After an absence of more than a decade, Nathalie Baye and director Xavier Beauvois who gave the actress her César award winning role as a flawed police inspector in The Young Lieutenant (Le Petit Lieutenant), have joined forces for the third time for a First World War drama about the women left behind in rural France after the menfolk have departed for the conflict.
It’s not only a reunion for Baye and Beauvois but also marks the first time she has worked in cinema with her daughter Laura Smet (playing mère et fille in The Guardians/Les Gardiennes, adapted from the 1924 novel by Ernest Perochon). Smet, 33, was born of her four-year relationship in the Eighties with the late Gallic rocker Johnny Hallyday, who died in December aged 74, prompting a wave of national grief. In his autobiography, In my eyes, Hallyday wrote : “I was not in the habit of hitting on girls like Nathalie …” as an explanation for their rather odd couple status.
Together again: Director Xavier Beauvois with Nathalie Baye during the shoot of The Guardians Photo: UniFrance
Both Baye and Beauvois, who won the Cannes Film Festival grand prix for Of Gods And Men, originally come from Normandy which may explain their obvious empathy. She regards him as a close friend, having worked with him first on Selon Matthieu, a psychological drama set in Normandy. While she is happily ensconced in Paris (having given up her country retreat in the area) he cannot wait to return home to his native soil and its “isolation.”
Baye, who turns 70 in July and can look back on a career of 80-odd films with some of the directorial greats (including Bertrand Tavernier, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Maurice Pialat) as well as the new generation (recently with Xavier Dolan in The End Of The World), immediately warmed to the subject of The Guardians.
“I used to have a house in Normandy and it was just like the one we found for the shoot. I had talked to some of my women neighbours and they had told me about how they had toiled on the farms when their men had left to fight. Life was incredibly hard for them with all the physical work and they looked at least ten years older than they were,” she said. Baye, almost unrecognisable, is seen ploughing and slaving away - a sorrowful matriarch who grieves for her three fighting sons, while Smet yearns for her captured husband.
She relished the opportunity to work with Smet (they had previously played themselves in a hit French TV series 10 Per Cent set in a talent agency). “I took a great deal of pleasure playing opposite her because she is such a good actress,” says Baye displaying her pride as a mother. “I say that not just because I am her mother, because when we play together I forget she is my daughter. She has her life, and I have mine. But being together was great fun - and I think we’re even closer now as a result.”
Nathalie Baye who turns 70 in July: "It is not the size of the role that matters - but the content.” Photo: UniFrance
On previous occasions in her work with Beauvois she spent much time theorising, listening to explanations about the motivations of the characters and psychological introspection. “This time we talked a lot before filming started, and once it was under way we just got on with it. I have complete confidence in him, and often it was fine after just one take. There is something very simple in the way he works. He is down to earth, but also very intelligent and insightful.”
At one point she became concerned about the amount of dialogue that Beauvois decided to cut. He had to tell her not to freak out because “country folk are strong silent types who don’t speak much. So don’t worry about it - it will be fine.”
She was surprised when she received the César for The Young Lieutenant. “Usually prizes are for acting performances,” she explained. Her performance under Beauvois’ direction was low-key and restrained. “You have to allow yourself to be stolen from,” she said.
Baye finds that the roles she is offered at this stage in her trajectory remain as varied as ever. “But I try to be watchful and make sure that I do not repeat myself which was a challenge when I was starting out. Then when I was appearing in films which were a success at the box office, directors wanted to play roles with which the public could identify. But there was no way I wanted to be typed as ‘the girl next door.’ Rather I saw myself playing dangerous and unsympathetic women,” she said adamantly.
Her criteria for choosing roles have never waivered. “It was never just about my character but the whole universe of the film, including that of the director. I would always say No to a good role in a script that I did not really like. And the same went for a not particularly interesting role in a good script. If I didn’t like the director, however important he might be, I would also decline. I have always been lucky enough to choose, but it is quite a hard job making these decisions. It is not the size of the role that matters - but the content,” she suggests.
She credits François Truffaut with cultivating her love for cinema. He gave her the role of the script girl in Day For Night, after which there was no turning back. She admits that at the time she had been working towards a career in theatre rather than film. “But with Truffaut, and working on a story about a film shoot, it was magical. A career is built little by little, like a puzzle with new pieces added to older ones. There is not one role that will forever be the most important in my life. It is an ensemble of work.” She was even happy enough to work with him on only one scene in his film of The Man Who Loved Women opposite Charles Denner. “Before the shoot I began to feel a bit nervous in case I blew the opportunity,” she recalls.
From the archives: Johnny Hallyday, Nathalie Baye and baby Laura.
With an admiration for actors of a similar generation, such as Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren, Baye is happy that in France directors appear to be much more open and audacious about offering interesting roles to females over the age of 40. “We spend a lot of time saying that everything is better elsewhere, but in this regard, at least, we can say things are better here in France,” she smiles. She played the President’s wife in the first season of the political TV series Spin (Les Hommes De L’Ombre), a role taken over by Carole Bouquet. Baye did not want to be locked in to the same character in the season after season syndrome.
After a busy period she plans if possible to have a pause. “If you work too much you feel that you don’t have a life. I would like to go back to theatre, although you can play in one production for quite a long time. One play I did went on continuously for two years and that was enough! What I love about the stage are the rehearsals and the contact with the public. A play is a living thing.”
Recalling how she and Laura had played themselves in the TV spot she found it “a good laugh … mind you it was also rather destabilising. I am probably not narcissistic enough. I much prefer hiding behind a character, cloaked in the costume.”
Such a remark gives a clue to the beginnings of Baye’s formation. Her parents were both artists and encourage in her endeavours. In childhood she was found to be dyslexic and now has become actively committed to the cause helping children with such learning difficulties. “I had a lot of difficulty in concentrating but I developed my imagination. My academic results were poor but I was sent to a speech therapist who understood my difficulties. I needed to be accompanied and encouraged and I was which is why I want others to have that chance.”
The Guardians is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival on 28 February at 17.50 and 01 March at 13.15.
There will be a general UK release later in the year. Netherlands 8 March, Finland 9 March, Switzerland 15 March, Norway 23 March, Portugal 12 April. New York Rendez-vous with French Cinema 08 - 18 March. US release May (Music Box Films).
Richard Mowe interviewed Nathalie Baye at the Unifrance Rendezvous with French Cinema in Paris.