13 March 2010

Field Guide: Catherine Mouchet

T’as des beaux Lisieux, tu sais?
Mouchet, center, as Thérèse, bride of Christ

Alain Cavalier’s Thérèse (1986) is one of the smallest, most delicate movies ever made on a Christian theme: quiet, painterly, still, it is lit like (and feels like) an old Dutch masterwork. A casual viewer can be forgiven for thinking nothing is happening onscreen, when in fact the movie’s central character is involved in an intensely dramatic relationship with Jesus (who, for all his virtues, is not the perfect boyfriend). That her agony and ecstasy are mostly internalized doesn’t make them any less passionate.

The real-life Thérèse

Based on the life of Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux (1873–97), the movie introduced a young actress named Catherine Mouchet; for her astonishingly convincing portrayal of Thérèse, she won the César for “Meilleur Espoir Féminin,” and promptly found herself typecast. She dropped out of acting for a while, returning to school for a philosophy degree — which, in France, is actually considered more practical than a career in acting. Do not doubt it: Catherine Mouchet is one smart lady.

Back onscreen in recent years, she remains a luminous presence, though most directors insist on casting her as homely and shy, creating a gallery of spinsters, wallflowers, and victims. Her career is thus an ongoing struggle for her — the cross she has to bear, if you will — and you can see her relief whenever she’s cast as a prostitute or a morally compromised woman.

As Caroline Maquet

So I was pleased to see her play against type in L’autre Dumas, as the soignée wife of Auguste Maquet. In gorgeous period costumes and a flattering hairstyle, she looked as serene and lacquered as an Ingres portrait, while radiating determination and good sense. In her next movie, L’arbre et la forêt (by the gay auteur couple, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau), she even gets some funny lines.

Mouchet’s ability to project sensitivity and ambiguity is unrivaled by almost any actress I’ve ever seen. Some day, French directors are going to make better use of her. But even in a dull role, she’s always interesting to watch. You may think she’s a watercolorist, a miniaturist. If you look closely, though, you’ll see she’s always working on a bigger, bolder canvas than anyone else’s.

In L’arbre et la forêt, with Sabine Seyvecou

No comments: