With her beauty and talent Emmanuelle Béart could have had her pick of plum Hollywood parts. Instead of which she keeps going back
to the most gruelling art-house roles imaginable.
An odd mix of tenderness and hostility: Emmanuelle Béart.
How to describe Emmanuelle Béart? If I were a man, I’d probably wax lyrical about her face (beautiful, heart-shaped), her eyes (china-blue), her mouth (plump lips), her body (tiny yet curvy). I’d probably go on about how, in 2003, she appeared naked on the cover of French Elle and the entire run sold out in three days. It is still the magazine’s biggest-selling issue ever.
But I am not a man so this is how I am going to describe Béart. She is French. More than that, she is a French actress who appears in the types of art-house films people either love or hate. She first came to public attention when, aged 23, she starred as the vengeful goatherd in the extraordinarily popular Manon des Sources. Since then she’s played many parts – including that of a virtuoso violinist in Un Coeur en Hiver, directed by Claude Sautet, in which she starred opposite Daniel Auteuil (with whom she was having a relationship at the time). In the film Auteuil makes a speech about her; it goes along the lines of, ‘She is ’ot but then she is cold. She is weak and then strong, she is a child and an adult.’ At the time, mired in my Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, I found it really annoying. Aren’t all French women depicted this way – enigmatic, mad, dangerous-to-know but supremely sexy?
But, in person, Béart is like that. One minute she is warm and friendly, the next cold and standoffish. She is hard to fathom – an odd mix of tenderness and hostility, of airy intellectualism and matter-of-factness. When I meet her, at a café of her choice in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, she is barely recognisable. Gone is the halo of hair that usually fluffs prettily around her face. Instead, it is cropped very short. And she looks so thin.
She seems pale, drawn and not very happy. But then, as she approaches the café, she sees a pram and her face lights up.
‘This is my brother’s baby!’ she says with delight. For here, in the café, is her brother and his wife and their two-week-old child. There is lots of chatting and hugging, then another brother pops up (a war reporter, as it turns out) and there is more chatting and hugging and it is all rather lovely.
But, once we sit down, the shutters come down again. For a start, says Béart, ‘I find it hard to talk in English.’ I point out that her new release, Vinyan, is an English-language film. ‘Yes,’ she says faintly, ‘but it’s been a long time since I spoke it.’ In all honesty, there’s not a lot of dialogue in the film anyway. By the end it consists of little more than manic shrieking, laughing and whispered sentences that are almost impossible to hear. ‘Very strange, yes?’ she says to me.
It is indeed a strange film. Fabrice du Welz, whose first film was the perverse horror movie Calvaire, directed it. ‘I saw this film when I was on the jury in Cannes,’ she says. ‘I was with Tarantino and we both said, “What is this thing?” I thought it was amazing, brave and interesting. I thought, “I want to work with this man.”’
They met up in the café we are sitting in, she tells me.
‘’E was ’ere and ’e asked me all these questions like, “Can you go without wearing make-up?” and, “Do you need your own hairdresser?” and I thought, “What boring questions!” But I was very interested in doing the film. But I didn’t show it. I stayed cool on the outside but so excited inside.’
It is her most visceral role to date (and she’s played prostitutes and victims by the bucket-load). In Vinyan Béart plays Jeanne, a woman who is married to Rufus Sewell’s character. The couple have lost their son in the tsunami, but at a charity reception in Thailand to raise money for children in Burma they watch a film in which Jeanne sees a blurred image of a boy in a red top, similar to the one their son was wearing when he disappeared. Jeanne becomes convinced he is alive. The couple then travel by boat to Burma and – in true Heart of Darkness style – everything starts going wrong.
It’s a beautiful but gruelling film. Most of it is shot in the pouring rain. Jeanne is obviously going mad with grief and, in one scene, ends up being comforted by a gang of wild cannibalistic children who smother her in mud. I ask Béart how she felt when some of the audience at Cannes booed this scene. She shrugs. ‘That’s up to them,’ she says. ‘Maybe they do not see that Jeanne has gone totally crazy. She has lost her mind.’
She tells me at length how exhausting it was to be Jeanne. How she and Sewell spent days on end sitting in the boat getting wet and tired. Did she not go crazy herself in the end? She laughs a short hollow laugh. ‘Probably,’ she says.
‘But Fabrice needed crazy, so… I am attracted to these roles. Right now I am a cancer victim.’ She motions towards her short hair. ‘I have cut my ’air off and lost seven kilos. Look at how thin I am! But I feel so good. I have detoxed. No wine, no nothing, and I have so much energy I don’t know what to do with it!’
Béart has had an interesting career. She has never gone down the Hollywood route and yet, unlike many other actresses who hit a certain age and find that the roles dry up, Béart has work coming out of her ears – though mainly in Europe. Did she ever want to move to America and become a major star like Audrey Tautou or Juliette Binoche? ‘I did do Mission: Impossible [released 1996],’ she says. ‘It opened a lot of doors, but I ran away from it.’
