05 February 2010

Field Guide: Agnès Jaoui

By happy accident, her last name contains two words for “Yes.”
(And her first name is pronounced “Ahn-Yes.”)

The almost perversely prodigious polymath Agnès Jaoui (actress, dramatist, director) has been making the rounds of French talk shows lately — to promote her new record album. Because, on top of everything else, she sings, too.

While it’s not unusual for French movie stars to cut albums, it’s quite a bit rarer for their vocalizing to be worthy of our attention for any reason other than their celebrity — because, you know, they make movies. Jaoui has joined the ranks of such illustrious predecessors as Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau. Her first album, Canta (2006), is a collection of mellow, Latin-accented numbers: not terribly deep or demanding, it’s great for dinner-time when you’re tired of Gipsy Kings. But she’s got an appealing, vibrant timbre, solid range, and (not surprisingly) admirable expression. I’m looking forward to hearing Dans mon pays.

Onscreen, Jaoui the actress projects an image of intelligence, unpretentious beauty, and (sometimes neurotic, sometimes deluded) confidence. Some of this may be affect, but it works for me, and moreover, it’s true: she really is too smart to need to worry about whether she’s brushed her hair this morning.

I have yet to see all of her films, but I was taken with her work in Le Rôle de sa vie (Role of a Lifetime, 2004), in which she plays a famous French actress who hires a timid writer (Karin Viard) as her personal assistant. Having worked in precisely that capacity both for a famous opera singer and for a famous television newsman, I snapped to attention immediately.

Compensation: Sometimes your boss will sing for you.
Viard (left) with Jaoui in Rôle

Jaoui captured the star’s egocentrism, but that’s the easy part: any three-year-old can play a diva. Her greater success lay in her ability to win the audience’s sympathy with humor and occasional flashes of compassion. We didn’t question Viard’s affection for her in return, or her persistent hope, despite ample evidence, that her boss would some day get her act together.

Toward the end of the picture, when Viard says, in a double-barreled blast of pent-up accusation and regretful forgiveness, “I thought you were my friend,” Jaoui’s shocked, silent reaction tells us that, yeah, she thought so, too. So did we — for much of the movie.

And that’s how those relationships play out, in real life. Take it from me.

As a playwright and screenwriter, in collaboration with her spouse, Jean-Pierre Bacri (who is also an actor and director), she has specialized in the group dynamics of genuine eccentrics, spiced with wit and sharp observation. One good example is Le Goût des autres (The Taste of Others), in which several characters keep bumping up against each other, falling in and out of relationships, as their differing cultural tastes make it harder to communicate. (I just saw this on TV and thoroughly enjoyed it.) Not surprisingly, their scenarios represent a field day for other actors; one of their earliest successes, Un Air de famille, catapulted my beloved Catherine Frot to stardom.

I’ve yet to see any of the pictures she’s directed, though one in particular has tempted me so that I nearly bought the DVD, sight unseen: Comme une image (Like a Picture, 2004) explores questions of self-worth, beauty and art, centered on an ugly duckling who is studying to be an opera singer. The picture received rave reviews. What am I waiting for?

Oh, and apparently she dances, too.
From the photo shoot for her new album.

Where Jaoui fails, as I’ve been reminded as she takes her latest press tour, is in giving interviews. She just doesn’t focus. On one recent program, her vagueness seemed reasonable: it was a Sunday lunch-hour show, and as she explained, she’s seldom awake so early. Worse, they were asking for her opinion on politics. (Every French actor is automatically presumed a political philosopher of the highest order.) Yet what I see in these appearances is a mind constantly racing ahead: to the next question, to the next answer, before she’s gotten to the end of her first sentence.

Happily, when her responses count most, she’s better than coherent: she’s eloquent and wise.

Ahn-Yes? Yes-Yes!

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