Fanny Ardant loves wild men, pities Dominique Strauss-Kahn – and made Antonioni cry. Benjamin Secher meets one of French cinema's most uncompromising stars
Fanny Ardant: 'To make a movie is not a duty, it's a privilege'Photo: Antoine Doyen/Getty Images
By Benjamin Secher
9:00PM BST 06 Jun 2014
Fanny Ardant is lounging on the bed, a glass of red wine in one hand, a joint in the other and a faraway look in her kohl-smudged eyes. By her feet, her much younger lover is hunched over his iPad, tapping out a tweet.
There are many unexpected sights in Ardant’s latest film, Bright Days Ahead, a small but resonant drama in which she plays Caroline, a married dentist who heads into retirement only to discover a life of tedium – and, before long, a rugged computer science teacher – stretching out before her. For much of the film, the magnificent 65-year old French actress appears deliberately misplaced: she is dressed, perhaps for the only time in her career, in jeans; her familiar dark hair is bleached blond; she attends a day centre for retirees, where she learns how to make her own webpage, of all things. But in this one scene, in bed, in her negligee, in flagrante delicto, the woman identified byGérard Depardieu34 years ago as “the kind who likes to borrow trouble” seems utterly in her element.
When, over lunch in a London hotel restaurant, I ask Ardant what she makes of Caroline’s middle-age rebellion, she says: “In fact, I have never touched drugs, because I know if I tried it and loved it, I would be finished. I had a lot of friends who did drugs and I saw the result. In a way they lost themselves.” She pauses, takes a sip of water that does nothing to dampen the huskiness of her voice, then smiles wickedly. “Maybe when I am more mature I will try that one pleasure that I have kept for when I am approaching death. And when the children ask, ‘Where is Grandma?’ I will be off in some corner getting completely stoned!”
Laurent Lafitte and Fanny Ardant in Bright Days Ahead (HANDOUT)
A mother of three (she has one daughter from her relationship with the actor Dominique Leverd, a second by François Truffautand a third with the Italian film producer Fabio Conversi) and a grandmother twice over, Ardant cackles so raucously that she draws curious glances from the businessmen at the next table. She is dressed like the kind of nun who crops up in the films ofPedro Almodóvar: in a snug black shirt dress with white cuffs and collar. Her eyelids are black, her lips red and a silver crucifix dangles around her neck. But if her wardrobe nods towards the sacred, there is a hint of the profane about her manner, an undertow of naughtiness unexpected in a woman of her age.
“It is said that experience leads to wisdom; it is not true,” she says dismissively, each word encased in a heavy French accent. “It is not because you are young that you are stupid and it is not because you are old that you are clever. You have to fight for wisdom. And besides, experience – it has no effect on me. If you are as obsessional as I am, you always do the same thing.”
When Ardant looks back on her childhood self, beyond the long screen and stage career that has united her with some of the great European directors (Truffaut, Antonioni, Zeffirelli, Resnais), she sees the exact same person who meets her gaze in the mirror each morning. The shy, precocious girl who read Proust at the age of 15 and “got the impression that it was written for me” was, she says, really no different from the woman talking to me today. “I always love the same things, I always believe in the same things and I always do the same things. You know, sometimes people ask me, ‘Are you not afraid to lose your personality being an actress?’ And I say, ‘I wish to lose my personality.’ ”
Ardant was raised in Monte Carlo, the youngest of five children born to a cavalry officer and his wife. She was educated at a convent school and each summer, fearing the dubious temptations of this “city of playboys on motor scooters”, her parents would pack her off to her grandparents’ house set deep in the woods north of Paris, a place from another era “where there was no electricity and we had to go for water to the well each day”. While there, she would spend her days reading books from her grandfather’s library or learning the names of the trees in the forest and, on Sundays, she’d accompany her grandmother to church, “but I didn’t mind, because it was very exotic for me”.
Does she consider herself religious now? “Kind of religious but very free,” she says. “I don’t believe in the law of the Church. Maybe because I was educated by nuns. But I do pray for thanks – and for forgiveness for the bad things that I have done.” Prayer also helps her feel closer, she says, to “a world that you can’t see, of all the dead people that I have loved”.
Ardant was only 17 when her father, a personal friend of Prince Rainier, died suddenly and the shock of that loss has never quite left her. She credits him above all with teaching her how to treat others. “I remember he would give the same respect to the seller of postcards as to the King of Spain,” she says. “He taught me this kind of humanity, that one human being is equal to another. And that is important because it teaches you not to respect glory or money or power.”
When he died, Ardant “was just at the point of starting to act on stage. But he never saw anything I did”. On his advice, she went to university in Aix-en-Provence so she would have a degree in the bag if her desired future in acting didn’t work out. “I chose political science because it was only a three-year course and all the others were four years,” she says.
Fanny Ardant and Gerard Depardieu in 1981 (EVERETT COLLECTION/REX)
But no sooner had she graduated than she found herself accepting the offer of a job in London, working in the French embassy. “It’s the worst danger when you succeed on a path you didn’t choose,” she says, “because you forget your dream. Working in politics was interesting for me, but it was never my dream.”
