Sunday, March 30, 2008

In Praise of Emmanuelle Béart

It has been a lazy weekend here at Cranky Central, a rare occurrence I've done my best to enjoy since it might not happen again for another five or six years. This morning I did all the usual Sunday things: went for a jog, worked on the yard, attended church—and if you believed a word of that, you are, I'm sorry to say, a complete sucker.

There was no jogging this morning, only sleeping late and trying not to trip over the cat as I finally shuffled into the hallway. There was no working on the yard, just reading (Glenway Westcott's Apartment in Athens, if you must know) and catching up on some movies I'd recorded off cable. (Robert Duvall's British accent was atrocious in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, but Alan Arkin was very cute as Sigmund Freud. Just don't tell my grandfather I said that or he'll start to hold out hope that I'll end up with a Jewish doctor yet. The kind of Jewish doctor with a penis, I should clarify, because my grandma, who is more pragmatic than her crazy dreamer of a husband, has conducted exhaustive research on the matter and found that openly lesbian Jewish doctors do exist. In fact, she's planning to start a televised nationwide search for one next fall on NBC. Lainie Kazan is currently in negotiations to host.) And there was certainly no church-attending, for reasons that unruly parenthetical aside should have made clear, but if not, never fear, we've previously tackled this subject.

I also devoted approximately five minutes of this somewhat dreary, overcast Sunday afternoon to thinking of a decent subject for today's blog entry. Checking my Google alerts for topics that might be of interest turned up little worth writing about. For example, there was no way lesbian filmmaker Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss wasn't going to tank at the box office following the financial failures of the approximately 953 recent studio releases about the war in Iraq, so what is there to say about it?

My eyebrows went up a little when I saw that several hours ago, TMZ published a blurb possibly questioning the Penélope Cruz/Javier Bardem romance, but it appears the story, originally titled "No Country for Old Girlfriends," has disappeared from the site, meaning we might never know how this sentence, previewed via e-mail, ended: "The smokin' hot actor has been romantically linked to Penélope Cruz for the last year, but Friday, in a little corner at the Chateau Marmont in LA..." (I know that Cruz is a 30-something actress in the international spotlight, which means it's just a matter of time before she marries some biological male type in order to reproduce, but once she extricated herself from painfully unconvincing PR-engineered relationships with her oddball Hollywood costars and started wearing suits and grabbing Salma Hayek's ass in public, I briefly hoped she'd turn into something of a rebel.)

As I dutifully purged my inbox of links to wacky right-wing editorials about the evils of homosexuality and reviews of regional productions of Edward Albee plays, it hit me: Why not take this opportunity to celebrate the lovely and talented actress Emmanuelle Béart? It might be considered a bit off-topic, as it doesn't have anything to do with the previously introduced subjects of today being Sunday (FYI, I have it on good authority that Béart is hot all week long), or Javier Bardem, or homophobic editorials, or "The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?" being staged in New Hampshire, either, but that doesn't make it a topic any less worthy of discussion.

Béart, who was born in 1963, has worked steadily since the early 1980s and came to international prominence with a starring role in Claude Berri's Manon of the Spring in 1986. (It was the second of four films she would make with her future ex-husband, the actor Daniel Auteuil, who will probably earn his own "In praise of..." here eventually because I'll continue to love him no matter how many bad comedies he makes.) While she has worked infrequently in the States, appearing in the disastrous Date with an Angel and not faring much better in Mission: Impossible with Tom Cruise, Béart's French credits are nothing to scoff at. She has worked with both Jacques Rivette and Claude Sautet twice (in La belle noiseuse and The Story of Marie and Julien and Un coeur en hiver and Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud, respectively), André Téchiné thrice (starting with I Don't Kiss in 1991), Olivier Assayas (Les Destinées), François Ozon (8 Women), and Claude Chabrol (in 1994's L'enfer, not to be confused with the second L'enfer she made eleven years later), among others.

Tutoring Isabelle Huppert on the art of seduction in 8 Women

It was Chabrol who famously described Béart as having "the face of an angel and the body of a whore," a comment that, nearly fifteen years later, still appears in every fourth article about her. (Curiously, he said nothing about François Cluzet, her L'enfer costar, having the face of Dustin Hoffman and the body of your next-door neighbor.) While she is undeniably attractive and frequently appears in sexually charged material, the fact of the matter is that Emmanuelle Béart is a talented and underappreciated actress whose characters are often complex, conflicted women whose curves are irrelevant. Even in a fluffy musical comedy like 8 Women, there is more to her French maid Louise than meets the eye, like the revelation that her indiscreet affair with the man of the house was borne less of desire than from a twisted need to ease the marital burdens placed on his wife (played by Catherine Deneuve), who is the true object of her affection.

If you've seen 8 Women, you know that Deneuve's haughty character ends up in a clinch with her sister-in-law and arch-nemesis, a bisexual schemer played to perfection by Fanny Ardant. But unless you've seen director Anne Fontaine's relatively obscure Nathalie..., you'd have no way of knowing that Béart and Ardant went on to have a kinda-sorta lesbian entanglement of their own. Béart is a prostitute in Nathalie..., an inscrutable character hired by the troubled Ardant, who believes her husband (played by Gérard Depardieu) is straying, to seduce him and report back with all the pornographic details. If it sounds tortured and psychosexual and hopelessly French, that's only because it is, but what makes this movie memorable is that the only real tension in its bizarre love triangle is between Béart and Ardant, who is obsessed with other people's sexual desires because she's unable to express her own.

With Fanny Ardant in Nathalie...

Don't seek out Nathalie..., a somewhat tedious exercise in painstakingly crafted art-house ambiguity, expecting to see a lesbian love scene. The closest you'll come in Béart's oeuvre is some kissing in one of her early efforts, a gauzy David Hamilton film about teenage girls and sexual awakenings; and a brief but explicit sex scene with Pascale Bussières (yes, the same Pascale Bussières who left her Calvinist college and boyfriend to experience a lesbian awakening of her own under the big top in Patricia Rozema's ridiculous When Night is Falling) in La Répétition, which was directed by Catherine Corsini.

There's no love to speak of in La Répétition (and be warned, the title is an apt description of the screenplay), just obsession—a frequent theme in Béart's movies—and about 87 varieties of fuckedupness. The actresses play friends whose bond is fractured in college; they are reunited ten years later, by which time Béart's character has become a successful stage actress and Bussières a raving lunatic with stalkerish tendencies. Their dysfunctional relationship eventually takes a sexual turn despite a serious lack of chemistry between the pals, who, in a small detail that might explain why the scene contains little in the way of eroticism, seem fundamentally straight. Though it's the pathological behavior of the Bussières character that drives the plot of the movie, the murky motives of Béart's insecure actress steal the show.

Related viewing: Béart's lesbian-tinged films are hardly her best, though they're overlooked enough that I wanted to give them some space here. A good overview of her work that's available on DVD in North America would include Manon of the Spring, Un coeur en hiver (also known as A Heart in Winter), Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud and 8 Women (for the fabulous ensemble cast more than anything else). Hopefully André Téchiné's The Witnesses, about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, will come out on DVD this year and join the list.

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