my share of obssession: on a few French actresses

No. 1: Falconetti (1892-1946)

Notable appearance: The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer 1928)

There are people who play in a hundred films and are soon forgotten; and there are those who play in only one film and leave an indelible impression in the history of cinema. The case of Falconetti exemplifies this second category.

The name Falconetti is obviously Italian, as she was born in Semanu, a village (the population of which is said to be around eighty) located in the mountainous interior of Corsica. The language spoken there is a form of Italian dialect. As Falconetti moved to France, she adopted stage names as Renee, Maria, or Jeanne, both popular French maiden names. But her birth name is said to be Rinalda.

Falconetti is listed here not because she is beautiful, but for something else extremely rare, namely, the image of woman as martyr, as saint. Speaking of woman saint, you may have your own preferable one, for instance, Virgin Mary, a really nice lady. But did Mary did anything remarkable except taking care of her own child? Was this enough to qualify her as the object of centuries’ worship? Did she not live in peace (she did lament for a while) after her child our lord was taken from her? … Ok, stop. I just want to say that la petite Jeanne’s case is different. She was called upon to accomplish a mission which is far beyond her means as a young village girl. And by miracle she did save the peace-loving France from greedy English invaders. What is the reward? To be burned on stakes, this horrible destiny she could have avoided with a simplest nod. Where did she amass the courage to lead an army and to face her own death,? Did she ever have a moment of doubt like Jesus had? …Ok, Ok. I just want to say, Dreyer successfully established the image of Falconetti as a real saint. And as if to confirm this image, her life became a myth.

There are basically two mysteries concerning Falconetti that interest me. Why she was chosen by Dreyer? Why she dropped off screen since, after such a breathtaking performance? Other biographical questions have also been asked: why she left France for Argentine? Who fathered her daughter, etc. but I believe they probably have not much to do with her screen career.

2. Delphine Seyrig (1932-1990)

Notable appearance:

Jeanne Dielman (Akerman 1976)

India Song (Duras 1975)

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel 1972)

The Stolen Kisses (Truffaut 1968)

Muriel (Resnais 1963)

Last Year in Marienbad (Resnais 1961)

Seyrig was, in my opinion, the ultimate balance between what is elegant and what is seductive. Yet under her subservient appearance, she engaged herself in militant activities throughout the late seventies. In certain ways, you can compare her to Joan Crawford and Jane Fonda, two other well-known actress-turned-feminists. But unlike these two, who probably injected a large dose of virilis mulieris as the result of fighting for women’s right (which is certainly a justified cause), Seyrig remained extremely feminine.

3. Charlotte Gainsbourg (1971-)

Notable appearance:

L’Effrontée (Miller 1985)

La petite voleuse (Miller 1988)

The Cement Garden (Birkin, 1993)

Gainsbourg is still in present tense. Her career is going steadily, with a healthy mixture of French, European and Hollywood production. But what I prefer is her nymphal stage, as shown in two Claude Miller films and the one made by her uncle Andrew Birkin.

4.Brigitte Fossey (1946-)

Notable appearance:

Un mauvais fils (Sautet 1980)

Quintet (Altman 1979)

L'Homme qui aimait les femmes (Truffaut 1977)

Les valseuses (Blier 1974)

Jeux Interdits (Clément 1952)

Fossey I believe exemplifies what I call “the unbearable inner passion”. If she tried harder, she would have been what Adjani is ten years earlier, or at least another Jeanne Moreau. After all, she started a career at the age of six.

5. Juliette Gréco (1927-)

Notable appearance:

Crack in the Mirror (Fleischer 1960)

The Roots of Heaven (Huston 1958)

Quand tu lira cette lettre (Melville 1953)

Orphée (Cocteau 1950)

Greco is never a successful actress. And she seldom played leading roles. I don’t know why. Perhaps it has to do with her almost always impassive and… frigid look. But that can be turned into her advantage given the right story. In comparison, Dietrich is also a bad actress (judging by the range of characters she can portrait convincingly), but her screen presence is more readily acknowledged. P.S. I was wondering why feminists haven’t say anything about this.


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