Friday, December 27, 2002

Ludivine Sagnier tribute from December 2002

Movie stars are, by nature, larger-than-life figures. Once Robert Mitchum asked his wife why he was so famous. She answered something to the effect of "because your face is projected onto a 40-foot screen." A strange but natural part of being a true film lover is to find that a movie star, be they an icon, a character actor, or merely an up-and-comer, haunting your thoughts and memories. Pauline Kael once wrote an entire essay on Cary Grant. Bill Clinton, when interviewed by Roger Ebert, spoke about Casablanca and focused on how his greatest memory of the film was wondering what it would have been like to have known Ingrid Bergman. Ebert himself often mentions Catherine Deneuve in his work.

Sometimes I look at Hollywood today and shake my head- not merey because of the films themselves, but aso because of the less-than-stellar new crop of movie stars. I mean, Vin Diesel? Sure, the guy's got muscles, but where's the personality? The spark? The presence? Reese Witherspoon was interesting for a while, but then she started taking lead roles in big studio projects and lost much of what made her interesting in the first place. Yet these quote-unquote "new stars" command $15-20 million a picture to make forgettable dreck.

The problem, I think, is that they can't see past the money to the true root of movie stardom, which is to make a movie sing as only a real star can. It's not necessary to be drop-dead gorgeous to be a star, but it is imperative that one be unique, because if a star is unique then certain kinds of roles are unimaginable with any other actor, insuring a long and fruitful career. Of course, there is the danger of being TOO unique- Linda Manz, for example, gave two great performances then fell off the radar- but has anyone who has seen Days of Heaven or Out of the Blue ever forgotten her?

I've only seen the French actress Ludivine Sagnier in three films thusfar- Francois Ozon's Water Drops on Burning Rocks and 8 Women, and this year's My Wife Is An Actress. However, if my instincts are correct, I believe she could be an interesting performer for many years to come. She's not Hollywood-glamourous (her face is more girlish and open than conventionally beautiful) but she has a rare and completely credible appeal, both in terms of charisma and eroticism. On top of this, she engenders a great deal of audience goodwill with seemingly little effort, making this film lover, at the very least, curious to see what kinds of adventures she will embark upon during the course of a film.

In Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Sagnier takes what begins as a two-hander about a young man dominated by an older man, and causes an almost seismic shift in the film's tone. When she first enters the film, she is girlish, immature, pining after her romantic ideal with puppy-dog eyes and concern practically dripping from her oval face. Finally, when she has won her boyfriend back (if only temporarily), she blossoms. We see a smile finally alight on her mouth, and we feel as if she's earned the happiness. It feels completely genuine.

Sincerity, however, is merely part of her appeal. She also gives her characters a wondrous kind of avidness, a tendency to seemingly turn every small gesture or snippet of dialogue into a rhetorical question- saying, for example, "good morning" in a way that implies, "wonderful morning, isn't it?" The most basic expression of this in Water Drops can be seen when she wakes up in the morning, opens the curtains, and then turns around to look at her boyfriend in bed. The first time I saw the film, I was struck mainly by the balance of the innocent and the carnal in this scene, in how she was completely naked (and pleasantly nude too- how refreshing simply to see a nicely curved female body onscreen in an age of lanky, leggy stick-figures) while at the same time not altogether self-conscious about her nakedness.

What struck me on the second viewing was Sagnier's posture as she looked at her boyfriend. She stands up straight, arms behind her back, remininscent of a question mark made flesh, and without saying a word she conveys the thought, "so this is my future husband? I can't wait." With these seemingly simple gestures, her act of looking becomes an act of regarding, of beholding.

Having been thoroughly enchanted by this performance (even more so upon the second viewing of it), I was a bit taken aback when I learned of her limited screen time in My Wife Is An Actress. I viewed the film, which was pretty good but innocuous and kind of shallow, and I grew impatient waiting for her to appear. When she finally did, the first sight of her was worth the wait.

It's a silly scene, really, when we first see her. Yvan, the film's protagonist, has enrolled in an acting class and is improvising the blossoming of a flower. As he does this, we see reactions from the other students in the class, until finally we see Ludivine, sitting on a step, legs crossed, head cocked slightly to one side, a smile of great amusement on her face. Once again, she's won us over.

