Amazing French actresses in film history

James Oliver

We take a look back at some of the most captivating French actresses throughout time

The posters and trailers for the new film Greta are playing up the involvement of leading actress Chloe Grace Moretz, and understandably so: as the erstwhile star of Kick Ass and The 5th Wave, she's the name most likely to attract casual punters to this rip-roaring psychological thriller.

For more committed cinephiles, however, the real draw comes elsewhere; the title character is played by none other than Isabelle Huppert. If your first reaction to that name is to say, “who?” then you're in for a treat. She's one of the best actresses around and Greta is one of her all-too-rare forays into the English language mainstream, which is pretty darn exciting.

But La Huppert is far from the only great French actress, and it's very much to be hoped that seeing her in Greta will inspire you to see out more. To that end, we've compiled a short field guide to  help, in the hope that at least one of these fabulous French femmes will be your next girl-crush or pin-up. No nation has produced so many great actresses; the difficulty comes in deciding which ones to leave out...

 

Isabelle Huppert

Ah, Isabelle.... 

Born in 1953, she gave notice that she was unusually fearless as a murderous prostitute in Violette Noziere. Hollywood was interested—she was cast in the ill-fated Heaven's Gate—but she has never been one for stardom. Rather, she made a strategic decision to work with the auteurs who offered the substantial roles at which she excelled. So it is she worked often with Claude Chabrol (Madame Bovary), Bertrand Tavernier (Coup de Torchon) and Michael Haneke: her turn as the self-harming martinet in the latter's The Piano Teacher is one of the roles of her career.

Roles like that have given her a reputation as a bit of an ice queen (see also: Elle, for which she was Oscar nominated). That, though, is to underestimate her—she can do comedy as well as anyone, as she proved beyond doubt in 8 Women. Let's hope Adam Sandler calls upon her soon, eh, readers?

 

Catherine Deneuve

It says much about the state of French cinema that, no matter how exalted Isabelle Huppert is, she remains only a movie aristocrat rather than royalty. And that she will remain so for as long as Queen Catherine Deneuve remains active.

Born in 1943, she started in pictures with lightweight roles that relied on her glowing natural beauty. But more substantial roles followed, most notably her breakthrough, the bittersweet musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (the main influence on La La Land, fact fans). 

Keen to prove she was more than just a pretty face, she hopped over the channel for Repulsion, going mad in a London flat and proceeded to star in some of the most celebrated films from that time to this—Belle du Jour, Mississippi Mermaid and The Last Metro amongst them. 

She is imperious now, rather than gamine but still working and still as commanding as ever. Long may she reign. 

 

Jeanne Moreau

As great as Catherine Deneuve is, she has not always been universally acclaimed as France's greatest star. Jeanne Moreau died in 2017 and until then, there were many who would’ve awarded her the crown.

As with Deneuve, she got her first parts because of how she looked—one notable early role (in Touchez pas au grisbi) had her playing glamorous in opposite Jean Gabin (France's greatest male star)—but quickly showed she was an actress of the first order, burning up the screen in Lift to the Scaffold. Thereafter, she assembled one of the great filmographies—in Jules et Jim, Diary of a Chambermaid, Eva, La Notte, Chimes at Midnight (for Orson Welles) and many, many more.

She led a remarkably full private life too: a friend to Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet and an intimate of Miles Davis and Pierre Cardin, routinely in the right time at the right place.

Best of all, we can claim her for our own! Her mum was from Oldham (she met Jeanne's father while working as a dancer in Paris). Sadly, though, she didn't teach Jeanne to speak English with her own native accent.

 

Anna Karina

First, a confession: Anna Karina wasn't actually French: she actually hails from Denmark (her real name is Hanne Karin Bayer). But even the most patriotic Dane cannot complain too bitterly if she is co-opted by the French given that she is so indelibly associated with that country's new wave.

Specifically, she is linked to the films of Jean-Luc Godard. She was working as a model when they met—he wanted a beautiful woman for his debut film, Breathless, but she turned him down when he told her the role involved nudity. But he didn't forget her, and put her—fully clothed—into his next film, Le Petit Soldat.

This began not only a professional but personal partnership too: they married in 1961, and she went on to star in some of his best known films, Vivre sa vie, Bande a part and Pierrot la fou to name but three. (And Alphaville to name another).

Godard was not, though, the easiest person to be in a relationship with. Their union ended in divorce in 1965, shortly before their final film together, Made in USA. Though even if her ex was not a model husband, he did at least provide her with worthwhile parts, roles that actually deserve that much-overused word “iconic”.

 

Léa Seydoux

This list so far might give the idea that the glories of French film—and its actresses—lie squarely in the past but that would be profoundly misleading, most especially when the likes of Léa Seydoux are making such a name for themselves.

Seydoux started in movies in 2007 (in a film called Girlfriends) before going on to The Last Mistress, Lourdes and Mysteries of Lisbon. Although very much committed to acting, she also cultivated a useful sideline in modelling, becoming one of the most recognised faces in France. Indeed, so famous did she become in her homeland that she had no choice but to take over English-language film as well: she's in Midnight in Paris, The Grand Budapest Hotel and played James Bond's squeeze in Spectre.

