Monday 9 September 2013

On Bernadette Lafont

Who is the best French actress?

Without a moment's hesitation I'll nominate Bernadette Lafont, who (I've only just discovered) died recently, aged 74.

To adapt a cliché, she didn't so much light up the screen as the entire auditorium. She was a wonderfully complex talent, a fixture in French cinema and theatre for over half a century, and she specialised in playing tough, raucous, ballsy, independent women with sharp wits and an even sharper tongue. She was also, always, good.

She made her screen debut, in 1958, aged 18, in a magical, sunlit 17-minute short called Les Mistonsdirected by François Truffaut. Over the next fifty years she was quite fantastically prolific - I count  over 120 feature films and as much work in theatre and on television. In most of these she tended to be, if not the star, then certainly the best reason for watching.

Although in her early years she tended to be cast as tarts and opportunists she never played a villain (apart, that is, from her role in Just Jaeckin's Gwendoline, a silly 1984 soft porn sci-fi extravaganza based on a popular bande dessinée, in which she played the Queen of the Yik-Yak, in a series of eye-popping costumes). She combined natural integrity with intelligence, emotional honesty and humanity

She came from Nîmes and had an Arlesian accent, kippered in later years by drink and tobacco smoke. Directors adored her and she worked with everyone, or almost. Women liked and admired her; men feared and fancied her. Her natural setting was a Left Bank cafe. She was gorgeous.

What's her best film? She was superb in Claude Chabrol's gloomy Le beau serge, widely regarded as initiating the nouvelle vague. There are many others - Truffaut's Une belle fille comme moi, Nelly Kaplan's La Fiancée du pirate, Chabrol's brilliant À double tour and Les bonnes femmes (in which Lafont anticipates the Amy Winehouse look by forty years), Claude Miller's L'effrontee and dozens of others. She was always terrific - stroppy, sensual, always strikingly beautiful. She had strong features - a biggish nose, an engaging overbite (biting her lower lip expectantly was a trademark expression), a wonderful dancer's posture and (for many years) long dark hair which became, in middle age, a chic platinum bob. She was protean yet always recognisable, and as she grew older became adept at playing unconventional women - she could never be cast as a mere housewife but tended to play widows, divorcees, unmarried academics or hotel proprietors (see Les petits couleurs (2002) directed by Patricia Plattner and ask yourself why we don't make films like this in Britain).

She was always cast as a fighter, a contrarian, taking on the authorities or the community, a stubborn challenge to the status quo. She smoked during television interviews, always talking talking talking. She never really faded. I fancied her fiercely, of course, and all that she stood for. She had something of Germaine Greer and Vanessa Redgrave about her, and of Susan Sontag too, but with added Gallic vehemence. She was leftish politically with something of the soixante-huitard veteran about her. You can't say that about Bardot or Deneuve.

So what was her best film? Hard to choose and there are many I expect I'll never see as it's years since new French films were routinely screened in London's many now-defunct repertory cinemas. I'd go for Jean Eustache's astonishing 1973 masterpiece La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore). It's a film that doesn't allow easy summary, and hardly has a plot at all. Le Figaro called it 'an insult to the nation' and Télé-7-Jours called it a 'monument of boredom and a Himalaya of pretension.' Both of which, needless to say, I see as recommendations. It's very long and very slow and disarmingly inconsequential until one realises that it's as close as cinema has ever got to a depiction of how most of us live most of the time. It's an epic of redundancy, pointlessness and misdirection. It's superb.

It's a harrowing movie, set in and shot during the summer of 1972, exploring the unstructured and selfish lives of three youngish people in Paris. It's a love triangle, of sorts, with the self-absorbed Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud, perfectly cast) involved with his older girlfriend Marie (Lafont) and a Polish nurse Veronika (Françoise Lebrun).

It's a film that defies summary and easy analysis because there's no plot to speak of, just an accumulating series of lengthy meandering scenes that peter out without resolution, accompanied by huge amounts of dialogue. It's like life, in other words, and there's no better depiction of how things were in the 1970s for many of us. One aspect of the way we lived then, and easy to overlook, is that none of the characters possess any furniture. They live on floors, on mattresses or beanbags or cushions until one minor character (played as I recall by the director himself) somehow acquires a wheelchair. David Thompson cryptically remarked that the film should only be screened unannounced, to unsuspecting audiences expecting something lighter and triter. 

Lafont was in her early thirties at the time and (among other vividly-remembered pleasures) she incarnates beautifully the anxiety and pain and rage of a slightly older woman losing her lover to a younger rival. It's a film saturated in sadness, exemplified by this very lovely three-minute clip. Nothing much happens - it's like seeing a volcano erupt quietly. It's as beautiful and moving a scene as any in cinema. She does so little, and it means so much.

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