French actors make respectable transition from screen to stage

In France, where cinema is taken seriously, it's possible for actors who transfer to the stage to receive a respectable hearing.

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In France, as in most countries with a cinema industry, theatre and the screen occupy separate worlds. Each has its partisans and its spokespeople, and each occasionally looks askance at the pretensions of the other. But the French take cinema seriously: it is the septième art or seventh art (the others, much disputed, follow Hegel and run the gamut from painting to architecture). The cinema industry is both serious and well-funded. One rarely hears the theatrical camp sniping, as in America, that cinema is an easy option. As such, actors who transfer to the stage are usually assured at least of a respectable hearing.

This year, a particular number of film actresses are making the leap to stage work. The legendary Jeanne Moreau (Jules et Jim, The Last Tycoon), who had her start in theatre, appeared at the Avignon Festival late last year in a limited run of a dramatised version of work by Flavius Josephus, the first-century historian. Although the production, directed by the filmmaker Amos Gitai, failed to attract rapturous reviews ("The laws of theatre and the cinema just aren't the same," sighed one critic), tickets were still in hot demand when the show transferred to Paris for a week in January.

Isabelle Huppert's performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, the title of which has been amputated by the director Krzysztof Warlikowski to just Un tramway, or Streetcar, is the succès de scandale of the season in Paris. Everyone agrees Huppert is extraordinary, even though 54 is not young enough for Blanche Dubois, but critics and audiences remain divided by the staging, which intercuts Tennessee Williams's text with fragments of Flaubert's letters, Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus and extracts from Plato's Dialogues. Despite, or perhaps because of, the critical vituperation, the play is sold out until its run ends in April.

Audrey Tautou, who became an international star with her role in Amélie, is another actor to make the transition. Her performance in Ibsen's A Doll's House in Paris has been wildly acclaimed for elegance and sensitivity, and Tautou, who said before the performance that "people are waiting to catch me out, but I don't care", is considering further options in the theatre. "I've been so spoilt by cinema for so long that I haven't dared ask for anything from the stage," she has said.

Melanie Laurent, the 26-year-old rising young singer, actor and director who came to international attention when she played Shosanna Dreyfus in Inglourious Basterds, also appeared in her first theatrical role in Paris this year. "I hadn't done it before because I was scared," she said, saying that as "an actress who's been lucky and had a great career", she'd started "not to worry and to find it easy - and there's nothing worse". Happily, her performance has been a critical hit, with Le Figaro's reviewer, particularly, driven into paroxysms of admiration at the sight of this "little fairy with a laugh close to tears and a beautiful, versatile voice".

Other actors maintain a happy balance between the productive domestic film industry and the equally well-attended theatres of Paris. Dominique Pinon, the star of Delicatessen who has appeared in all of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's films, is currently appearing on stage in Paris in a double bill of Feydeau farces. His performance in Claude Lelouch's latest film, meanwhile, hits theatres later this year. And Mathieu Amalric, the actor and director who performed in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and as Daniel Craig's nemesis in the latest James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, has also made the odd foray into theatre - but, apparently, he doesn't intend to make a habit of it.

"I feel like a bit of an impostor," he has said. "In theatre, some people are real actors and some are just playing at being actors: that's how I feel. Cinema's my natural element. But I always crack when someone offers me an irresistible role." Still others have forsworn cinema totally for the theatre. Jean-Louis Trintignant, the 78-year-old French film legend and star of films such as The Conformist, has done nothing but theatre for the past 15 years. "I think I'm a better theatre actor because I don't see myself doing it," he says. "With cinema, you always watch yourself. And I think cinema is a more international art than theatre, which is a shame."

Meanwhile, John Malkovich was given the award for best director at the Molières, Paris's top theatre awards, in 2008, for his French-language production of The Good Canary, a play he has since gone on to direct in Spanish as well. The French arts world goes crazy for Malkovich not only because he lived in the country for 10 years and speaks the language fluently, but because his avid multidisciplinary approach to acting and his willingness to try non-commercial projects exudes the kind of seriousness that many French critics feel is missing from Hollywood's media-friendly, follow-the-money stars.