After Marion Cotillard‘s jaw-dropping turn in “Midnight in Paris” as the Zelig-like muse to an array of geniuses ranging from Picasso to Ernest Hemingway to Owen Wilson’s Hollywood hack, many actresses in her position would have been inclined to ride that updraft onto Hollywood’s A-list with a lucrative and high-profile starring role in a big studio picture. Instead, the Oscar-winning actress has opted to return to her roots in vanguard filmmaking with today’s news that she’ll next star in a French-language adaptation of Craig Davidson‘s short story collection, Rust and Bone, by visionary French auteur Jacques Audiard (“The Prophet”).
Cotillard is not the only female French star to return to her native country to seize upon more substantial and rewarding roles available to women. On the same day Cotillard committed to Audiard’s film, Juliette Binoche signed on to star in first-time filmmaker Fabrice Camoin’s adaptation of Marguerite Duras‘ 10 heures et demi du soir en ete (A Stormy Summer Night), a compact romance about a couple spending a night in a town in the grip of panic over a recent crime.
It used to be that the measure of success in a French actress’ career was based on her ability to segue into leading roles in big Hollywood movies. Catherine Deneuve, the grande dame of Gallic cinema herself, made her English-language debut early on in Roman Polanski‘s “Repulsion” and further cemented her iconic status on both sides of the pond when she starred opposite Susan Sarandon in Tony Scott’s sapphic vampire thriller, “The Hunger.” Deneuve strategically peppered her filmography with American films in between celebrated roles in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Belle de Jour,” and “The Last Metro.”
In the years since, actresses like Julie Delpy, Isabelle Adjani, and Emmanuelle Beart followed relatively similar trajectories. But the new generation of French screen sirens seems to be charting a different course, garnering accolades (and arguably as much global exposure) for their work in homegrown projects. Audrey Tautou and Vanessa Paradis are two prime examples of mold-breaking actresses who have had plenty of opportunity to raise their profiles with starring roles in big Hollywood blockbusters but have demurred, opting instead for more idiosyncratic roles in lower-profile French films. With the exception of Tautou’s detour into the Blockbuster zone with a starring turn opposite Tom Hanks in “The Da Vinci Code,” there isn’t a big sellout role to be found among them.
So what gives? Perhaps this trend could have more to do with the cookie cutter roles available to women in most Hollywood films. But we choose to see this as a kind of locavore approach to filmmaking: These women see the value in playing characters imbued with personal resonance that reflect their connection to their core cultural identity. All of these decisions seem to come with the implicit statement that bigger isn’t necessarily better, even in a career that feeds on the recognizability that comes with high-profile projects. There are certainly more cynical and sensational ways of looking at this phenomenon: The dearth of good roles! Institutionalized Misogyny! French Anti-Americanism! And perhaps we’re seeing la vie en rose, but watching these vast talents go local is nothing short of inspiring.
What are your thoughts and theories about these actresses’ homeward migration? Which French actress would you like to see more or less of in American films?