Category Archives: Fanny Ardant

Balzac: A Life of Passion (1999)


“Spare me your base reflections.”

The French made-for-television film Balzac: A Life of Passion chooses to concentrate on the two great passions in Balzac’s troubled life: writing and women. This is not a wonderful film, but if you are a Balzac fan (me), a fan of French costume dramas, or a fan of Depardieu and Fanny Ardant (me again), then you’ll want to catch this 180-minute drama.

balzac2Framing the film is a scene in which the young Balzac rushes to his sour, cold and disapproving mother, Charlotte-Laure (Jeanne Moreau) and she rejects his attempts for affection. Apparently Balzac is near the bottom of his class–hence no affection and certainly no parental approval. And this scene sets the tone for the rest of the film’s theme: Balzac’s lifelong quest for love, affection and approval.

The film explores the significant relationships with the women in Balzac’s life: his unpleasant mother, of course, as well as the much older, tragic Madame de Berny (Virna Lisi), the capricious Laure d’ Abrantes (Katja Riemann), and the final great love of his life Eva Hanska (played by the spectacular Fanny Ardant). Over all of his love affairs, Balzac’s mother reigns with her sour disapproval and her conviction that she’s destined for hell thanks to her son’s blasphemous books.

Balzac’s supreme masterpieces take a back seat to the love affairs in this tale. There are, however, some great moments, for example when Balzac explains to Laure d’Abrantes that he fears thousands of “blank pages.” Moments such as these reveal a glimpse at a man haunted by the fear he would die before finishing La Comedie Humaine. And Balzac was a workaholic–a man chasing his own demons while trying to avoid debts and debtors’ prison. To Balzac : “The Imagination is an impatient mistress,” and the film tries to examine Balzac’s conflict between love and art, but largely fails and instead the idea seems to be that Balzac wore himself out chasing women while juggling his writing career.

In spite of its stellar cast, the film, from director Josee Dayan fails largely thanks to the portrayal of Balzac. He just isn’t a very interesting character here. Apart from a few scenes that reveal a thinking, brilliant mind, for the most part Balzac comes off at times as eccentric and brutish, at others as a bit of a nutter. Take the scene for example when he hunts for the Countess Hanska at the masked ball. He careens through the ballroom like a buffoon dressed up in someone’s old curtains. Ardant is, frankly, the best thing in the film: luminous and complex, she steals the film even as she spins circles around the seemingly slow-witted Balzac.

There are a few references to Balzac’s novels: The Chouans, Modest Mignon, Cousin Bette, Colonel Chabert, but overall if you want to discover the genius behind La Comedie Humaine, well you won’t find that genius here. Coincidentally, the film adaptation of Colonel Chabert also stars Depardieu but that film makes my top ten list of all time. That said, Balzac’s death scene is painfully accurate. I was disappointed in the film, but still glad I saw it, and now I’m going over to my bookshelf to pick out a Balzac novel to reread.


Filed under Fanny Ardant, France, Gerard Depardieu, Period Piece

Le Colonel Chabert (1994)


“Lawyers see worse things than writers can invent. I’ve seen wills burned, mothers despoil their lawful children on behalf of those bred in adultery, wives use their husbands’ love to murder them or drive them mad so as to live with their lovers. I’ve seen ugly quarrels over still-warm corpses. I have seen crimes, Sir, that human justice is powerless to punish. Our offices are sewers that no one can clean.” (Derville to Chabert)

Colonel Chabert (Gerard Depardieu), one of Napoleon’s greatest officers is declared dead following the battle of Eylau in 1807. But Chabert is not dead–he survives a severe head wound and after suffering great hardships, he returns to Paris years later only to discover that he has been declared dead, and his wife (Fanny Ardant) is remarried to Count Ferraud (Andre Dussollier). Chabert, now in poor health and suffering from memory loss, has lost his wife, his social status, and his fortune amassed under Napoleon.

Chabert seeks legal recompense through the services of the brilliant lawyer, Derville (Fabrice Luchini), but what exactly does Chabert hope to regain? His wife is married to another, his military past, in a France now ruled by the Bourbons, is an embarrassment, and his fortune has disappeared, and only the enigmatic Countess Ferraud holds the key to the missing fortune.

chabertThe film, Colonel Chabert is based on the book by Balzac, and as any Balzac fan knows, no other writer delved so intensely into the intricacy of the human soul–Balzac is fascinated with motivation–what drives us to commit illogical or destructive acts. Colonel Chabert is the story of a man who survives numerous atrocities only to discover that everything he longed to return to has simply vanished–even he is a ghost. Chabert’s rage about his lost fortune–the loot and plunder from various military campaigns under Napoleon–serves under to underscore his anachronistic approach to wealth. Loot and plunder are no longer popular under the Bourbons, and the Countess Ferraud has moved on and now stakes her wealth on sugar mills & colonialism. Meanwhile Count Ferraud chases shimmering illusions of rank and power through the peerage, and he pesters his wife for money to indulge his schemes. Chabert wants to regain his fortune and stake it on an ad-hoc military training camp for those who wish to restore the emperor to the throne.

Gerard Depardieu as the shabby, destitute Colonel is magnificent. He is in turns violent, wretched, haunted, and pathetic. Fanny Ardant is in the words of Derville, “superb”–a desperate woman who escaped a brothel but who now fights for her position by keeping a tight rein on the purse strings. But the most fascinating role falls to Fabrice Luchini as the lawyer Derville–Derville is intrigued by the Colonel and his former wife, and in deciding to accept Chabert’s case, he treats it as an exercise in observing human motivation. Ultimately it’s Derville, a rising member of the bourgeoisie who holds the reins of power on the film. One of the most powerful scenes in this film (and there are many) takes place in Derville’s office when he describes the moral atrocities lawyers witness–and participate in every day. Derville’s speech is adapted directly from Balzac’s novel.

Structurally, the film is flawless. The opening sequences of the frozen dead at Eylau are immediately contrasted with the noise and activity of Derville’s office. Chabert sometimes relapses into reveries of his past life, and flashbacks include intimate moments with his wife and then scenes from the Battle of Eylau. One scene, accompanied just by the elegance of Beethoven’s music (Ghost) shows the prelude to the battle as the French cavalry line up for a charge. There’s a certain beautiful grandeur to this, which echoes the empty rhetoric of war–noble sacrifice, adherence to duty and blind courage in the face of death. The film follows the cavalry charge towards the Russians and then records the collision of the cavalry with rifle power. All the elegance and beauty collapses in the face of such bloody, useless carnage–the realities of war. This film includes some of the most magnificent, terrifying and moving battle scenes ever seen on the screen. I have watched this film at least a dozen times, and I am still as fascinated by it as I was the first time I saw it. The director, Yves Angelo, skillfully creates sympathy for both the Colonel and the Countess, and shows that nothing is ever simple, and the complexities of life often cause us to commit acts that are never completely understood. The costumes are marvelous, the acting flawless, but for me, ultimately, it was the story that makes this film–a peerless study in human nature–unforgettable.

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Filed under Fabrice Luchini, Fanny Ardant, France, Gerard Depardieu, Period Piece

Change My Life (2001)

 Fanny Ardant is an incredibly talented and versatile French actress, and the drama Change My Life (Change Moi Ma Vie) gives her a role that allows her to display that talent. Ardant plays Nina, a neurotic, pill-popping has-been actress who’s just returned to Paris from years in Russia. Nina gave up a promising acting career to troop off to Russia with her lover, and now that romance is long gone, Nina is back in Paris, hoping to pick up her acting career. In the meantime, since the phone isn’t ringing off the hook with acting jobs, Nina has taken a job in an art gallery owned by her friend, Nadine (Fanny Cottenon).

