27 August 2009

Field Guide: Mélanie Laurent

A smile meant to be photographed:
She manages to be ordinary and beautifully unearthly at once.

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Inglourious Basterds has opened, and among its international cast, an Austrian actor, Christoph Waltz, has received most of the attention. But one of its other stars is increasingly familiar to French audiences, and serves to remind me that, if I were more conscientious about my Field Guide, she’d be familiar to you, too. Her name is Mélanie Laurent.

She’s quite young, as you can see, and most of her career thus far has been devoted to extremely small roles, albeit sometimes in very big pictures (such as Indigènes). The exception has been Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas (I’m fine, don’t worry), a psychological drama about a young woman who seeks her missing brother — or at least an explanation for his sudden disappearance. The film falls apart about two-thirds of the way through, as most French movies do. (Almost every film in this country would benefit from approximately six more months’ development.) Yet such is the strength of Laurent’s performance, such are the wit and tenderness she brings to the screen, that she carries the entire picture through even its weakest moments. We never stop to wonder why her character is in a mental hospital, for example, because we are so swept up in her characterization.

This is something that very few actresses with greater maturity and experience can pull off, and it bodes well for Laurent’s future. It was no surprise to me when she won the César for best newcomer — or, as it is put more elegantly in French, Meilleur Espoir Féminin, “best feminine hope” — for Je vais bien. She gave half a dozen great performances in that picture, binding them together seamlessly.

Though I’m not a Tarantino fan, and unlikely to see Inglourious Basterds (in which, to judge from the reviews, Laurent is not particularly well-served), I’m looking forward to what ought to be a truly exciting career.


Anonymous said...

I'm surprised your Field Guide to French Actresses doesn't contain an entry on Marie Trintignant. You must have about l'affaire Trintignant a great deal, particularly after Monsieur Cantat's release upon serving four years (!) for her murder.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

You're right -- I've heard a lot about Marie Trintingnant's death; however, I've seen very little of her work. (Also,the Field Guide thus far is concerned with actresses who are still making films -- that is, still among the living.)