''Everyone has their private abyss,” says director Brigitte Rouan. “Mine is centered on the theme of cowardice.” This should surprise anybody who's seen Rouan's new film, Post Coitum, in which the director herself plays the central character, a 40-something woman in the throes of an infernal, often comedic breakdown over a love affair with a man 20 years her junior. It's the sort of soul- and skin-baring aria few would have the guts to enact even in private, and in which the word cowardice has no place. But for Rouan, such daring cannot free her from the questions that have haunted her life. “I often wonder what would I have done if I'd been 20 years old in the 1940s – would I have been Resistance, or would I have been a collaborator?”

Born into a family of wealthy right-wing settlers in the French African colony of Senegal, Rouan is pessimistic about her chances: “One of my sisters tells me I would have been extreme right, because our family was that type, but I hope she's wrong.” Pointless to suggest that Rouan's own journey, during which she broke with her family's politics and their plans for her (“I have never married, because I was brought up to be married”) and became an actress (“which for my family was one step above becoming a whore”), argues precisely the spirit of resistance that might have made her a valuable player in the '40s. Rouan prefers to be uncertain about her innermost nature, and gradually one realizes that this – a skeptical, unjudging willingness to take nothing about the soul, hers or anyone's, at face value – is the heart that pumps such truthful energy through Post Coitum.

Despite the story's centering on the ecstasies and indignities endured by her heroine, Diane, there are several supporting plots (subplots is too small a word) in which Diane's family and friends are developed with subtlety and dimension. Rouan was obliged to make small cuts from the film for its American release, but saw to it that the story's original proportions were never compromised by the distillation. She even deliberately shifted one or two tiny scenes to blunt what for her was inappropriate laughter at the film's first American screening. “I want people to laugh,” Rouan says, “especially when a scene is shocking or true, but I did not set out to make a comedy, and would hate for every moment to be interpreted as comic. The film was conceived in a spirit of high romanticism before anything else, a sense of genuine tenderness, and I don't want to lose that.”

Rouan, internationally admired as an actress in such films as Bertrand Tavernier's Let Joy Reign Supreme (1974), Alain Resnais' Mon Oncle D'Amerique (1979) and Agnieszka Holland's Olivier, Olivier (1991), made the jump to directing in the mid-'80s. The French film industry is particularly, and refreshingly, encouraging to actresses who wish to direct. Rouan's close friend Nicole Garcia, as well as Jeanne Moreau, Sophie Marceau and the late Christine Pascal, have each made virtual second careers directing. When pregnancy barred her from acting work, Rouan not only had the perfect motive to direct, she lucked into a delightful idea. “No one would hire me because I had this balloon growing,” she laughs, “but I was being propositioned in the street left and right – never in my life have I received so many offers!”

Her first film, the Cesar-winning short Grosse (1985), boosted that situation to a comic extreme – Rouan's pregnant-actress heroine finds work as a prostitute, but charges actor's-guild scale for her services. Her first feature, Overseas (1990), provoked controversy for its Marxist-feminist take on her French-African roots and Catholic upbringing.

Even Post Coitum was designed to be anchored in political and economic reality: “I had wanted to include a subplot about the colonization of Eastern Europe by the West when Diane goes to Czechoslovakia, and I had hoped, when her young lover leaves her for Africa, to include a scene in Africa, to make a larger context.” But in the end, more basic economics and realities prevailed and she scaled her script to focus on a more private sense of suffering, and responsibility.

She is content. Her next film, Camel (colonial idiom for “bastard”), will have an African setting and tackle the theme of political cowardice head-on. “I hope it will be a rude film,” she says with a smile. (The woman she plans to play will have a little mustache.) “But I have to have the courage not to mix the rude with the smooth, or to make what is rude safer for the audience by making it too funny. It will be risky, to be rude – but if that's what the film requires, you must do it.”

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