change-my-life1When the film begins, Nina is floating around Paris. The term ‘floating’ refers to her chemical state. Agitated, needy and neurotic, Nina is already popping pills when in one great scene she sits down in a cafe and proceeds to harass a male customer sitting at the next table. This incredible scene focuses on Nina–her paranoia, tension and hysteria, and unable to contain her deep need for human contact on any level, she initiates conversation with a man who has the misfortune to be sitting at the next table. As a viewer I felt as uncomfortable as the poor sod trying to eat his meal in peace. Nina is neurotic, but even she senses on some level how she must appear to the customer in the restaurant. Further humiliation leads to more pills, and finally she collapses in the street and comes to the attention of a strapping young Algerian runner named Sami (Roschdy Zem).

Later, Nina contacts Sami to thank him for his help and then she discovers that Sami works as a transvestite prostitute. At first shocked and horrified, Nina eventually becomes part of the transvestite community, finding acceptance and friendship among the disenfranchised Algerians.

Oddly enough, Nina and Sami have a great deal in common. While Nina struggles to recapture her acting career, Sami dreams of becoming an Olympic level runner again. In this relationship between two damaged souls, somehow they provide a fragile stability for each other and reawaken hope for their lost dreams.

While the film touches on the broader social problem of Algerians without papers struggling to survive in France, the plot largely ignores the social and political aspects of the film, concentrating on the relationship between Nina and Sami. Sami is part of a silent, invisible French underclass–one of many young Algerian males–the flotsam and jetsam of French colonialism–who wash up in Paris. As Sami suffers through humiliating and sometimes brutal encounters with Parisians, the irony is that Algeria was screwed by the France, and the film illustrates how Algerians are still being screwed–literally in this case–by French citizens as they sell they only thing they have–their bodies. Change My Life is not Fanny Ardant’s best film (see Colonel Chabert) but it’s certainly worth catching. From director Liria Begeja

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Callas Forever (2002)

“I rediscovered my soul.”

It’s Paris in 1977, and producer Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons) arrives to promote a punk group known as “Bad Dreams.” While engaged in this project, he learns that his old friend, Maria Callas (Fanny Ardant) lives a life of seclusion in her apartment. Kelly tries to see Callas, but he’s turned away. Kelly persists, and once he sees Callas, he’s troubled by the state of the once great diva. Callas never leaves her apartment (“I don’t go outside. It’s overrated”). With her voice gone, she’s desperately unhappy, lonely, depressed, and full of regrets for what she has lost. The opportunistic Kelly, driven by a need to reinvigorate the Diva, concocts a plan to create a film version of Carmen. Callas at first protests, but when Kelly shows her exactly what can be done with the magic of lip-synching, Callas agrees. The plan is to make a colourful film with the mature Callas using her voice from 20 year-old recordings.

While the film is fanciful fiction, the plot is weaved around some salient features of Maria Callas’ life. At the end of her life, several directors–including Joseph Losey, Zeffirelli, and Pasolini–approached Callas to appear in film versions of several operas. And while these films versions were never made for a variety of reasons, Callas Forever plays with the idea of what might have happened had Callas made a film version of one of the great operas. In that sense, Callas Forever creates an alternate history to her life, and this alternative history yields a resolution and final acceptance that shows Callas coping with the regrets she suffered in life.

There are few actresses who could play Callas with the grace and steely presence required to carry this role. Fanny Ardant is incomparable as the legendary Callas. This is an incredible portrayal of a proud tempestuous woman who had a marvelous gift and died far too young. Director Zeffirelli is well known for creating colourful fantasies that appeal to the eye of the audience. Callas Forever is a typical Zeffirelli film–he doesn’t require much from his audience, and Callas Forever  fits into that mold. It’s lively, sumptuous, and not too much thought is required from the viewer. Fanny Ardant fans should find the film rewarding. She’s a delight to watch.