In France, the line between politics and showbusiness is wobbly at best. It surprises nobody to see a pop singer in the Elysée Palace, or a president out on the town with an actress. “Oui, because the politicians think that actors are like them, that they are acting a part. But it’s not true because I think to be a great actor you have to be honest. If you are not honest, acting is like a circus and you are like a clown.” And politics? Ardant shrugs: “It’s small men fighting for election. You would have to be stupid to believe the things they say. More and more people don’t believe in politics and that is dangerous because it can lead to fascism.”
As she’s rattling through a list of what she identifies as lies told in the name of politics – about Guantánamo Bay, or petrol reserves, or hollow promises made by candidates on the election trail – she alights on the figure of “this poor Dominique Strauss-Kahn” and his treatment at the hands of the American justice system. (If “politics” is one word guaranteed to send Ardant’s big brown eyes rolling back in her head, “America” is another). It appalled her to see the judges in front of the television cameras, the crowds gathered outside the courthouse for a glimpse of the accused. “All the way it was pure America, completely political. I don’t believe it,” she says with a humourless laugh. “Alors, maybe he has a strange way of behaving, but I prefer a sex addict to a thief.”
Ardant didn’t last long at the French embassy. She was sacked, she says, because she “went out too much” and always arrived for work late and dishevelled. She’d been led astray by her flatmate, an English girl who would take her dancing and taught her how to play chess. “So I learnt all the terms for the pieces in English. The bishop!” she yelps. “In French we don’t say bishop, we say the fool.” She spent the rest of the year doing odd jobs for money, muddling through until one evening, when she was in a foul mood she met a stranger in a pub who told her she’d never be happy as long as she stayed in London. “And that gave me an electric shock.” Ardant snaps her fingers in the air, the sound of a spell breaking. “Salvation sometimes comes from unknown people. Like in Russian novels.”
She packed up the next day and returned to France, enrolled at drama school and that is when, she says, “life started”. Before long, she began landing roles first at the theatre, then on television then, at the age of 31, she received a call from Truffaut, who had spotted her in a television drama and wanted to cast her in his next film. They made two films together in quick succession. Her first, The Woman Next Door in 1981, a tale of a doomed love affair opposite Gérard Depardieu, was followed two years later by the crime caper Confidentially Yours alongside Jean-Louis Trintignant.
Having come to film relatively late, she had landed right in the heart of French cinema and immediately carved out her own place in it. Depardieu, with whom Ardant would act again in both Colonel Chabert (1994) and Natalie (2003), struck her immediately as a “great, great actor. He throws himself on a role like a dog. When he looks at you, his personality is so strong that you lose the impression of all the people watching you, you forget completely that the camera is there.” Trintignant she places in the same category, alongsideSean Penn and Jack Nicholson. “They are wild persons,” she says, and you can hear the swoon in her voice. “You feel they are violent and yet they control themselves. It’s impossible to fake that.”
While working together, she and Truffaut fell in love. In September 1983 she gave birth to their daughter, Josephine. Just over a year later Truffaut was dead, from a brain tumour, at the age of 52. “He was a tormented spirit, François. But when he was happy was when he was with actors,” she recalls. “One thing about him that I loved very much was that when an actor or an actress had a small part and would arrive on set for one day only, François would welcome them like a king or queen, roll out the red carpet. He was very generous like that. He had a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm and he believed, as I do, that to make a movie is not a duty, it’s a privilege.”
Having begun her film career with Truffaut, it must have been hard not to regard any subsequent project as a step down. Certainly when you look across Ardant’s career, it has as many troughs as peaks. “As Marcello Mastroianni used to say to me: ‘Fanny, you have to keep working. There is no Fellini in every corner.’ If you are always waiting for a genius director to come along, you will end up never working.” But, she is keen to point out, “I never did a movie or a play just for the money, because my freedom was my great capital. And I prefer to have that.” Did she ever come close? “Oui, oui. I remember being offered an ad campaign at a time when I was really short of money. They said every other actress would accept it, but I said no. You think that money can buy everyone? Non!”
In 1995, Ardant worked withMichelangelo Antonionion his final film, Beyond the Clouds. Ten years earlier Antonioni had suffered a stroke that had left him partially paralysed and unable to speak but, says Ardant, “he could growl. And so without words, without intellectual meaning, he could transmit to you what he wanted. I remember he watched each take on the monitor and if he wasn’t happy with what you had done would go, ‘Mhhhh, hnnngng, uhhhh.’ And you had to try again. But then one time you would look over and he’d be crying, and you’d know that you’d got it right.
“AndWim Wenderswas there too, because the producer had called him in [as co-director], just in case. But he had no power at all; nobody would dare to oppose Antonioni. And I loved that.” She smiles at the memory. “It just goes to show,” she adds, “that sometimes we speak too much.”