So French, so Fanny Ardant: a cinematic muse holds court

More than just another French movie star, Fanny Ardant is part of cinema history. The muse and companion of the great New Wave director Francois Truffaut in the years before his early death, she broke through on screen in his 1981 romantic thriller The Woman Next Door, as an old flame who reappears in the life of the married hero (Gerard Depardieu).

Fanny Ardant with Gerard Depardieu in The Woman Next Door.

Fanny Ardant in 8 Women.

Across a career that now includes more than 80 films, Ardant has remained an arresting presence: dark-haired, glamorous, with mischief in her eyes. Even in the all-female, all-star cast of Francois Ozon’s 2002 musical 8 Women, she had the standout role, as a showgirl who performs a striptease in homage to Rita Hayworth, and later has a passionate clinch with Catherine Deneuve (who plays her respectable rival).

In person, Ardant appears completely comfortable as the centre of attention, holding forth in fluent English to the small group of journalists who have come to meet her in a Paris hotel. In a simple black dress, with her hair up and a silver crucifix around her neck, she’s the picture of timeless elegance — and an irresistibly lively personality, who seems to get a great deal of pleasure from being Fanny Ardant.

The film she’s here to promote is Nicolas Bedos’ comedy-drama La Belle Epoque, starring Daniel Auteuil as an elderly depressive who hires a troupe of actors to recreate his 1970s youth. Ardant plays his disenchanted wife in a performance that won her a Best Supporting Actress award at last month’s Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscars.

Fanny Ardant with her Cesar award for best supporting actress for Belle Epoque. Credit:Getty Images

While Ardant’s character is the forward-looking foil to the hero, Ardant herself takes a fonder view of the past. If she could wind back the clock as shown in the film, what period would she like to revisit? “The first day of the summer holidays, when school is finished,” she says wistfully. “That moment where all the possibilities are open.”

As a girl, Ardant hated school, though she loved to read and still does. In general, her attitudes haven’t much changed. “When I look at myself now, and when I remember the girl that I was when I was 15, I’m still the same. You choose your camp, you choose your mentality. And I remember that I thought that it was very, very important to say no.”

To say no to what, exactly? At first, Ardant resists a specific answer. “Your ‘no’ is complicated,” she says. “But you define yourself much more by your ‘no’ than by your ‘yes’.”

Gradually, she starts to identify at least some of the things she rejects. One of them is tourism, in the modern sense. “It destroys the reality of the world.” Another is social media: “I don’t believe in social networks. Maybe, mea culpa, because I am, how do you say, asocial?”

On the face of it this seems unlikely, but Ardant is quick to elaborate. “Maybe I am asocial because I do my work on stage, or on set, and I think sometimes that is the real conversation. You’re at a dinner party and you speak about ‘Don’t you think it is very cold for the season?’ or, you know, ‘Trump is not a good man’. All this conformist conversation.”

Ardant’s own dinner-party gambit, it emerges, is to ask the man next to her whether he is happy with his wife. ‘‘The conformist man says ‘Bien sur, no question, evidently.’ And I say, oh, this is a boring man.”

Fanny Ardant in La Belle Epoque.

With more interesting men, there are two possibilities. “The one will say ‘Oui, I love my wife,’ and it’s very interesting, because he explains how he fell in love,” Ardant says. “And the other thing is when a man dares to say ‘No’.”

Either way, it’s a chance for the man to tell his story. “It’s like you open a book. Like a novel, or a film.” What she always expects is that she will be told to mind her own business. But somehow, she says, this never happens — which, coming from her, isn’t hard to believe.

As a declared non-conformist, Ardant feels that the world is on a worrying path. “More and more in our society, we make an opposition between security and freedom,” she says. “But security is nothing. Because once you lose your freedom … thinking is more and more in danger, freedom of opinion, freedom of behaviour.”

Witness for instance the drabness of today’s fashions, compared to those of her 1970s youth: “Funny and bizarre, but inventive, like a child.” Somehow, this gets her onto the topic of jeans, in particular the pair worn by one of the journalists in our group. “Is it very comfortable?” (“It’s not bad,” he says.)

Admittedly, not everything about the 1970s was fabulous. “A lot of parties, people said things that were completely stupid, because the drugs never make people very clever.” Did she indulge? “Drugs? No. Because I am bizarre by myself.”

There’s another, personal sense in which Ardant’s nostalgia might seem justified. In the earlier part of her career, she worked with some of the all-time great filmmakers, including Truffaut, Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni, who set a standard not easily matched.

Ardant concedes the point and, in the same breath, shrugs it off. “Sometimes you have a great director, and sometimes you have an unknown director,” she says. “But if you love the part, and if you feel on the set the energy and enthusiasm, it can be a bad movie, without any success, but if you were happy doing it, you are the queen.”

You have to make the most of the present, she says, whether it measures up to the past or not. “I remember Marcello Mastroianni used to tell me ‘You can’t always do a movie with Fellini. You have to act!’ And it’s true. Because there is one Fellini a century.” (Though she doesn’t mention it, in the 21st century she began to direct films of her own, starting with the drama Ashes and Blood in 2009.)
“What do you think has got better since the 1970s?” I ask.

In all my time doing interviews, I’ve rarely asked a question that had the effect of this one: Ardant, till now so assured and quick-witted, seems stopped in her tracks. She pauses, gazes into the distance, murmurs to herself in French, breathes in sharply, looks as if she’s about to say something then changes her mind.

At last she finds an answer, starting out in French before moving into English. What she values in our time, she says, is the “new freedom of thinking” which stems from the feeling that the old voices of authority — journalists, politicians, priests — are no longer worthy of trust.

“That, I think, is very important, that people become aware without reading the newspaper and without listening to the President of America or the President of France. What I love in my time is that we are responsible for ourselves.

“So there’s a sensation of loneliness, but at the same time of responsibility. When you open your mouth, you have to speak what you think — and not what the world thinks, because the world can make a mistake.”

La Belle Epoque is screening nationally at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, which runs until April 8 (check online for session times) and in theatrical release from April 9. Jake Wilson travelled to France courtesy of the Alliance Francaise.

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