French actresses don't get old.
Or at least they don't stop getting complex parts because they age. French actresses in their late 40s and 50s often considered borderline hags by Hollywood standards still get roles showcasing their complexity and sexuality.
They will play the "wife" or the "mother" without being constrained by such distinctions. The wife in French often will witness a husband's betrayal, or some crime, then play the conflicting emotions that result.
Mother characters often are complicated or inappropriate (e.g., Isabelle Huppert's oeuvre). Or the children even those played by beautiful actors in their 20s are ancillary to the more compelling story of their middle-age parents.
French audiences keep open minds about what's vital or sexy, said Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle film critic and author of the new book "The Beauty of the Real: What Hollywood Can Learn From Contemporary French Actresses" (Stanford General Books, $24.95, 248 pages).
"French actresses seem to have permission within the culture and within themselves to be sexy their whole lives," LaSalle said. "You have Nathalie Baye doing a love scene at 49. It doesn't seem weird."
LaSalle argues in the book that the French fascination with romantic love and with human behavior in general results in freer, more complex roles for women of all ages.
LaSalle (a former colleague of mine at the Chronicle) will appear at Sacramento's Crest Theatre next weekend as part of the 11th Sacramento French Film Festival.
On Saturday afternoon and again Sunday morning, the festival will show movies starring Isabelle Carré and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, actresses highlighted in LaSalle's book.
Carré, often unhinged onscreen, goes lighter in the 2010 romantic comedy "Romantics Anonymous." In the 1999 drama "Empty Days," Bruni Tedeschi's character is an unemployed working-class woman who meets an unemployed man in a supermarket.
"Empty Days" highlights Bruni Tedeschi's propensity for playing working-class women. In real life, she comes from wealth and is the sister of former French first lady Carla Bruni.
On- and off-screen story lines are unpredictable in France. Carré, 41, and Bruni Tedeschi, 47, are leading ladies there, years into playing women physically rough or psychically frayed around the edges.
Though not big names here, Carré and Bruni Tedeschi "are very well-known, and they work all the time" in France, said French native and Sacramento French Film Festival executive director Cécile Mouette Downs.
LaSalle interviewed 68-year-old Catherine Deneuve, usually the first name to spring to American minds when considering French actresses. The actress known for her cool beauty was warm, funny and "almost one of the guys," LaSalle said.
But his book focuses on the next generation, on actresses who still work steadily and already have had long, substantial careers. Actresses profiled range from Carré and Bruni Tedeschi to the better-known (internationally) Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire.
These actresses are experiencing a heyday akin to 1930s Hollywood, LaSalle said. LaSalle's 2000 book "Complicated Women" profiled Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck and other stars of the 1930s pre-Code era.
This time out, he was writing about stars still able to tell their own stories. LaSalle traveled to France for interviews, sometimes in the stars' apartments. (American star Julia Roberts, LaSalle pointed out, probably doesn't invite foreign journalists to her house.)
Carré's apartment was filled with boxes of chocolates when he interviewed her. She was preparing for her role as a chocolate maker in "Romantics Anonymous."
"When you look at the actual screen time, she is making chocolate for five seconds" in the film, LaSalle said. But her chocolate-filled apartment testified to Carré's commitment to her role.
Huppert, formidable onscreen, "was very loquacious and outgoing and helpful and extremely easy to talk to," LaSalle said. "I thought she would be staring me down and making me squirm the whole time."
Surprisingly accessible offscreen, these French actresses thrive onscreen through their emotional availability an ability to tap their characters' inner lives. Fundamental differences in French and American approaches to storytelling give them more opportunities than their American counterparts have to show such talents, LaSalle writes in his book.
Americans young, old, Democratic, Republican, value morals over all else, LaSalle contends. Films end how they should end, according to moral codes. The right guy ends up with the right woman, and good triumphs. Hokey action films and trite romantic comedies result.
The French value morality as well but are more interested in behavior, LaSalle said. Increasing this interest are the small budgets associated with most French films.
"French movies, because there is not a huge audience for them, need to be small-scale," LaSalle said. "And because it is just some people sitting in a room, it lends itself to stories about internal lives. And for some reason, stories about internal lives are the woman's domain. The world of action and commerce became a guy thing."
