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Saturday 3 December 2016

The French collection

Published 13/11/2010 | 05:00

At almost 62 the high-living and heroically shaped French movie star Gerard Depardieu is still knocking out at least a couple of films a year. And two of his more celebrated recent performances will be among the highlights of this year's French Film Festival, which kicks off at Dublin's IFI this Thursday.

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In My Afternoons with Margueritte, he plays a middle-aged curmudgeon who forms an unlikely bond with an old lady, and in Mammuth he's an ageing biker who takes off on an ill-advised trip across France. The latter film in particular has attracted rave reviews in France.

Over the course of a staggeringly prolific career the great man has made well over 150 films, and shows no signs of cutting back. Perhaps even more impressively, though, Monsieur Depardieu is one of a select band of French actors and film-makers who have made a splash in Hollywood.

For all its brilliance, French cinema can be forbidding, and difficulties with language and acting styles have meant that only a very select few French stars find acceptance in the English-speaking world. And when they do success can come at a price and they often end up playing clichés. But there are some honourable exceptions to that rule.

There were always Europeans knocking around Tinseltown, where the sun shone constantly and there was serious money to be made. But the first French star of note who made a name for himself there was Maurice Chevalier. A major star of the Parisian music halls, Chevalier came to Hollywood in the late '20s and began appearing in a string of hit musicals.

With his heavy French accent, languid singing style and charismatic looks, Chevalier became a big star. But when the Allies liberated Paris in 1944 Chevalier, who had returned prior to the occupation, was among those accused of collaboration. And although evidence was thin on the ground, the Americans barred him from returning to Hollywood.

The old scoundrel did have a comeback, though, in the mid-50s, and is mainly remembered these days for his disturbingly sleazy rendition in Gigi of the song 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls'.

After the fall of France in 1940 a motley crew of Gallic actors and directors arrived in California, and in the 1950s a string of French stars broke through.

Leslie Caron had trained as a ballet dancer at the Conservatoire in Paris and may have been destined for a classical career until Gene Kelly discovered her in 1951. Though she had no acting experience he cast her opposite him in An American in Paris, and the tiny, pixie-faced dancer was an instant hit. Through the 1950s she appeared in a string of successful musicals, including the aforementioned Gigi.

Caron, though, was merely the warm-up act for probably the biggest international French star there's ever been -- Brigitte Bardot. She and filmmaker husband Roger Vadim caused an international sensation in 1956 when they released the steamy drama, And God Created Woman. Nothing like Bardot's frank sensuality and sexual charisma had been seen up to that point, and the Hollywood offers came thick and fast.

Bardot, though, preferred to stay in France, and she only appeared in a handful of English-language films before retiring from showbusiness completely in 1973, at the age of 39.

No French star since Bardot has made quite the same impact, but there have been some pretty successful crossover stories. Yves Montand was a celebrated French crooner and dashing leading man, but had never acted in English until he was cast opposite Marilyn Monroe in a musical comedy called Let's Make Love (1960).

Montand made several more Hollywood movies but failed to establish himself and returned to France -- and more serious roles -- instead.

Catherine Deneuve is another who flirted with Hollywood but ultimately remained a Gallic star. After impressing internationally in films like Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Luis Bunuel's erotic masterpiece Belle de Jour (1967), the glacial blonde was courted by Hollywood.

She appeared with Jack Lemmon in the 1969 comedy The April Fools, playing a woman trapped in a loveless marriage. And in the mid-70s Robert Aldrich decided to cast her opposite Burt Reynolds as a hooker in the seamy thriller, Hustle. But it just didn't work.

For some reason Deneuve wasn't quite Deneuve in English, and she quickly became disenchanted with the American way of doing things. "Why," she once asked archly, "should I go to the States to do a film I wouldn't consider in Europe, just because it's English-speaking?" Why indeed.

A number of French stars, from Bond girl Sophie Marceau to Mission Impossible's Emmanuelle Beart, have flirted similarly on Hollywood's margins. But two younger French actresses may be about to change that familiar trend.

Mélanie Laurent was unknown outside France until she appeared as a beautiful Resistance fighter in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. She's since been tipped for big things.

And Marion Cotillard is already there. After breaking through internationally in the acclaimed Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose (2007), she's proved herself more than capable of making the switch to Hollywood.

She's starred opposite Johnny Depp and Leonardio DiCaprio (in Public Enemies and Inception), and will soon work with Woody Allen, Steven Soderberg and our own Colin Farrell.

Cotillard may just turn out to be the biggest French star since Bardot.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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