French actress Fanny Ardant has performed in more than eighty films, thirty plays, twenty television dramas and is recipient of numerous accolades, including two César Awards for Pédale douce (Soft Pedal) by Gabriel Aghion and for La Belle Époque by Nicolas Bedos, as well as a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement.
There is no other thespian who possesses her magnetic charm, given by her suavely husky voice, sophisticated poise, and zest for life. She even inspired songwriters like Vincent Delerm who composed Fanny Ardant et moi (Fanny Ardant and I). But Madame Ardant is far from being just a muse, she is a passionate advocate of freedom, love and humanism.
Recently the 5th edition of the Brussels International Film Festival dedicated a retrospective to this grande dame of French cinema: eighteen motion pictures starring Fanny Ardant were screened between Cinematek and Bozar and she also held a talk moderated by Belgian film critic Hugues Dayez.
Daughter of a cavalry officer, Fanny Ardant grew up in Monaco and eventually studied international relations at the elite Sciences-Po University in Aix-en-Provence. She made her first appearance on stage in 1974 with Pierre Corneille’s Polyeucte, directed by Dominique Leverd and her first movie in 1976 Marie-Poupée (Marie, The Doll) directed by Joël Séria. But it was in 1981 that Fanny Ardant hit the international scene playing opposite Gerard Depardieu in La Femme d’à Côté (The Woman Next Door) directed by François Truffaut with whom she also shared an important love story.
Through her career Fanny Ardant worked with countless illustrious directors and actors who marked the history of film. In this exclusive interview — where the conversation nonchalantly switched from French to Italian and English — she reveals her process as a pansophic storyteller:
Q: When did you catch the acting bug, is it a profession you always aspired to embrace?
F.A: When I was very young and went to the opera the instant the red curtain opened up I felt the desire to act. I watched all the operas by Puccini, Verdi, as well as the Russian and German composers. But I knew from the start that singing was not my path, I wanted to perform. At the time I had an operatic culture, not a filmic one. We didn’t have a television set at home, but I read many books. I did not like going to school, I had no vision of what I wanted to do, but when I finished my studies I understood I wanted to act. The members of my family did not consider it a job. Yet after graduating from university I dived into acting, like one dives into the ocean. I was clueless and didn’t know anyone in the field. It is the magic of life that eventually makes things happen. I was acting on stage and then I landed a television series, at the time they called them feuilletons. It was written by a woman and was set during the First World War. This series, Les Dames de la côte (Women of the Coast), was very successful and this is where François Truffaut saw me and asked me to act in La Femme d’à Côté (The Woman Next Door).
Q: Speaking about your love for the opera, you played Maria Callas in Franco Zeffirelli’s film and directed the opera production Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District for the Greek National Theatre. Is there an operatic character you feel a special bond with?
F. A: Yes, it’s a character I already played on stage: Euripides’ Medea. I like the opera version by Luigi Cherubini, and I feel she is the quintessential tragic heroine. We see a mother who kills her children, but there is also great love, it’s complex. I also like very much Tosca, that I got to know more while working on Callas Forever. When I was asked to direct some operas I had complete liberty, I was profoundly shaken by Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and was fascinated by this free woman.
Q: What do you feel is the greatest challenge as an advocate of the female realm, since you are the mother of three daughters and you played a transsexual in Lola Pater, supporting the idea that womanhood is a social construct?
Curiously enough I’ve never made any distinction between male and female, and I loathe groups. I never reduced myself to being a person who fights against the world of men. Fighting is a condition in life that belongs to all humanity. We don’t fight for gender rights, but for human rights. Within mankind we can find many categories, there are idiots and intelligent people amongst both men and women, the dominators and the frail, this is what I like: the contradictions of our species. I belong to a generation where the feminist movement was very strong, starting from the Seventies, but what I hate the most is power. I will never belong to a category that seeks power, because it would be like entering a ghetto, I want to be free. I will also add, that I grew up in a country and in a family where men were exceptional, I saw my grandfather, uncle, father and brother who were all remarkable. Probably if I were born in a different country I would have thought differently. But I have to stay true to myself. I don’t like judgmental attitudes because I feel it would mean returning to obscurantism. I understand the struggle for life; also in love stories you live the failure and despair but at the end of the day when you’ve fought you might have lost and cried but you’ve truly lived. Life has a larger spectrum than the division of small groups opposing each other.
Q: Since you mentioned your family, in what way did growing up in Monaco and your studies in Political Science with a thesis on ‘Surrealism and Anarchy’ influence your artistic path?
