gamine Ardant - pointing to yet more treats to come...
An unexpectedly good read. Those who delight in good film, French or other, may agree.
5.0 out of 5 starsAdmiration is not bound by poetic metaphors .
Reviewed in the United States on April 27, 2012
THE BEAUTY OF THE REAL: Mick LaSalle (Stanford University Press, 2012) A man who enthusiastically appreciates is a wonderful thing to behold and when it is women he should be received with admiration for his exquisite taste. In his celebration of French women actors he has listed and displayed his unbridled affection based in critical taste honed over many years as a film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Jeanne Moreau, one of greats of the last generation said "Being an actress is to be in tune with the fantasies of a man. What woman never dreamt of that?" French actresses move with as much ease in their films as they do in their bodies. They age as do all of us with the luck and good genes to do so and their work keeps up with them. In his chapter, Les Femmes d'un Certain Age, LaSalle, he speaks of Catherine Deneuve`s essential self being revealed in her roles. "I suppose it's called life, you know." The women continue to live their lives on stage, in films. Juliette Binoche will represent France on state in Strindberg's MISS JULIE at the London Olympics this summer. Isabelle Huppert will soon be seen in a Korean film, IN ANOTHER COUNTRY. Even though he leaves out some of my favorites-Félicité Wouassi, Aissa Maiga, and Sonia Rolland-LaSalle looks at a long parade of contemporary French actresses and gives us their films so that we can look at them too-in admiration. He does not say they are better than-rather Mick LaSalle says that French actresses can show us something we should see. Admiration is not bound by poetic metaphors in his book-it is real. (Disclosure: I took a class or two from LaSalle at Stanford but I am not taking one now.-I did get an A though!)
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 9, 2013
The number of books, in English, on the subject of French cinema, is lamentably small. Colin Crisp's two brilliant books concentrate on the Classic era between 1930 and 1960; Dudley Andrews' "Mists of Regret" covers the same era, again in an extremely readable manner; Robin Buss's two books are now, sadly out of date, whilst the same can be said of Roy Armes' histories of French film. Guy Austin's "Contemporary French Film" helps a great deal, but there is little of the 21st Century covered in the latest edition. Personally, I am awaiting the BFI bringing out one of their guides on the subject of French films. Now that would be something!
As far as the actors, themselves, are concerned, there is frustratingly little written in English. Ginette Vincendeau (Stars and Stardom in French Cinema) and Guy Austin (Stars in Modern French Film) have covered a fair amount of the ground up until 2003, but now, Mick Lasalle has provided a thorough overview of the current crop of actresses, some of whom were covered to a degree in Guy Austin's book, but here we have an analysis of their work almost film by film.
The introduction should be compulsory reading for film fans on both sides of the Atlantic. It tries to quash the common belief that sub-titled films do not travel and that we only get to see the best French films. A very thought-provoking start to a fascinating book. Sometimes he lets one actress have a complete chapter and, at other times, a chapter may cover two or more. Another reviewer has said that it is very difficult to put this book down and I must agree wholeheartedly with that. So much ground is covered in 200-odd pages that every single page is a delight. If, like me, you enjoyed "Mademoiselle Chambon", the chapter on Sandrine Kiberlain will become essential reading, and the same goes for the coverage of Sandrine Bonnaire, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Nathalie Baye, Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche and all of the others.
The author's two books on Hollywood actors and actresses of the 1930s will give a good idea of his extremely enjoyable writing style. A huge gap on modern French Cinema has been filled by a most enjoyable book.