Like many of her middle-aged French peers (Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Charlotte Rampling, Isabelle Huppert, and co.), Fanny Ardant remains an in-demand talent across the pond. Whereas in America, actresses over 50 are often delegated to playing the doting mom or frumpy grandma (if they’re offered anything at all), in France, the roles seem to get better with time for celebrated actresses.
At 65, Ardant (best known to American audiences for her role in 1981’s “The Woman Next Door,” directed by her late partner François Truffaut) is afforded one of the best roles of her career in Marion Vernoux’s “Bright Days Ahead,” which opens today in select theaters (you can also catch it On Demand). In the drama, Ardant plays Caroline, a married, recently retired dentist with two daughters and grandchildren, who takes up computer classes at a senior center. There she meets a 40-ish computer consultant (Laurent Lafitte), and it’s not long before the two embark on a passionate extramarital affair.
Earlier this week, Ardant sat down with Indiewire in New York to discuss the drama and her career.
You don’t read as older than mid-40s, so it was jarring to see you in a senior’s club in the film’s opening scene where you meet your playmate.
I never thought about age. I thought about something finishing. If you look at the screen carefully, Caroline decides to stop what she thinks is a boring life – where you work, you earn money, and you go to sleep and you wake up and you work. So suddenly, she is at a turning point with age. But for her, she is a happy woman – she has a family, good husband, good house, good job. She is clever enough to understand that life is other things – to feel, to smell, to eat, to smoke, to drink, to meet people. So for me, it can start from going to a senior center – like the end of life. That is the idea carried away by the society and suddenly it depends on what you are going to do with that.
So age can be the beginning of sorrow, lamentation and crying about [the] past. I am old enough, clever enough to know that she had life because you can’t have children, grandchildren, a grandson and granddaughter [groans] and I am old. So I was happy about this part, about this story – because I am not [a] conformist and I don’t like cliché. I love when a story breaks cliché – how [to] become happy in a senior house and everything.
If this movie were made in America, I feel that Caroline would feel guilt about her affair. Like that scene in “Unfaithful” where Diane Lane writhes on a train ride home after cheating on her husband. Caroline is so…she has a joie de vivre, she’s happy with herself.
She’s carnale. She met her lover in a restaurant, everything is set – they eat, they drink, they smoke – so I don’t think she feels guilty because she is in love with her husband. It’s not [as if] she does it behind his back. So she is obliged to lie, but she wants to take the life by the reins. She doesn’t want to say, oh, now games [are] over. She doesn’t give up.
How refreshing was it for your for you to play that?
There aren’t roles like this! When it happens, you have to catch it. I was very happy on this set. It was a small movie, small crew, not a lot of money, easily done, quickly done and voilá! It’s not like, oh it’s going to be important [and] a big movie. I think all my life I always had the opportunity to be in movies like that – the movies that you used to call small movies. Off-Broadway!
My only luxury is that I do what I want to do. I never did a movie for false reasons.
I may have made a mistake with my choice because a movie may have not been successful or not very good. But when I choose it, it is because I believe it, because I want to act in this story with this character. I never did something for money or strategy or my career. This one arrived the same way that they [the roles] arrived when I was younger.
Not many actors work that way I imagine, especially nowadays. Why are you different?
I think I love very much this fact to be [an] actress, and I will never put my love under a lie. This is not like another job. I refuse because I am [an] actress too for stage, so it is good because sometimes suddenly you have a great part on stage, and you are not obliged to do a small part where you earn some money. Thank God I can tell you that. Maybe the heavens have been good to me. I’ll also often accept a part with a first-time director. It’s like an adventure, very often without success. But I don’t care because for me the most important time is the time when you are doing things – when you believe, when you have the passion. After success, it doesn’t belong to you.
Do you watch your own films, or are you one to live in the moment and skip out on the final product?
The second one.
You have four projects in the works that are coming out in the next couple of years. Your work ethic clearly hasn’t wavered over the years.
It’s true, I love it very much – I never think of life in terms of holidays. I know for an actress or actors sometimes nothing good happens, so it’s better when good things happen! It was Nietzsche who used to say, “Revolutions can come, earthquakes can come, the whole world could fall, but I prepare myself.” When you ask very often in America, they ask [actors] about how they work on this path. I have never had the feeling to work, but I have had the feeling to be prepared – open to any kind of suggestion [or] order from the director. To be open you have to be prepared, but not with certainty.
So how did you prepare for this role?
I read the script. As soon as I accept a part, the part belongs to me. I had some talks about some scenes, we prepared all the costumes, makeup [and] the blonde hair. After that I didn’t work. Even though I play a dentist, I didn’t do any preparation.
That would have been overkill.
If you prepare too much, after a while you are not surprised anymore by the way the man, the husband or the lover is going to look at you, to smile at you, to answer you. It is better to be available.
I can’t recall the last time I saw you as a blonde. What went into that choice?
When I was blonde, I thought life would be easier because it was said to me that men are kinder with blondes. You know, cliché. [Laughs] No, it was different. Since I didn’t spend all my time in front of the mirror, sometimes when people would ask me, “Why are you blonde?” I would exclaim, “Je suis [am I] blonde?”
In Hollywood, in American film, once you hit 40, the roles for celebrated actresses kind of dry up. Why do you think that that’s not the case in Europe?
It’s not completely true because I remember the story of American cinema. You can speak about Bette Davis [and] you can speak about Meryl Streep.
Meryl is one of the few. I’m talking about Hollywood now.
I don’t know. I think it will become more and more normal to see older actors, because the population is becoming more and more older. It’s strange because it’s like wine, cinema. You can’t say nothing about cinema because sometimes there is a great year of wine, you have [a] great year of cinema, for an actress and an actor I mean. You have only one life and sometimes in your life you have good opportunities or bad opportunities, there is no theory about it. The strength of the French cinema, overall La Nouvelle Vague and everything, [is that] the director puts the woman in the middle of the story. And if you look at French literature carefully, the male character – Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal – always look for the woman.
What do you think having a female director brought to “Bright Days Ahead”?
For me it was very strange because I never speak in terms of women and men in cinema. I never speak of nationality. For me cinema is made by human beings. I can think that only a woman can be interested by this story, but it would be very interesting to know what a man would have done with it. Remember Lubitsch? The great director, he always puts a woman between two men. Like in “Trouble in Paradise” with Gary Cooper. It’s interesting to see that not only a woman can put a woman between a husband and a lover because she is a woman. You can have a man put a man between lover and husband. I don’t like to think that there is a cinema made by a woman. For instance, I love Kathryn Bigelow very much. She is strong. If I start to see the cinema without her name, I wouldn’t know that a woman is making it.
Caroline keeps a list of things she wants to do before she passes. What’s on your list?
I would like to be a hairdresser. A shop in a small village in Italy, in Sicily. Sometimes I dream about it.
That would be tough. Everybody would recognize you.
[Laughs] It would be the only hairdresser shop where I would cut the hair of everyone – from the priest to the Mafioso, and the beautiful lady, and the young girl in the wedding. It would be the most important place in the village.
If I had more time I would like to play better piano. Voilá! That kind of thing. If not, c’est bien.