21 October, 2010
by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
What is it about French actresses, that they grow even more beautiful and, arguably, more talented with age. Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve are but two examples of this gorgeous gallic phenomenon, where their later roles take on even greater gravitas as the subtle lines of their face change, their voices lowers a register and their once all-too-fragile beauty slightly hardens and becomes as enduring as a Greek sculpture. But blood courses through their veins and passion, if not only of the body, remains part of their allure.
Such is certainly the case with the actress Nathalie Baye, who has been honored with a mini-retrospective this past week given by the Film Society of Lincoln Center (who just presented the stellar 48th edition of the New York Film Festival…..don’t these people sleep?). The series highlights some of her finest films over a 30 year career that shows no signs of abating. She continues the trajectory of a unique career in cinema, having worked with a wide range of directors, from Truffaut to Spielberg, Godard to Chabrol. On screen, she has a force and grace that is surprising from someone so petite and porcelain-faced. One senses that beneath the demure façade that fires are raging and uncontrollable passions are always on the verge of breaking through. Film directors have loved that quality of restrained control since her early work in the 1970s, of which THE MOUTH AGAPE by Maurice Pialat and Francois Truffaut's dark exploration of loss and remembrance THE GREEN ROOM.
She had her true breakout role opposite Gerard Depardieu as the wife of a returning peasant in THE RETURN OF MARTIN GUERRE (1982) by Daniel Vigne. The richly imagined retelling of this fractured fairy tale set in the 16th century sets up the possibility that the returning husband may be an imposter….and posits the question of how we know one another after all. The unknowingness of human relations is also at the core of NOTRE HISTOIRE (1984), a compelling deux-a-deux with Alain Delon as two strangers on a train who become involved in a secret. The film, as directed by Bertrand Blier, walks the fine line between reality and fantasy, clarity and lunacy….all reflected in the rather stoic visage of Ms. Baye. She was equally ambivalent, and never more beautiful, than as the tormented wife trying to collect a debt from her former love in Jean Luc Godard’s return to genre form, DETECTIVE (1985).
She won one of her several Cesar Awards as Best Actress in the shockingly explicit AN AFFAIR OF LOVE (Une Liaison Pornographique, 1999), with Baye showing considerable skin in her sensual, no commitment encounters with Sergi Lopez. Frederic Fonteyne’s film forms a kind of companion piece to Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS, as the two strangers attempt to establish a purely sexual relationship but, in the end, cannot escape the yearnings of their own humanity.
Baye had her biggest hit that same year with VENUS BEAUTY INSTITUTE, in which she starred as a world-weary beautician who reluctantly gives love another try. In a cast that introduced ingénue Audrey Tatou, as well as veterans Bulle Ogier and Mathilde Seigner, director Tonie Marshall’s winning comedy won several Cesar Awards and became a world box office sensation.
The series, which ends on October 21, also highlights her more recent work with a diverse group of directors, including: Steven Spielberg (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, 2002), Claude Chabrol (THE FLOWER OF EVIL, 2003), Xavier Beauvois (LE PETIT LIEUTENANT, 2005), Thomas Gilou (MICHOU D’AUBER, 2007) and Josianne Balasko (CLIENTE, 2008). Baye was in New York all week, giving an on-stage reminiscence of her life and career and at many of the week’s screenings. The actress was also recently feted for her career achievement at the Montreal World Film Festival last month for the astonishing quality of her work. As she ages into perfect grand motherhood, expect to see her still glorious visage gracing French and European cinema for decades to come.