Tying in with our July Theme Month on Women-Directed Films, we thought we would highlight performances from a handful of our favorite French actresses. The films below are just a small sample from the excellent filmographies of these actresses. Read below for pieces on performances from Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Anaïs Demoustier.
Following a career-defining performance in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, Catherine Deneuve reunited with the Spanish filmmaker in Tristana. In the film, Deneuve plays the titular role of Tristana, a woman who becomes a ward for the nobleman Don Lope (Fernando Rey) following the death of her mother. Don Lope is a sleaze, viewing Tristana as both his wife and daughter, believing her to be dependent on him. He is controlling, and Tristana comes to realize it. She begins to sneak out of their home against Don Lope’s wishes and finds a love interest, Horacio (Franco Nero), who confronts Don Lope, and Tristana soon leaves with Horacio away from Don Lope’s grasp.
But when Tristana falls ill, she demands to be brought to Don Lope’s so she can die there. Her choice is puzzling and when she overcomes her illness, Tristana and Don Lope begin a power struggle, Don Lope now the weaker of the two as he becomes more elderly by the day.
Based on the eponymous 19th century novel written by Benito Pérez Galdós, Tristana is very much a period piece, no mistaking it. Tristana’s character may not be as bold as modern heroines, but the role is a perfect fit for Deneuve, an actress who started her career playing cold yet entrancing heroines. The final chilling scene in Tristana couldn’t be more fitting for an actress to play but for Catherine Deneuve. – Alex Sitaras
Three Colors: Blue (1993)
The first of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, Blue, stars a somber Juliette Binoche attempting to recover from a car accident that killed her husband and 5-year-old daughter. As Julie (Binoche) sheds off aspects of her old life with detached quickness — selling their country home, moving to Paris, sleeping with her husband’s assistant — she unearths family secrets that foil her attempts at anonymity.
Despite what is revealed about her husband’s extramarital affairs and his own musical genius credited to Julie’s compositions, Binoche plays a woman shrouded in grief yet still unbelievably compassionate and sentimental. Zbigniew Preisner’s score and Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography, although lovely and moving on their own, are elevated by Binoche’s evocative yet restrained expressions and delivery, bringing new meaning to the liberté that the film’s title represents and the freedom Julie so desperately aches for. Bionche is not dependent on narrative points to guide the cadence of her performance, and instead plays moments with such striking definiteness that each scene feels like watching Binoche herself come to terms with life and loss. – Lauren Mattice
The Science of Sleep (2006)
Another string to her bow, Gainsbourg features in Michel Gondry’s whimsical love story about Stéphane Miroux (Gael García Bernal) determined to show his new lover Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) his idiosyncratic dreamscape that seemingly interferes with his waking life. Moving to Paris to be closer to his mother (Miou-Miou), Bernal and Gainsbourg become neighbours. For Gainsbourg, The Science of Sleep is an oddity of sorts, a love story but deeply confident in its quirkiness that all involved have to immerse themselves in Gondry’s worldbuilding expertise. The French director is capable of creating elaborate spaces for his characters where narrative cohesion becomes less integral, particularly, as dreams tend to lack a cohesive structure anyway.
It is Gainsbourg’s character that provides the disarray in The Science of Sleep as Bernal is like a wondrous child in awe of his own creations. In what would normally be a criticism, the pair’s lack of chemistry is precisely why the film is a success, much of this plays out as a dream for Bernal where Gainsbourg’s Stéphanie is his dream girl. The infantilisation of Stéphane is sometimes jarring but his immaturity feels purposeful when we witness control over any barrier between dream and reality begin to breakdown. Inventive rather than explanative, Gainsbourg’s character is skittish and aloof, her own quirky charms are displayed more subtly against the surreal litter of Buñuel-style playfulness and should never be underestimated. – Nick Davie
Lars von Trier, no stranger to controversy, pushers British-French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg to the brink in his diptych Nymphomaniac, a tale of masochism and nymphomania. Daughter of cultural icons Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Charlotte wields an incredible onscreen presence. This presence is pushed to its limits in von Trier’s films. Having worked with the director before on Antichrist, Gainsbourg is no stranger to a challenge. Nymphomaniac tells the story over two parts of a troubled woman Joe, fleeing her past; she is found in an alleyway covered in urine. She retells her past to a seemingly innocous Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), detailing the lust, love and sordid affairs that have led her to a state of disrepair and apathy.
Joe (Gainsbourg) tells the audience about her father (Christian Slater), his poetic musings on trees and his painful, traumatic passing. Trauma is a key theme in both parts of this film, every character has inhibitions or past woes that affect their interactions with Joe. Even in love, trauma is present, Jerome (Shia LeBeouf) and a younger Joe (Stacy Martin) tease and torment each other in bouts of passion. Von Trier provides explicit exposition from youth to adult life, all of which are nuanced and complex – much like the many characters that Gainsbourg encounters. Her performance is striking and would have possibly received more recognition had it not been for the extent of von Trier’s demons showcased. – Nick Davie
The New Girlfriend (2014)
Along with Pedro Almodóvar, François Ozon owes a significant part of his success to his leading ladies. The New Girlfriend is no exception, Anaïs Demoustier playing the role of Claire. The film begins with the funeral of Lucia (Isild Le Besco), Claire’s best friend. Losing a friend at such a young age is tragic, and Ozon quickly reminds us of David (Romain Duris), Lucia’s husband who is now a widower. Claire and David aren’t too close, but that changes when Claire accidentally walks in on David when he is crossdressing. She is startled, but also curious why David has dressed himself as a woman. He explains that he has felt the urge for some time and would dabble, but upon losing Laura his conviction became more certain.
Claire and David grow close as David, now Virginia, navigates becoming a woman and what womanhood entails. Claire enjoys spending time with Virginia on Virginia’s journey of self-discovery, Virginia helping to fill the hole left in Claire’s heart by the loss of Lucia. Virginia’s secret is kept with Claire, and Ozon craftily uses this ‘deception’ to help build suspense. Claire’s husband can’t know of Virginia – he wouldn’t understand.
Despite Virginia’s story being at the center of The New Girlfriend, Demoustier’s performance and vantage point as the protagonist are an invaluable reason why we are moved by this story. Most audience members can relate to Claire more closely than Virginia, and Demoustier’s performance as Claire as she moves through confusion, empathy, frustration, and then acceptance is nuanced, and might mirror our own perception of Virginia when watching The New Girlfriend. – Alex Sitaras