F.A: I was raised by a very good man, who was a free spirit, very cultured and with a kind heart. I was more the impulsive type. He taught me the importance of debating over things and planted the seed in me of anarchy. He told me that we are not on this planet to bestow lectures. When I was young I read The Idiot by Dostoevsky and I came to the realisation that this is how we should all be: innocent and compassionate. In life we are mostly chosen rather than having the ability to choose, naturally you have the last word in taking what is offered to you or not. Personally, I was never attracted by money. I was raised that way; I was taught that you should never sell yourself. My father might have been eccentric, but he was a pure humanist. I’m an advocate of freedom of thought because I had that example in my family. This is also why I believed in absolute love between a man and woman, because I saw that my parents were together not because of bourgeois hypocrisy but because they were truly smitten with each other. This helps you through life because the more you’ve been loved and sheltered, the more you’ve grown confident in other people. In fact, many wonder why I made films with first-time directors, it’s because I take it as an adventure, because I trust the unknown.
Q: Do you approach your characters with this same instinctive spirit, or through the text, or the Stanislavsky Method?
F.A: Probably instinct. I play the characters I like. I must be able to play a woman I like. This doesn’t mean she resembles me, but even through her differences she fascinates me. I try not to be too rational, nor overly prepared. I believe that like in life, we are served with something we are unaware of that will nourish us. Sometimes a brief conversation on set with a technician or with the director is inspiring for the actor, it changes the mood, the gaze.
Q: Do you have a favourite cinematic genre in which you like to perform?
F.A: I usually like all the things that haven’t been proposed to me yet.
Q: So is there a role you haven’t yet been asked to play that you wish was offered to you?
F.A: I would like to play a terrorist or a lawyer. I have rarely played roles that were determined by their profession. My characters so far were always defined by human relations. I’ve worked also in comedies and I like the ones where the role is serious but the mechanics of the narrative is amusing, like Pédale douce (Soft Pedal). I’m not funny by nature, I consider myself burdensome. I don’t have a light-hearted comedic personality, that is why I can be part of a comical story maintaining my serious temperament.
Q: What is your relationship with the theatre, is there a production that has a special place in your heart?
F.A: It forged me, because that is where I began. I started when I was very young with the belief that all that is beautiful should be shared.
Hence, I performed the great authors like Racine, Claudel, Montherlant, Shakespeare, the Greeks. I think theatre is the gospel. I also performed many of Marguerite Duras’ works because I am passionate about what she has to say and how she conveys it. She’s an incurable romantic and I feel that love is what moves the world. Theatre is the school of life where you navigate on your own. I was directed for the stage by Roman Polanski in Master Class about Maria Callas — this was before making the film with Zeffirelli — and he was one of the greatest stage directors I ever met in my life. He allowed me to immerse myself in the depths of the character. Just a tiny direction would change the performance.
Q: You mentioned Franco Zeffirelli, besides him you’ve worked with many Italian directors like Ettore Scola, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Paolo Sorrentino, Vicenzo Marra, Michele Placido and Mario Martone, which one surprised you the most?
F.A: Rather than surprised I must say that the first one I worked with was Ettore Scola and I was charmed by the Italian company. It was apparently frolicsome yet very knowledgeable and clever, even gloomy at times but always with an elegant flair that came across as blithesome. Italians know how to celebrate life, through the joy of food, laughter, drinking, smoking, fiercely discussing politics: all the fleshly aspects of the world. La famiglia (The Family) united the most diverse people, from Stefania Sandrelli to Philippe Noiret and many more; each one combined intelligence with the rawness of life. I truly have an immense passion for Italy. I’ve known people from Naples, Rome, Florence, I was recently in Bologna to present Les jeunes amants (The Young Lovers), and I always feel at home in that country, because I met Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman. I feel that the French are more weighty, the Italians are more ironic.
Q: Speaking about Italian directors I’m aware you also had a very interesting encounter with Mario Monicelli…
F.A: I went to Rome to audition for his film. Many French actresses had travelled there for this casting and after that they immediately went back to Paris, instead I wanted to visit Rome. Monicelli asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I didn’t and that I wouldn’t have slept in order to wander around the city, so he offered me hospitality in his home overlooking Piazza Navona. His wife wasn’t there, but he was a complete gentleman. During the night he came looking for a shirt and I was alarmed and asked him what he was up to, and he replied he was in his home and he was searching for something. That was that. In the morning we made the bed together. He was standing on one side and I on the other lifting the sheets as if we were a couple. I remember having breakfast on his terrace and he confessed to me that he had no intention of casting a French actress, but he had auditioned all of us to comply to the requests of the co-production. I loved his cynicism and quip, and that marked the beginning of our friendship. We never worked together but he was the one who introduced me to the magic of “La Grande Bellezza.”
