19 September 2008

Field Guide: Catherine Frot

As Odette Toulemonde

Though I can hardly recall the last time I set foot in a movie theater, I remain a serious cinéphile. (If I were casual about it, I wouldn’t use the French term, would I?) On the chance that you may sometimes go to the movies, and on the further chance that some of those movies may be French, I began to write a kind of guide to help you identify some of the more notable actresses in the country where I live.

That entry quickly grew to one of the longest I’ve written. Rather than give you the whole shebang at once, then, I’m going to break it up, and write about these ladies individually. I begin with Catherine Frot, in many ways my favorite of them all, though she’s little-known in the States.

A baby-faced brunette with trademark slurred speech, she has perfected a comic innocence that’s disarming and memorable. A line from Un Air de famille sums up her usual persona, in a scene when she learns that a couple are breaking up: “Divorce is so terrible for the children! Happily, they don’t have any.”

In the same film, set at her birthday party, after hours in the family’s restaurant, her character’s brutish husband gives her a present: a dog collar. Her attempt to put a brave face on her humiliation was stunning. This was Frot’s breakthrough role; she won a bushel of prizes for the film, as well as for the play on which it was based. In a country where most famous actresses have difficulty playing either comedy or innocence, directors leapt to exploit her ability to do both.

Stop laughing! As Folcoche, with Jules Sitruk

She’s tried lately to break out of this mold with several out-on-a-limb roles, including an especially unfortunate turn in Vipère au poing (Viper in the Fist), a deadly serious family psychodrama, in which her attempt to portray the heartless mother actually provoked laughter in the audience at the screening I attended. Compounding the challenges, her leading man was another comic actor, the late Jacques Villeret, in one of his final appearances.

Making the picture was an incredibly risky stunt for her, because there’s no way audiences would come to the cinema without fixed preconceptions, not only of Frot but also of the character. Every French person over the age of 14 has read the book by Hervé Bazin, on which the film is based, and the sons’ resentful nickname for their mother, “Folcoche” (short for “folle cochonne,” or crazy sow), entered everyday speech long ago. It’s a word that absolutely nobody would use to describe Catherine Frot. Ordinarily, that’s a good thing — but not here.

She’s been more fortunate with La Tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner), a thriller, and with what promises to become a whole cycle of Agatha Christie adaptations in French, and she’s escaped unscathed from the soap-operatic Le Passager de l’été, in which she played a farm widow in a hot-and-heavy rivalry with her daughter for the love (or maybe just the brawny body) of an itinerant hired hand. In a sense, Frot is still finding her way as an actress, despite having achieved perfection already, in many films.

In Chaos, with Vincent Lindon

Frot may never again have a role as good as that in Coline Serrau’s Chaos (2001), in which she portrays a pampered bourgeoise — much like her usual characters, but with a twist, as she strikes an alliance with a street-tough prostitute (Rachida Brakni). Together, they seize control of their lives. It’s an engrossing drama, in which Frot’s comic skills are seldom used (excepting a scene in which she clobbers a thug with a plank longer than she is tall), though her deftness of touch prevents the movie from turning into a feminist polemic. Meanwhile, she subtly conveys her character’s growing conviction that something is very wrong with her life, and that only she can correct it.

In Les Soeurs fâchées, with Huppert

For me, however, Frot reached the very summit of art in Les Soeurs fâchées (Me and My Sister), a comedy in which her sunny, serene Country Mouse nature drives her Parisian sister (Isabelle Huppert) nearly insane with resentment. The secret to her happiness lies in her ability to take pleasure in simple things; in her greatest scene, she orders a crêpe from a street vendor. As an afterthought, she asks him to put extra Nutella on it. Then she takes a bite. She sighs. She smiles. But only a little. (This isn’t an ad for Nutella.) Her perfectly calibrated expression of contentment — neither too great nor too small, registered in a fleeting second at the end of the briefest of scenes — rings true.

It’s an astonishing piece of acting, and it may have changed my life. Ever since seeing that scene, I have striven to be more like Frot’s character. She knows what she needs to make her happy, she asks for it, and she enjoys it when she gets it.

In another recent film, Odette Toulemonde, Frot plays a hardworking single mother who is lifted — literally — out of her dreary existence by the novels of a bestselling author. She writes him a fan letter, which arrives just as the author is grappling with self-doubt and rejection. In an improbable Cinderella story — the two wind up falling in love — she gives a very fine performance, making wonderful use of her distinctive charm.

She reads the fan letter in a voiceover, and as I listened, I realized it was very much the letter I’d been wanting to write to her, down to apologizing for the clumsy prose style in French. I’d have told her that, no matter where her ambition and her artistic curiosity may lead her, I hope she’ll always save a little room for the ditzy roles she’s best known for. She gives such characters poetry and grace. They’re genuine, they’re special, and what’s more, in her hands they're urgent, important — necessary. Nobody else can play them so well. Typecasting be damned!

In La Dilettante

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