x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Women at the helm

The French star Fanny Ardant's recent move behind the camera highlights the trend of actresses-turned-directors.

The French actress Fanny Ardant recently held a masterclass at the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily on her directorial debut, Ashes and Blood.
The French actress Fanny Ardant recently held a masterclass at the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily on her directorial debut, Ashes and Blood.

The French actress-turned-director Fanny Ardant, 60, is waiting patiently to run her bag through the security check at Catania Airport in Sicily. Tall and slender in a black dress, her sunglasses hide all but her movie-star jawline and sultry mouth. The French star, made famous by a string of François Truffaut films, such as The Woman Next Door and Confidentially Yours, collects her belongings without a fuss and disappears into the crowd. So captivating is Ardant to watch, it could be a scene from a film.

In fact, she is flying home from the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily where she held a masterclass on her directorial debut, Ashes and Blood, the day before. There isn't a trace of the diva about Ardant, which may have something to do with her experience directing. She says she learnt to put her emotions on the back seat and be more practical: "When I came to act in my next film after this, there was no more caprice."

Who knows what Truffaut, with whom Ardant had a daughter, Josephine, in 1983, one year before he died, might have said of her bold move to direct after three decades of acting work in high-profile films such as François Ozon's 8 Women and, most recently, Visage by Tsai Ming-lang. Her three daughters told Ardant that she was "crazy", as she recalls humorously. "For a long time I kept it secret," says Ardant with a seductive charm. "I wrote secretly and was never sure I would do it."

Ashes and Blood is part of a discernible wave of high-profile actresses stepping behind the camera. Think India's Nandita Das, Drew Barrymore in Hollywood, Isabella Rossellini in Italy and the Greek-American actress Nia Vardalos, to name a few. Ashes and Blood made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Inspired by Greek tragedy, the film tells the story of a woman who goes back to visit her feuding family after a 10-year absence. It was shot in seven weeks with a high-definition camera and on a low budget. Ardant seems forever changed by the experience. "I learnt a lot technically and as a human being," she said. "I am uncontrollable and had to learn control. I didn't want to suffer under bad feelings and made myself just sleep at night and not be emotional. It was a low-budget film. There is a lot you can't change, so you have to move on. It is like a metaphor for life."

Ardant got advice from a young director who told her a first film is both painful and an adventure. "It was an adventure," confirmed Ardant, who said that she reached back to a strategy employed during her childhood to get through the shoot and the weather. "I remembered back to the school holidays when I always said to myself on the first day that there are only two months and I am not going to spoil a single day. It was the same with the movie. It was painful to get up at 5am every day. We were staying on a farm with no telephone. I wasn't exactly the same woman I usually am. I told myself that I had to be very pragmatic. I noticed how well protected actors are on shoots. Someone does their make-up and brings them blankets and no one was there to do that for me. There are scenes I would love to do differently and much that I learnt."

With only nine per cent of the top-grossing 250 films in the US last year directed by women, according to Hollywood's Celluloid Ceiling report, some hope these women may be one way to help make a change. Several are giving it their best shot. The third annual Los Angeles Greek Film Festival opened this week with the world premiere of Nia Vardalos's (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) directorial debut, I Hate Valentine's Day. Vardalos also stars in the film, about a florist in Manhattan who, despite her rule of five dates only with any one man, finds herself wanting to break it when she meets an eligible restaurant owner. Vardalos previously produced the film Connie and Carla for Universal and the television series My Big Fat Greek Life.

Drew Barrymore has just completed her directorial debut, Whip It! The plot follows a rebellious young misfit (Ellen Page) who finds a way to cope with her life in a small town after finding a roller-derby league in a nearby community. Barrymore also acts in the project, which will be released in October by Fox Searchlight. Barrymore has produced a number of films, including Fever Pitch and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. The French actress Julie Delpy has directed more than most of her contemporaries, and had some measure of success with 2 Days in Paris. In her latest film, The Countess, she acts as director and stars as the Hungarian vampire legend Erzsebet Bathory, who is described as the most infamous serial killer in history. Isabella Rossellini last year directed a compilation of 10 short films in which an actor plays a different creature in each film and explains their reproductive cycle. The series was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The Danish actress Rie Rasmussen's feature debut, Human Zoo, which stars the Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, opened the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival in February. The story follows a Serbian-Albanian immigrant living in Marseille. Even Scarlett Johansson is testing the water with a short film, The Vagabond Shows, starring Kevin Bacon, which will premiere in Los Angeles next month as part of a short-film festival.

India's Nandita Das (Ramchand Pakistani) has made her directorial debut with Firaaq, which opened in India in March. The film has played at a dozen film festivals and won numerous prizes, including Best Film and Best Screenplay at New York's Asian Film Festival in October. It looks at 24 hours in the lives of a number of people following the aftermath of riots in Gujarat in 2002, in which more than 1,000 were killed.

The trend of actresses moving behind the camera is not altogether new. As the Hollywood historian Cari Beauchamp notes, Gene Gauntier began acting in 1906 before turning to writing and directing. The Vitagraph Studios actress Helen Gardner formed her own production company in 1912 and made a dozen movies. And the pianist-turned actress Lois Weber became the highest-paid female director in the early years of filmmaking, thanks to films such as Hypocrites. The list goes on.

"Cleo Madison starred in and directed dozens of films at Universal, as did Ida May Park, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Ruth Stonehouse, Lule Warrenton and the serial queen Grace Cunard. When Carl Laemmle's Universal City opened in 1915, Lois Weber was named mayor," notes Beauchamp. The British-American actress Ida Lupino also famously turned her hand to directing in the 1940s, after featuring in dozens of Hollywood films such as High Sierra. Lupino first became interested in directing when she was suspended by Warner Bros for refusing to play a role that was handed down from Bette Davis. She went instead to watch some films being directed on the lot. In 1947, she quit her contract and formed her own production company. Lupino got her first chance to direct shortly after, when the director Elmer Clifton fell ill on a script she wrote called Not Wanted, in 1949. She completed the film.

Considered a pioneer female director, Lupino directed nine pictures and was the second woman to be accepted into the Directors Guild. She pushed the envelope with a number of her films, including Outrage (1950). Somewhere between Lupino and the current crop of actresses-turned-directors, there have been a handful of other high-profile thespians to try their luck at directing. In 1983, Barbra Streisand made her directorial debut with Yentl, which she followed up with The Prince of Tides and The Mirror Has Two Faces. Jodie Foster began directing in the 1990s with Little Man Tate. She is now in pre-production on her third film, Flora Plum, about a penniless outcast taken into the circus, where she launches a successful career.

Still, the levels of activity don't seem to have reached what they once were. "In the Teens, when there were hundreds of film companies making movies, there were dozens of women directors and it was considered the norm," said Beauchamp, who is the author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. Most actresses seem keen to keep their day jobs for now.