‘Why?’ I ask her.
‘I was young,’ she sighs. ‘I wasn’t ready. I had just had a baby and even though I liked the director, and Tom [Cruise] was very professional, I couldn’t bear it. All the press junkets and the interviews… I came home to Paris and I never really wanted to go back.’ Does she regret that? She thinks for a bit. ‘In a way. But I am 46 now. It’s not what I am about to do.’
Emmanuelle Béart and Tom Cruise
She tells me that totally different things excite her now.
‘I need nothing very much to keep me ’appy,’ she says. ‘A book and what else? A tree, I think.’ She says that is because she was brought up in the French countryside. ‘It was after my parents spilt up.’ Her father is the celebrated balladeer Guy Béart, her mother a former model and one-time muse to Jean-Luc Godard, Geneviève Galéa. Her parents separated when she was nine months old and she moved from St-Tropez, where she was born, to a farm nearby with her mother.
Her mother had four more children – three boys and a girl – with her second husband. ‘It was a wonderful place to grow up,’ says Béart dreamily. ‘We had no television. We didn’t go to see films. We were all so close to each other. We still are. Sometimes I felt like I was their little mother. It was a basic way of living…’
‘You grew up with nothing, really?’ I say, meaning in terms of electronic things.
‘Not nothing!’ she says, like a whip. ‘Do you know what there is in the countryside? I had everything.
I had goats and trees and nature. I had animals, so many animals. Even now, I have animals. When we all left ’ome we said, “No more animals,” but now look. Me and my brothers? We have dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters. We ring each other up. “There is a sad dog in my street. Who will ’ave it?”’ she says, laughing.
Béart didn’t want to be an actress as a child. ‘I wanted to be a drum majorette,’ she says. ‘I practised for ever marching up and down, twirling my stick, but my mother wouldn’t have it.’
I get the feeling that she did not have a particularly harmonious relationship with her mother. She was expelled from five schools – ‘I couldn’t understand the need for the rules and my mother found that frustrating’ – and left home at 14.
‘I went to live with my father, then I went to Montréal,’ she says. She worked as an au pair and finally went back to school. ‘I was much better when I was older. I loved it. I read so many books.’
A chance encounter with the director Robert Altman inspired her to become an actress, so she returned to Paris and the next thing she knew she was starring in Manon des Sources. ‘It was incredible amounts of money,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “What kind of a job is this? ’Ow can someone earn so much money doing this job?”’ But it was not easy for her.
‘I felt insecure,’ she says. ‘I hadn’t been to drama school. I wasn’t even sure if I could act, so I fought and fought against it.’In the end, though, the acting won. ‘I kept meeting directors I was interested in – Claude Chabrol, André Téchiné. It’s the eyes, you know. You can see if they are going to be transgressive or not by their eyes. It doesn’t matter what they are saying. I have to learn something in every film. I have to reveal something about myself or the world for me to do the job, or else it’s just… meaningless.’ She’s not convinced she’ll keep at it, though. ‘The day I no longer find a role I want to do… I shall stop.’ What would she do then? She shrugs.
Emmanuelle Béart in Nathalie
Béart says she spends most of her time looking after her children, 17-year-old Nelly and 13-year-old Johan. ‘I am like all women,’ she says. ‘I am the market woman, the housewife, the mother, the working woman. It’s chaotic. I find very little time for me. I thought I would by now, but no. They still need me.’ She gives an example of this. ‘I was filming a scene the other day. My character was about to go through a very difficult moment and I was preparing for it, when my telephone rang.
It was my daughter. She said, “Mum, I need to talk to you.” She was having a problem with her boyfriend and she was so upset, so what do I do? I tell the crew I am sorry and I take the call.
It put us back an hour in all because I had to get back into character, but my daughter needed me.’
Her daughter’s father is Daniel Auteuil with whom Béart had a 10-year relationship, for two of which they were married. She then had her son, Johan, with David Moreau, a composer. Béart went on to have a relationship with the actor Vincent Meyer, who committed suicide five years ago, before she married Michael Cohen, who is also an actor, last year. She doesn’t talk about her relationships. ‘Non, non, non,’ she says, wagging a finger. But she does say that she can often work because her children’s fathers are supportive. ‘There is no problem there,’ she says simply.
Before she leaves I ask her if she is still politically motivated. She worked for 10 years as a UN ambassador and has marched against France’s right-wing government, protesting over legislation that decreed all landlords must declare foreign lodgers. ‘Of course I am political,’ she says, opening her eyes wide. ‘You ’ave to be don’t you? Every day it is about your future, your right to that future. ’Ow can people ignore this? We ’ave to leave a good world for our children, n’est-ce pas?’
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