Perhaps most famously, though, she appeared in the eye-wateringly explicit lesbian drama Blue is the Warmest Colour. Doubtless her subsequent criticism of pervy French film directors and her very vocal support for #MeToo has nothing to do with that though.

 

Marion Cotillard

As Jeanne Moreau was to Catherine Deneuve, so Marion Cotillard is to Léa Seydoux: a contemporary, a colleague and—maybe—a rival.

Cottilard comes from a creative family—her mum and dad both act—and she's been putting in the hours since childhood. It wasn't until A Very Long Engagement that the rest of the world took notice though; she played the assassin revenging herself on the army officers who let a loved one die, a small role but one that eclipsed the ostensible star Audrey Tatou (of Amelie fame).

If that film showed she was one to watch then La Vie en Rose confirmed her talent: she played Edith Piaf so well that the Academy Awards named her Best Actress at that year's Oscars (the first time a performance in French had actually won that award). This allowed her a degree of Hollywood fame: she appeared in Public Enemies, Inception and Batman Begins.

But it's France where her heart is, and where the best parts lie: Rust and Bone and Two Days, One Night might be a long way from Gotham City but they give a much better opportunity for her to show how good she really is. Whether or not you can find her at the multiplex, it's unlikely that you've seen the last of her at the Oscars.

 

Simone Signoret

Jump back a bit, to the late Fifties. The makers of Room at the Top had a problem. This was a British film, a forerunner of the kitchen sink dramas. They needed someone to play the lover of the selfish main character and none of the indigenous actresses were suitable.

Then someone saw a film called Les Diabolique, a French thriller that had twists and turns that even Hitchcock couldn't imagine, all anchored by a brilliant actress called Simone Signoret. She was hardly a newcomer—she'd already turned heads in a film called Casque d'Or, especially in the UK. She even won a BAFTA for it.

She repeated the trick with Room at the Top—you guessed they went ahead and cast her, right? In fact, she went one better: she was the first French woman to win the Best Actress Oscar. And thoroughly deserved it was too.

 

Arletty

Film is a collaborative medium, they say. And no one did more to prove it than Arletty.

Her real name was Léonie Bathiat: “Arletty” was a stage name, adopted when she started treading the boards in the 1920s (she was born in 1898) and she kept in when she started in movies. Her film career began in 1930 but she really hit her stride later that decade; this was the first great golden age of French film and she was its leading lady, appearing in films that endure to this day, most famously Hotel du Nord and La Jour sa lève.

Those were directed by Marcel Carne, who went on to cast her in the role for which she will always be remembered, as the capricious Garance in Les Enfants du paradis, the best-loved Gallic movie of all time; the French film industry's very own Gone With The Wind. And yet despite this career high, she worked much less frequently thereafter. Why?

Well, by the time Les Enfants du paradis finally came out in 1945, France was recovering from the four-year German occupation. Questions were being asked about how accommodating the French film industry had been to their Nazi overlords and Arletty came in for especial criticism, perhaps understandably since she'd had an affair with a high-ranking Luftwaffe officer. Her head was shaved, she did time and a lot of people never forgave her. She was, though, unrepentant: “Mon coeur est Français, mais mon cul est international!” (Google it. It's a bit rude.)

 

Danielle Darrieux 

Arletty wasn't the only star to get into trouble for her war record: although Danielle Darrieux was spared the humiliation of head shaving and imprisonment, it was muttered that she was a bit too friendly with les boches. Did she really have to entertain German troops at the front? 

Her excuse was that her family was threatened and most people accepted it, allowing her to get on with a career that eventually became known for its sheer longevity rather than accusations of collaboration. She began in 1931 and carried on until 2010, only a few years before her untimely death in 2017, a mere stripling of 100. Verily cut off in her prime.

Along the way, she appeared in some of the very greatest French films, La Ronde, La Vérité sur Bébé Donge, Madame de..., Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and 8 Women amongst them, a useful illustration of how, unlike Hollywood, French cinema provides substantial roles for actresses of every age, from naif to grand dame

 

Brigitte Bardot

Brigitte Bardot is retired from acting now: she runs an animal shelter and occasionally hits the news for making intemperate comments. So it's easy to forget just what an impact she made in her heyday, first in France and then beyond.

For gentlemen of a certain age, “BB” was more than just a pin-up: she was the very epitome of feminine allure—John Lennon said he knew he'd really made it when he finally met her, his teenage crush. She appeared in a film called ...And God Created Woman and many men said: yes, sounds about right.

Her actual biography tends to get forgotten: her birth in 1934, her stolid bourgeois upbringing, so very different to the licentiousness she would later be associated with. And unlike most of the ladies on this list, her filmography isn't especially prestigious—the management saw her as product and few of her movies endure. One exception is Le Mepris, directed by Jean-Luc Godard; it was pitched almost as a joke—the art-house director meets the sex kitten!—but shows she had more to give than was often allowed.

But like Marilyn Monroe (to whom she was often compared), she never managed to diversify; her career was all but over with middle age. It's easy to criticise her these days but have a little sympathy: it can't be easy being a cautionary tale for the missteps of fame.