Q: In connection to The Great Beauty we see you in Paolo Sorrentino’s film in a beautiful scene with Toni Servillo. You tell him you wished you had been the character from The Woman Next Door to die for love. How much is Fanny Ardant playing Fanny Ardant in that moment?
F.A : This was an ingenious idea Paolo Sorrentino had, who wanted to homage French cinema. This was not the first time I met Toni Servillo, because we worked together on another film directed by Paolo, Il Divo. I admire his work very much. In The Hand Of God I thought it was pure genius how the character of the sister was always locked in the bathroom; the mother with her pranks was so ingenious and the moment Fabietto meets the director near the seashore is incredibly evocative. I was first enraptured by Sorrentino’s filmography with This Must Be The Place and loved how Cheyenne blows his hair out of his eyes and quietly makes observations about everyone. Sorrentino’s visionary sensibility shows how much he loves cinema and that scene in The Great Beauty was somehow a nod to a filmmaker and film that he cherished.
Q: In regards to that filmmaker, François Truffaut marked your professional and personal life profoundly, directing you in La femme d’à côté (The Woman Next Door) and Vivement dimanche! (Confidentially Yours). Do you recall a particular advice he gave you?
F.A: I don’t remember a specific one, but rather what I realised through time was that he had a great trait, that I would eventually look for in all directors: passion for this profession. He had a childlike quality and with every film he would start from scratch. There were no certitudes, there was always a vulnerability in his manner.
Q: Jean-Louis Trintignant has recently passed away and you worked together on L’Été prochain (Next Summer) directed by his wife Nadine Trintignant and Vivement dimanche! (Confidentially Yours) directed by François Truffaut. What is a memory you would like to share about him?
F.A: I loved to work with Jean-Louis, he was an extraordinary actor and very generous with his working partners. When he acted off-camera his performance was equally intense as when he was on camera. I remember an instant of when we were filming Vivement dimanche! (Confidentially Yours), I had to be slapped by him and he told François he couldn’t do it, even though I said it wasn’t a problem. So François took his jacket and gave me the slap.
Q: Besides your work as an actress, you’ve also worked as director both for theatre and for film — I remember attending the premiere of your first feature Cendres et sang (Ashes and Blood) — what approach do you use with your actors?
F.A : It’s very mysterious. I believe actors are like me, but actually there are many personalities. Therefore I must start from the premise that they do not think the way I do. It is necessary for us to share some common ground, emotions, instincts, through our differences. Nothing must be given for granted. In that film you mention, I directed an actress I adored, Ronit Elkabetz, who was also a director and she really understood the complexity of filming. Something that made me very aware of how we all are different is when I asked her to whistle and she said she wasn’t able. I was flabbergasted but I told her to mimic it and in the end I dubbed the whistling in post-production. She was very grateful and after the scene she came behind me and hugged me as a child would. When she died I was very sad because we had shared so many amusing and tragic moments together. You need a special connection between actors and the director. When I am acting I try to forget my personality and explore the human spirit putting myself in the hands of the director.
Q: In terms of filmmakers, since we are meeting at the Brussels International Film Festival, what is your relationship with this country and its cinema?
F.A : What attracted me here is the Cinematek, the film archive they have, because I love those who are cinephiles. I very much like the idea that people have spaces and screening rooms where they can discuss about cinema. I don’t have a great film knowledge, I’m unable to remember the names of actors or directors. If you ask me to give you the name of a Korean or Egyptian filmmaker I won’t be able to. I’ve seen plenty of Belgian films, by Jaco Van Dormael or with Benoît Poelvoorde. I feel the latter represents the wacky side of Belgians. The people from this country present themselves as courteous, but if you dig deep there is a world of fantasy and quirkiness. Belgians seem like a mixture between the English and the French, they are very welcoming. In one of the first films I acted in, Benvenuta directed by André Delvaux, half of the crew was Belgian and the other half was Italian. The approach was very pictorial, it had an atmosphere, perhaps inspired by Surrealist painting. I also worked with Jean-Jacques Andrien for Australia with Jeremy Irons, and I was directed by Diane Kurys in Ma mère est folle (My Mother Is Crazy), that was shot in Belgium. I have often come to Brussels and I like to go to the same places, even more so in Rome. I enjoy returning to the same cafés to drink a coffee or orange juice not as a tourist but as someone who can call that place home. This is thanks to cinema, because when you spend so much time in a city you become a resident. I like to mingle with the locals. What makes any nation interesting are the people. Perhaps you might not explore everything, but you have experienced the country at its best.
Q: You truly are a citizen of the world. Merci, Thank you, Grazie.
F.A: Viva l’Italia!
Q: Viva Fanny Ardant!