Photo courtesy American Cinematheque

“I am what I hate most in this world,” says a male character in Didier Haudepin’s Those Were the Days. “I am a coward.” He’s also just one example of the frayed and flawed hommes that flicker through the darkness during the American Cinema theque’s “French Actresses — The New Generation” series. While the program’s intent is to pay tribute to the actresses who have made their mark on the French (and, if they’re extremely lucky, international) screen over the last decade, an unwitting by product is a stream of ineffectual, loath some, impotent men — creatures almost laughable in their weaknesses before the mysterious power of the femme. But their plight is understandable. The women are almost all preternaturally beautiful actresses playing characters that are frequently mythlike. The men are merely human.

Actually, that’s a too-simple summation. Like the holy female trinity of French cinema (Bardot, Moreau, Deneuve), many of the actresses featured in “The New Generation” perform the difficult feat of breathing complexity and nuance into iconic ideals of womanhood. A culture steeped in centuries of literature, philosophy and finely tuned notions of sexuality and sensuality has given French actresses (and, consciously or not, the men who film them) a bit of an advantage over their American sisters when it comes to transcending the strictures of hetero male fantasy that gird filmmaking — even as they wholly, and paradoxically, embody those fantasies.

There’s a scene in Claude Chabrol’s Torment (L’Enfer) in which Emmanuelle Beart unleashes all the weapons in her feminine arsenal: blood-red lipstick applied as the camera zooms in for a close-up of her lips; hair cascading down her back; dark sunglasses that mask her eyes; an exquisite purse, swung freely as she walks; a seductively dragged cigarette. She’s being spied on by her husband, who is slowly driving himself insane with the belief that she’s being unfaithful. But Beart also has scenes in which she projects a soul-aching fatigue as her character tries to convince her husband that she’s not cheating on him, and scenes of unbridled fury as his accusations become more outlandish. These moments burn right through all the sex-goddess accouterments, whose ill-used potency, we’re slowly made to understand, is largely in the husband’s mind.

The best films in the series (at least of those available for press screenings) are those that use this baffling, primordial female power to tackle larger questions of art and complex, intermingled emotions. Olivier Assayas’ contemporary classic Irma Vep is a smart, funny, fast-paced meditation on the state of French cinema — and the exoticized roles of women in it. With Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung at its center, the film is a biting look at the clash of egos and issues that go into the making of movies, with Cheung’s witty send-up of her own cult persona swinging a hammer at the “construction” of the film goddess.

Like Irma Vep, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy — Red, White and Blue — is available on tape, but worth seeing on the large screen just to be able once again to fully appreciate the dazzling camera work and brilliant production design, editing and scoring that pull these masterworks together. While all three leading actresses in the films — Julie Delpy (White), Irene Jacob (Red) and Juliette Binoche (Blue) — are superb, it’s Binoche’s role as a grieving wife and mother, and her complete embodiment of and immersion in that grief, that remain haunting. While critics raved over the film when it was first released, a lot of filmgoers found it too slow, too cerebral. That’s due in large part to the controlled subtlety of Binoche’s work. Beneath a glacially cool exterior, she has to convey shock, rage, betrayal and, finally, a coming to terms with her tragedy — and beneath her mournfully still face, all those emotions play out. Kieslowski’s triumph is to have so accurately captured a state of being — grief — in all its phases.

Not everything on the program is quite so thrilling. Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, starring Virginie Ledoyen, is a dud musical about AIDS that could have benefited from an updating of its sensibility. It shoehorns that most contemporary of issues into a Jacques Demy–inspired musical, an homage that ill suits both the honoree and the directors — Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Mar tin eau — bestowing the honor. (A nice touch: Demy’s son, Mathieu, is the male lead.)

Noce Blanche, directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau and starring quasi-starlet Vanessa Paradis, is a cross between Lolita and Fatal Attraction (if that’s not redundant) that quickly becomes wearisome, mainly because the male teacher who falls for Paradis’ troubled student is such an oblivious, arrogant fool. Still, there are some wonderful, Bardot-like shots of Paradis — especially one in which, as she sleeps in the nude (strategically covered by a sheet), sunlight streams through a window to stripe her body.

What comes to mind after viewing just a handful of these films, even the disappointing ones, is a crucial difference between Hollywood actresses (big names and starlets) and the French actresses (legends and ingénues) whose work is being showcased. Whether playing 15 or 50, the French actresses have faces that are bruised with world-weariness, with heady secrets about sex, love, art and the workings of the universe. (This is why the male characters and the actors playing them so often seem a tremble away from a nervous breakdown.) Whether the actresses really possess these secrets, or merely have them applied through careful editing, makeup and light ing, is irrelevant. The power comes across onscreen, adding shading and even darkness to characters who, on paper, may be little more than sexpots or “the girl.” The really smart, inspired directors, like Assayas and Chabrol (who also write or cowrite their screenplays), easily tap into that hard-to-define power.

By contrast, look into the faces of Demi Moore, Sharon Stone or Jennifer Lopez. What you see there, no matter how much acting talent the women may or may not possess, is cold business savvy, marketing genius and the determination to be a “star.” (Don’t even waste your time peering at the blank slates of Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan or the staggeringly overrated Winona Ryder.)

That’s not to say there are no Ameri can actresses capable of conveying the internal and eternal struggles that seem to define French actresses. It’s just that American audiences don’t appear to value those struggles unless the actresses are relegated to the nonthreatening margins (indie world queens Julianne Moore, Lili Taylor) or are of a certain age (Gena Rowlands). Those who manage the difficult feat of being both glittering Hollywood figures and emotionally complex actresses (Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer) are often boxed into films that squander their real gifts (Sarandon in the odious Stepmom; the criminally underemployed Lange playing a caricatured evil mother-in-law to Gwyneth Paltrow’s golden bride in Hush). We prefer the fake feminine purity and innocence of the wide-eyed Drew Barrymore or the cold, cynical knowledge-of-the-deal that plays out on the visages of Lopez, Stone, Demi Moore. Everything else is relegated to the ghetto of the art-house, if anywhere at all.

In the December 1998 issue of Sight and Sound, a retrospective piece on the life and work of Jeanne Moreau sums up her career with words she utters in the film La Femme Nikita, when she speaks on the nature of feminine power. She tells her young female charge that there are only two important things in life: “femininity and the ways to abuse it.” (“Less politically correct than the American [remake],” chortles the magazine’s writer, “but so much sex ier.”) It’s a line that encapsulates what makes some of the best French films, and the women who illuminate them, so riveting. Within that artful “abuse” lies feminine self-awareness, self-possession and the keys to turning rote male fantasies — and fears — on their heads. The actresses and/or their directors are clued to this even if their characters are not. When Nikita was released stateside, an American male film critic — under the guise of feminist enlightenment — ridiculed Moreau’s words for being backward and offensive to women. In truth, he just sounded scared.

“French Actresses — The New Generation” screens February 12–25. For programming information, call (323) 466-FILM, Extension 2.

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