It helps that contemporary French actresses, like '30s American stars, play aspects of their personas, and sometimes themselves, onscreen.
Meryl Streep, LaSalle pointed out, immerses herself in character, "and is not playing Meryl Streep in the universe." French actors and actresses revisit their personas over decades. Clint Eastwood offers the only current American example of this, LaSalle said.
"You are exploring the essence of that person," he said. "Thirty years go by, and you feel like you know them."
This rings true, Downs said, for French audiences and their relationship to Ariane Ascaride, lead actress in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," which opens the French Film Festival on Friday.
Ascaride, 57, was nominated for a 2011 best-actress César (the French Oscar equivalent) for "Snows," a family and labor-movement drama set in Marseille, France. The film reteams Ascaride professionally with her director husband, Robert Guédiguian, actors Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Gérard Meylan, and screenwriter Jean-Louis Milesi.
The group has made several films, including the unconventional 1997 romance "Marius and Jeannette," for which Ascaride won a best-actress César. Downs showed "Marius and Jeannette" last year.
Milesi, now a Berkeley resident, came to the festival last year and will appear Friday with "Snows." He said French audiences have been loyal to Ascaride and the filmmaking team for the past 20 years.
"I think that a part of the audience loves the fidelity between Robert and Ariane, and between Robert and Darroussin or Meylan," Milesi wrote via email. "The audience loves the idea of a band, a tribe. People love to see Ariane as a mirror she is like a neighbor, someone we can meet in the street, at the bakery."
Ascaride plays the wife of a dockworker union rep (Darroussin) who gets laid off and then becomes the target of a robbery related to the layoffs.
Ascaride's role has all the hallmarks of a supporting role, especially since the wife, Marie-Claire, once gave up nursing school to raise a family. But the role becomes richer, through Ascaride's wise expressions and Marie-Claire's reaffirmation, as she celebrates her 30th wedding anniversary, that family was the most important aspect of her life.
(Marie-Claire also has maintained her figure and a nice sense of style, which the audience notices before a flirty young waiter in the film points it out.)
"We believe that ordinary people are smooth, featureless, but of course it's not true," Milesi said. "We feel that during the time her husband fights for other people, this woman fights every day for her family. At the end, they fight for the same thing."
The ordinary, or "the real" of female lives might reach the fore more often in French cinema because the country has more prominent female directors.
Stories of interior lives draw women behind the camera as well as in front of it. Female directors also enjoy a long history in France. Agnès Varda is one of the country's most acclaimed living directors, and Claire Denis, two decades younger, is a familiar name internationally.
Downs noted that women directed five films in her festival. These include "Polisse" (playing June 24), an action thriller Downs believed was the best French film of 2011, with apologies to César- and Oscar-winner "The Artist."
"Artist" star Jean Dujardin, beloved in France for broad comedy, turns serious in "A View of Love." The romantic thriller, directed by Nicole Garcia, will screen Saturday night at the festival.
"It took a woman to direct Jean Dujardin in a drama," Downs said with a laugh.
Like many female French directors, Garcia also acts. She appears in the mystery "38 Witnesses," showing June 23 and 24 at the Sacramento French Film Festival.
"And they do not direct just because they can't get roles," Downs said of female actors turned directors. "Because they can get roles."
But the French film industry, though clearly open to complex roles for women, is not age- or looks-blind, veteran screenwriter Milesi pointed out.
Actress-director Josiane Balasko ("French Twist"), for example, started writing and directing films "because nobody wanted to write a complex character that will be played by" an overweight woman, Milesi said.
Added Milesi: "I think it is not easy for an actress to age, even in France."
And the factors that allow women to blossom in French film do not always translate well.
"When you see these French actresses who make it to Hollywood, when they play in American films, it is always like the beautiful French girl or the wife," Downs said. "Nobody ever gives them, in Hollywood, a role that really matters."
SACRAMENTO FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL
When: Friday through next Sunday, and June 21 and 23-24
Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento
Cost: Single tickets are $11 ($10 for students, seniors, EFSac, Alliance Française, Club Français, Jewish Film Festival members). Multiday passes also are available.
Information: (916) 442-7378 or www. sacramentofrenchfilm festival.org