French screen legend Fanny Ardant: "I love everything dangerous"

The smoldering '80s star talks about her new movie, sex with younger men and resisting conventional morality

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 29, 2014 10:56PM (EDT)

Fanny Ardant in "Bright Days Ahead"
Fanny Ardant in "Bright Days Ahead"

When Fanny Ardant became an international star in Francois Truffaut’s 1981 film “The Woman Next Door,” she was already 32 years old and decidedly not playing an ingénue. Perhaps, as Ardant suggested in our recent conversation, she was never innocent at all. Tall and dark-haired, with prominent features and formidable eyebrows, she was a forceful screen presence who sent powerful but conflicting signals. Ardant certainly had the looks and the temperament to be a 1940s femme fatale, but she was recognizably a liberated modern woman, a product of the turbulent French society of the ‘60s who had read Stendhal and Simone de Beauvoir with equal relish. As a married woman who winds up living next to her ex-flame (Gérard Depardieu) in Truffaut’s film, with predictable results, she never seemed to be in the grip of an unmanageable passion, but more like someone daring herself to screw up her life as badly as possible.

You might have to belong to a specific micro-generation, and have absorbed the French cinema of the ‘80s at an impressionable age, to understand the mix of emotions I felt before meeting Ardant in person. But even if she never played the same role in your imaginative life that she once did in mine, Ardant is a living icon of European culture, a link between the French New Wave and the 21st century. She made films with Truffaut, of course, and was his partner for the last three years of his life. (She heard he had died while she was shooting the 1985 thriller “Les enragés,” and famously refused to stop.) She has had three children by three different fathers, and I strongly suspect she doesn’t care what you think about that. She played the Duchesse de Guermantes in Volker Schlöndorff’s “Swann in Love,” and starred in two of the late Alain Resnais’ underappreciated mid-‘80s films. She has worked with a film-studies syllabus of important directors -- Michelangelo Antonioni, Margarethe von Trotta, Ettore Scola, Franco Zeffirelli, Patrice Leconte – and has made a whole bunch of mainstream French comedies that never reach the Anglophone world.

Ardant was in New York last week for the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of her delightful new film “Bright Days Ahead,” in which she plays (of all impossible characters) a retired dentist. But this particular retired dentist, Caroline, who is pushing 60 and feels a bit neglected by her husband, falls into a surprisingly convincing affair with a drop-dead handsome younger guy, Julien (Laurent Lafitte), who teaches computer classes at the senior center. It’s an experiment for both of them, but Caroline quickly grasps that Julien’s experiments include a significant proportion of the female population in their middle-class suburb. So she has to deal with her own sexual awakening after a long slumber, but also with the unfamiliar sexual mores of a younger generation. “Bright Days Ahead” is directed with a light touch by Marion Vernoux, but Ardant’s richly varied performance – by turns uncertain, hilarious, prideful, animalistic and unhinged – is absolutely the reason to see it.

It’s a hoary cliché to say that European culture allows women to age more gracefully than our own does, and in any case comparing Fanny Ardant to some mythical female average is consummately unfair. So let me say this: Yes, Ardant looks very nearly as beautiful at 65 as she was at 35; when I met her she wore an immaculately tailored cream silk skirt and jacket, pulling off that slightly overdone Euro-feminine manner in dazzling style. But what blew me away was not her admittedly distracting physical presence but her unbowed spirit and intellect, her refusal to speak in truisms or to pretend that she cared about conventional morality. She was passionate, eager to speak her mind, profoundly alive. I met Ardant in a midtown Manhattan hotel room, alongside director Marion Vernoux and an interpreter who helped us navigate a few moments of puzzlement. Ardant speaks excellent English, but I've retained some of her Romance-language syntax; unfortunately for you, I can't capture the tones of her husky contralto on the page.

Marion, let me give you a chance to talk before I get to Fanny. When you wrote the role of Caroline, did you have her in mind from the beginning?

Marion Vernoux: Well, when I was writing the film, I knew that this was a really good role for a woman from a specific generation. So I thought, this is the time: When I went shopping for a person for the role, I went straight for the top of the line. [Laughter.]

Fanny Ardant: When I received the script I sat down and read it all the way through. I loved the part of Caroline because I love this kind of woman. I loved the whole itinerary that she had, from the beginning. She is a little bit shabby, depressed -- but she is still in love with her husband and her family, she is not a poor thing in the corner. She has a normal life. I love all the travel she has, the journey: The meeting with the lover, the discovery that life has more imagination than we have, that even if you are old and you go to the maison de retraite -- comme on dit?

Senior center, we would say in America.

She is -- I don't know the word, irréductible?

Irascible, I think?

Voilà. First of all, I love the character, she's not a poor lady with a sad face. I felt in her something wild, something free, something curious about life. I also love very much in this movie, the ending. I love the idea of starting over again with her husband and her family. She was clever, she was free, she was not lost in fantasy. So I said yes right away to Marion.