Because with Ludivine Sagnier, one never senses any bullshit. She's expressive in the best way, in that she conveys more than simple surface emotion ("now I'm happy... and now I'm sad") but rather allows deeper, more complex feelings to bubble up from a deep reservoir of emotional experience and instinct. In a later scene of the film, one that is supposedly a throwaway moment, we see her acting a scene with Yvan, and she acts out her character's breakdown. She lets out an anguished wail that's so emotionally specific it's almost chilling, and it nearly rips the fabric of the film in two- in the middle of the cuteness and the innocuousness, here's something REAL.

That Sagnier's character is quickly disposed of and forgotten by the story a few minutes after this scene takes place is a lapse from which the film cannot recover, falling back into its glorified sitcom patterns. And yet while the film might have maintained a better tonal balance with a blander, more forgettable actress in the role, I believe that the film is infinitely more interesting with her in it. Ludivine Sagnier is so eminently watchable, so guileless, so dare-I-say-lovable?, that I'd rather see her somewhat wasted in a film than to not see her in the film at all (of course, I'd rather see her used well, but never mind). Even if all I remember about My Wife Is An Actress was how much more I cared about her character than anyone else onscreen, it's more than I would've remembered otherwise.

Given Sagnier’s talent for seeming natural onscreen, it was still difficult to tell how she would fare in her second film with François Ozon, 8 Women. Here’s a film that’s nothing if not stylized, and while her older costars- such luminaries as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant, and Danielle Darrieux- came from a time when stylized acting was in fashion, it has fallen out of style recently. How would Ludivine fare?

I needn’t have worried. The character of Catherine, a spunky tomboy who isn’t yet of age to come out in society, would seem to be an odd role for Sagnier, but it actually fits her like a glove. She’s winning and pranksome, utilizing her young age as an excuse to cause all sorts of mischief around the house. She’s “mama’s baby” and “daddy’s little girl”, but remains just out of sight of the adult goings-on, holing up in her bedroom reading detective novels and awaiting her turn. At one point in the film, after her father is found dead, some vulgar accusations begin to fly, and Sagnier’s face lights up with glee- “finally,” she seems to be thinking, “I get to hear the good stuff!”

In another scene, Catherine shares a private moment with her older sister Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen), recently returned from college. Suzon tells her about her boyfriend, and Catherine can’t help but ask questions. Just like a younger sister, she can’t confine herself to questions like “what does he look like?” and Sagnier seamlessly segues from “is he broke?” to “does he have a brother” in a manner that doesn’t even feel like she’s changing the subject. When Suzon talks down to her, saying “I just want to protect you,” Sagnier pitches a fit, perfectly capturing the ways in which she believes the limitations which ostensibly protect her also keep her from experience life- in other words, the eternal curse of the youngest sibling.

For most of 8 Women, Catherine is a character on the sidelines of the action, as befits her status in the film’s society, but in the climactic scene, she is left front and center in the story. I won’t go into details, for those who haven’t yet seen the film, but much like her wail in My Wife Is An Actress, the way she gives her showcase monologue completely shifts the tone of the film as it heads into the home stretch. Unlike that lesser film, however, 8 Women is fully ready for it, and concludes gracefully, with Sagnier proving that she has the right to stand tall and proud alongside the legends in the cast. I’m reminded of another wonderful film with a cast full of greats, this one all-male: Glengarry Glen Ross. If the icons of 8 Women are like this film’s equivalent of Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris and Alec Baldwin, then Ludivine Sagnier must surely be the film’s Kevin Spacey, a thusfar-underseen performer who holds the screen opposite the stars, primed for stardom herself. You get the feeling that this won’t be the last you’ll hear of her.

For what is a movie star anyway, but a face that colonizes your memory? Sure, Ronald Colman might've been a more bankable star in his day than Sydney Greenstreet, and Van Heflin more of a conventional leading man than Robert Mitchum, but who do we remember today? The great stars can't be duplicated, and they stick with us because nobody can play the roles they did quite like they did. I'm reminded of Paul Henreid's hesitation to appear in Casablanca because he thought that it could hinder his career as a bankable romantic lead. Well, as all romantic leads did then and mostly still do now, Henreid got the girl in the end, but with Bogart, Bergman, Greenstreet, Lorre, and Rains on board, who really cares?

No comments: