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Roles off the usual tongue

The allure of the 'foreign' brings English-speaking actors and French directors together in French films.

August 10, 2003|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

Paris — Most foreign actors jump at a chance to work in a Hollywood production -- more money, free English lessons and the global exposure that only the American movie machine can offer. But English-speaking actors including Kristin Scott Thomas, Charlotte Rampling, John Malkovich, Jodie Foster and Molly Ringwald have pursued separate careers in European productions that often receive limited or no release in the United States.

Kristin Scott Thomas, who moved to Paris at age 18 and married a French doctor, with whom she has three children, has made at least a dozen French films. Foster, who speaks impeccably accented French honed at French lycee, made a handful of French movies in the late '70s and '80s, and Ringwald, who went to Paris after her success in the '80s, spent part of the 1990s doing French films. Malkovich, who has spent much of the last 10 years living in France, has performed in French films, including playing Javert in a TV miniseries of "Les Miserables" in 2000 and Charles Talleyrand in a 2002 miniseries, "Napoleon."

This fall, Americans Chloe Sevigny and Connie Nielsen both speak French in Olivier Assayas' French- and English-language "Demonlover." And fans of British actor Jeremy Irons can hear him speak Franglais in Claude Lelouch's "And Now Ladies & Gentlemen," which opened Aug. 1, in which he plays a gentleman jewel thief alongside French singer Patricia Kaas.

"I've always believed that for a long-lasting career, you've gotta have a broad base," says Irons, who spoke Polish in a 1982 film called "Moonlighting," "and there are very interesting directors in Europe, so it just seemed that if I could go wider...." "Ladies & Gentlemen," which closed the 2002 Cannes festival in an out-of-competition slot, is his third French-language film, after "Swann in Love" in 1984 and "Australia" in 1989. One indication of his popularity in France was an honorary Cesar (the French Oscar) he won in 2002. If there's anything the French like more than a talented Anglo-Saxon actor, it's one who speaks French at the awards ceremony.

"The French do seem to like my work -- which is good and always rather surprising," he says by phone. "They put up with my French, and my French isn't particularly good, but they accept it. The French love cinema and have an intelligence and a history about cinema which I think a modern American audience has only in the cities -- I mean, in some of the cities. The thing about Europe is that they tend to like what I would wincingly call art movies. And because it's those films and those directors that appeal to me, the work that I think is interesting is appreciated in Europe and probably not seen in America except by a few. Most of the films that you haven't seen would have been seen by a French audience, whereas something like 'Man in the Iron Mask,' which had a moderate success in America, is a bit laughed at in France."

Liked in France

The French are not the only ones to favor nonnative performers, but France has always been particularly enthusiastic about foreign actors, and not just the English-speaking kind. The legendary late Austrian German actress Romy Schneider was an icon of French cinema in the '60s and '70s, and popular actors in France today include Spaniard Sergi Lopez and Monica Bellucci, an Italian who often acts with her French husband, Vincent Cassel.

French director Francois Ozon says he has used foreigners in each of his movies, all of which have been made in French except his most recent, "Swimming Pool," which is in English and French and stars Charlotte Rampling, a Briton who made a comeback starring in his 2001 film "Under the Sand." His 2000 film "Water Drops on Burning Rocks" featured American Anna Thomson, and 1999's "Criminal Lovers" included Yugoslav actor Miki Manojlovic.

"I like actors who speak with an accent," Ozon says. "I always find that beautiful. It adds a strangeness in relation to the maternal language, to hear how others express themselves." But he says the token foreigner plays a larger symbolic role in a story line. "The fact of being a foreigner, to speak in a foreign language, allows characters to try to enter into the world of others but at the same time to watch what happens. My characters are often those who are there but at the same time aren't there, who observe what's going on."

"Ladies & Gentlemen" is based on a real story of a British employee who stole from Lelouch, then returned a decade later to pay him back after surviving a life-threatening illness. In his mind, Lelouch says, he had to have an English speaker in the role. "He had a hard time in French," Lelouch says of Irons. "But that's part of the charm of the film. I always loved accents. I think it's an act of courage, to speak another language. It's like showing yourself naked."

Irons veers between English and French in the film, slip-ups and all. "We didn't write them in," Lelouch says, "but we were very happy when he made them."

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