Let me ask this of both of you: We see the opposite of this movie – an older man and a younger woman – all over the place, in cinema and in life. Is there a moral difference if the woman is older? It’s more unusual, and I suppose society sees it differently. But what’s the real difference?

M.V.: I don't want to make generalizations, but often when an older man goes with a younger woman, there's something narcissistic about it. It's the narcissism of the man who wants to feel younger, who wants to see a younger woman looking at him. By virtue of that fact, he gets to feel younger as well. I didn't want that to be the case here. I wanted the relationship between Caroline and Julien not to be based on flattery or narcissism. It's a story about two people who are attracted to each other, and it's based on their own feelings, their sensations, their appetites and their sense of humor.

F.A.: Oui, completely. It's an important piece of Caroline's character that she loves life, and when you love life you are like an animal. The first meeting with Julien, it was about meat! [Laughter.] About the carnal life! It was not [miming hearts and violins and romance]. Remember that Julien is a little bit sex-addicted, and for this woman at this time in her life, that is good! It's not about romanticism, it's right on the fact.

Caroline has to deal, pretty quickly, with the fact that Julien is sleeping with lots and lots of other women. He doesn’t lie to her about it, but it’s presumably something she’s not used to.

As Marion just said, Caroline has a great sense of humor. When she finds herself in that situation where there's a younger woman literally sitting on Julien’s knee, she is like, in an instant, "Oh, I'm an old friend of his mother!" [Snaps fingers.] She doesn't want to be humiliated, so she humiliates herself, out of pride.

Your personal life is definitely none of my business, but I wonder if you can imagine having a lover who is much younger. In this case, there’s a lot of drama that comes along with Julien, and there are also the questions of how society will see it, how her daughters – who are his age! – will see it, and how she herself sees it.

I have no ideology about that, but I think I love everything that is dangerous, everything that comes without security. I have arrived at an age where I don't want to build. I want to destroy! So if I have the opportunity for a dangerous relationship, I will take it. [General pandemonium.] Do you remember "Barfly"? Do you remember that relationship [between Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway]? It was strong.

You started the conversation by asking about morality. I think our society -- in America but also in Europe, is coming back to a kind of obscurantism, so moralism is stronger and stronger. I think the world is funny now, more and more there are rules and morality. The best thing is to go against that.

Well, the world of the ‘70s and ‘80s were very different in that regard.

Oui. We are moving toward something that is not good. In my time morality came from a political system. Now it doesn't come from a political system, it comes from the people themselves. Which is much more dangerous! [Laughter.]

I think many Americans believe that roles for women – in the movies, but also in the world – are more liberated in Europe. Actresses keep working after 40, which is only beginning to be true in Hollywood, and there are large numbers of women behind the camera and in every other kind of profession. I think America has changed a lot in the last 20 years on that front, but is there still a difference between us in this regard?

I think the strength of French cinema came from directors, men and women, who put the woman in the middle of the story. For Godard, Truffaut, [André] Téchiné, the story is set around the woman. All the same, it is very rare to have a part like Caroline, about an older woman. There are still fewer stories about them, even from women directors.

You have worked with so many great directors. How do you tell the good ones from the bad ones? And tell me how you would rank Marion!

In a strange way, I have never known how to speak about what is the mark of a great director. I am not a theorist or a technician. I can put two words to you: There is passion, with a lot of energy, in great directors. And then there are boring people, without any energy or passion, who do this job like they could do another job. If you speak about Marion, what I loved about her was her passion, her energy, her enthusiasm for everything, for the details, for the costume, the makeup, the hair. Every director is his own universe, but they belong to the same passion. After that the mark of the director belongs to the critic. When you belong to the crew, and you're trying to swim in the sea with your part, I am not able to analyze the difference between Michelangelo Antonioni and Marion Vernoux. Perhaps there is none! [Laughter.]

Even in your earliest roles, you rarely or never played the innocent, the ingénue. I think you just weren’t cut out for that role! So playing the “older woman” comes naturally, in a certain way. You’ve been doing it all along.

It's true! Even when I was very young, I looked much more mature than I was. I had an older sister, and any time someone asked, "Who is older?" I would say, "Moi!" So that was the starting point. Maybe it was because I had dark hair and was tall, or maybe it was because I never had innocence. I had a long, long time without cinema when I was young, so I used to read a lot. I read everything. I was living in a town where there was no cinema, and I had no television. So suddenly, when I arrived in Paris, I discovered cinema, not in a chronological way but completely miscellaneous and all at once. But for me cinema is like pasta. You still love it, even if you eat it every day.

“Bright Days Ahead” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens this week in Portland, Ore.; May 7 in Durango, Colo., and Las Cruces, N.M.; and May 9 in Chicago, Miami, Phoenix, San Francisco and Washington, with more cities to follow. It’s also available on demand from cable, satellite and online providers.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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