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Australia (1989)

“I wanted to be left alone.”

In the film, Australia wool merchant Edouard Pierson (Jeremy Irons) returns to his native Belgium to help salvage the failing family wool business. Edouard, a pilot during WWII, immigrated to Australia 10 years earlier in 1945. He’s estranged from his surviving family, and he has a 12-year old daughter (Danielle Lyttleton) in Australia that no one is aware of. Once in Belgium, Edouard meets Jeanne Gauthier (Fanny Ardant), the beautiful wife of an affluent man, and he’s deeply attracted to her.

The film contrasts the Old World–Belgium–with the New World–Australia. Edouard’s hometown is heavily industrialized with ancient factories, but Australia is sun-baked, wide-open spaces. Edouard is well aware that the wool industry in Belgium is dying, and he’s mentally made the adjustment, and accepted that his future lies in Australia. Edouard’s brother, Julien (Tcheky Karyo), refuses to accept that the business is finished, and antagonism between the two brothers emerges as a result. Curiously, while Edouard has absorbed the financial realities of life in Australia, he has not adjusted to the present in his personal life. Edouard’s journey back to his former home in Belgium helps him to forge together the past and the present.

In spite of the fact that the story unfolds in three different countries–Australia, Belgium, and England, the film goes nowhere. There are hints of a dark secret that caused the rift between Edouard and his family, but this is all a storm in a teacup. Jeremy Irons–who always plays the bruised, emotionally devastated male so well–is great in the role, but unfortunately the script doesn’t really warrant the extreme behaviours its characters endure. Fanny Ardant is luminous, but her character is problematic. Who on earth goes to a hotel for a wild fling, but then wastes time whining about how hard it is to be a little rich girl? Australia is built like an epic soap opera, but it is ultimately a disappointing film with a lackluster ending. In French with English subtitles. From director Jean-Jacques Andrien

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Nathalie (2003)

  “He took the bait.”

nathalieGynecologist, Catherine (Fanny Ardant) discovers hard evidence that her husband, Bernard (Gerard Depardieu) is having an adulterous affair. She confronts him, and he reluctantly admits that he’s “occasionally” unfaithful. The details he gives Catherine are vague and sketchy, and the lack of intimacy in their relationship increases with Bernard’s admission. Instead of demanding details of the affairs, Catherine nurses the shock. In the aftermath of Catherine’s new knowledge, she quietly reevaluates her marriage and Bernard.

One evening, Catherine enters a bar. The bar is full of girls who host clients of both sexes in the rooms upstairs. One of the girls, Marlene (Emmanuelle Beart) approaches Catherine, and they strike up a conversation. Catherine employs Marlene to approach and seduce Bernard. Marlene posing as “Nathalie” is then to return to Catherine and give her the details.

Nathalie is an interesting twist on the old adultery story. Catherine, the wronged wife, nurses her anguish, and then converts it into something peculiar. She selects a woman she finds extremely attractive, and then gives this woman the task of seducing Bernard. Is she motivated to get the details she just imagines? Is employing Nathalie an attempt to control her husband’s sexuality? Is a warped revenge at the heart of Catherine’s conduct or is Nathalie a surrogate?

While the film is not for the easily offended, it’s more an intellectual exercise in human sexuality–there are a couple of sex scenes, but sex is talked about more than actually committed. While the very best French films don’t provide a definitive answer, Nathalie has a vagueness that leaves a certain lingering dissatisfaction. In spite of the fact that Emmanuelle Beart in lingerie is pivotal to the film’s promotion, this is Fanny Ardant’s film. Nathalie is ultimately a woman’s film with adultery presented from the female viewpoint–make no mistake about that. If you enjoy this film, I’d also recommend another film from director Anne Fontaine, Dry CleaningNathalie is in French with English subtitles.

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Filed under Fanny Ardant, France, Gerard Depardieu