Folies Bergère

December 13, 2014
Isabelle Huppert in 'Folies Bergères' (2014)
Isabelle Huppert in 'Folies Bergères' (2014)

Isabelle Huppert has the rare ability to conjure up a character while remaining almost completely impassive. Some actors undergo an expressive transformation from one role to the next, but Huppert’s style is that of a minimalist. The straight face gives an impression of hidden depths, and this may be why – although far from conventionally beautiful – she is forever being cast as an object of desire.

This tendency was satirised in Hong Sang-soo’s absurd comedy, In Another Country (2012), where Huppert essentially played herself, as a French actress visiting Korea who exerts an irresistible attraction on the local males. It was a spoof that told the truth. In Marc Fitoussi’s Folies Bergères she is as inscrutable as ever, catching the eye of suitors young and old.

In this typically Gallic, low-keyed comedy-drama, Huppert plays Brigitte, wife to Xavier (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), whose passion is for breeding bulls. When they met at agricultural college many years ago Brigitte shared that passion. Nowadays she seems to have settled into a comfortably numb domestic routine. The kids have left home, Xavier is obsessed with his bulls, old age is knocking at the door.

When a group of students come down from Paris for a party at the neighbouring farm, Brigitte meets a charming young man named Stan (Pio Marmaï), who finds her more alluring than the girls his own age. While Xavier goes to bed she stays at the party, drinks too much, and enjoys the attention.

Although the escapade ends with nothing more than a hangover, Brigitte’s nascent libido has been stirred. Using the excuse of a visit to a dermatologist, she heads off to Paris to track down Stan and finish what she began at the party. Her adventure doesn’t go according to plan, but she does meet Jesper (Michael Nyqvist), an urbane Danish doctor of her own vintage, who is staying at the same hotel. As this encounter blossoms, Xavier realises Brigitte has been lying to him about the dermatologist, and sets off to Paris to see what she is doing.

It’s a slender tale but never quite predictable, as each character evolves throughout the film. Although Brigitte has gone to Paris for the specific purpose of having an affair, she is hesitant when it comes to the crunch. The rash on her chest, which provided an excuse to visit the city, also makes her feel insecure. Her attraction to Stan is similarly undermined by her self-conscious attitude towards her 60-year-old body.

The liaison with Jesper feels more comfortable, even to the point where she can spend an evening with him at the Folies Bergères, meet an acquaintance of Xavier’s, and never bat an eyelid.

Xavier, for his part, reveals a sensitivity that was missing from his initial appearance as a narrow-minded rustic devoted to his own small world. The story suggests that a wife and husband can make choices about their lives and pleasures that need not jeopardise a long-term relationship. Such choices might even provide a spark of new vitality. It’s all very French, I know.

The other message in this story is: “It’s never too late!” It seems to be a popular theme among French directors judging by recent movies such as Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way (2013) in which a 69-year old Catherine Deneuve showed she still has more sex appeal than actresses half her age. Then there was Marion Vernoux’s Bright Days Ahead (2013), in which Fanny Ardant got the chance to flaunt her ageless charms. Charlotte Rampling seems to play a similar role in almost every screen appearance.

On the other hand, one could point to films such as Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour or Francois Ozon’s Young and Beautiful (both 2013) which dwelt on the naked bodies of young actresses with a dedication that would’ve made Humbert Humbert blush. Perhaps French cinema is simply obsessed with female sexuality, regardless of whether an actress is 25 or 65.

Simone de Beauvour would not approve, but it’s that old problem of The Eternal Feminine, which the great couturiers sought to address by means of clothing. By contrast, it appears that today’s French film directors believe only the naked truth will suffice.

Folies Bergère
Directed by Marc Fitoussi
Written by Marc Fitoussi & Sylvie Dauvillier
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Michael Nyqvist, Pio Marmaï
France, rated M, 98 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 13th December, 2014.