They may have forgotten, temporarily, how to play football (hey, who hasn't?), but credit where it's due, the French still produce movie stars of uncommon beauty and charisma. This week's cinema release Heartbreakers gives us an excuse to admire the pairing of Romain Duris and Vanessa Paradis, a very chic combination of la belle et la bÍte: the rough and the smooth. They're just the latest in a long and illustrious line of sexy and sophisticated French stars. Unlike our homegrown heroes, most of whom wind up in Hollywood, the French experience of Hollywood has generally been, well, heartbreaking, but then again, who needs it when your own industry routinely produces more than 100 films a year? It may not be as lucrative, but French cinema has quality and depth, a more adult sensibility, and a knack for romance. Here are just a few of our favourites...
Born in Paris, the daughter of an Algerian/Turkish father and a German mother, the passionate, intense Adjani became the youngest actress to be nominated for Best Actress at the French Oscars, the Cesars, when she played the title role in Truffaut's The Story of Adele H at the age of 19. Last year she won a record fifth Cesar for a school drama, La Journee de la Jupe.
In the 50s it was said that Bardot did more for the French balance of trade than the entire French car industry. BB's uninhibited sexuality made her the biggest star of her generation, the natural successor to Marilyn Monroe. Married to director Roger Vadim in her teens, Bardot made the most of what she had, though few of the films have survived as classics and she retired from acting when her looks faded.
La Beart turned heads in Manon des Sources back in 1986, and has been an art house staple ever since. In La Belle Noiseuse she posed naked for the best part of four hours – now that’s entertainment. But she can act too, and proved it in Un Couer en Hiver, Nelly & Mon Arnaud, and 8 Women, among many others. Another hit, Nathalie was recently remade as Chloe. She speaks fluent English, but her only US movie to date was another flop, Date with an Angel.
A radiant actress, Binoche has enjoyed the greatest international success of any French star of her generation. Her first films included work with French art directors Godard, Carax and Techine, but Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being introduced her to a much wider audience. The English Patient and Chocolat kept her on Hollywood’s radar, but she generally prefers to work with international art house directors like Michael Haneke, Abbas Kiarostami, and Hou Hsaio-hsien (that is, when she’s not romancing Steve Carrel in Dan in Real Life).
6. Eva Green
When Bardot fell out of favour in the early 1990s, the authorities turned to Catherine Deneuve to model 'Marianne', the emblem of the Republic on the country's coins and stamps. Both had been proteges of director Roger Vadim – although the cool, regal Deneuve was in many ways BB’s antithesis. In a career that's 100 films old, she has become a sort of hallmark for quality French cinema – but that hasn't stopped this transparent enigma from seeking adventurous work with Lars von Trier, Leos Carax, Arnaud Depleschin, Francois Ozon etcetera.
Although she's French born and raised (to French-Swedish parents), Green's career is unusually Anglocentric – she went to the American School in Paris, and later studied drama in London, which is now her home. Bernardo Bertolucci cast her as a free spirited young French woman in The Dreamers, and she played opposite Romain Duris in Arsene Lupin, but she put her roots behind her in Casino Royale, Children of Heaven, The Golden Compass, Cracks and Franklyn.
Another prolific actress whose career longevity has spawned nearly 100 films, Huppert started out as a mousy, freckle-faced waif in The Lacemaker, but has since exposed an uncommon courage and toughness in challenging roles like The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf and Ma Mere. Hal Hartley wrote the part of a nymphomaniac nun for her in Amateur, a part she accepted proudly.
Tautou will likely always be associated with Amelie, the most successful French film of the last decade, but she’s much more than a one-hit-wonder. She has a light touch with comedy, but she also shows determination and conviction in her characters. Tautou dabbled with blockbusters in the first DaVinci Code but like so many of her peers, she seems wary of Hollywood and unlikely to abandon home turf for long.
A friend of Godard and Truffaut, Belmondo became a talismanic actor for the French new wave. With his broken nose and thick lips, he was no pretty boy, giving a macho edge to the arty and experimental comedies and thrillers of the period. Since the mid-60s he has take a more commercial path, scoring his biggest hit with the gangster film, Borsalino. Jackie Chan rates Belmondo his favourite actor.
For decades the very epitome of the debonair and sophisticated continental matinee idol, Boyer started in the silent era, and went to Hollywood in the mid-1930s, for keeps. His accent and sonorous, hushed voice were much in favour throughout Hollywood’s golden age. Boyer was married to the same woman for 40 years and killed himself two days after she died in 1978.
4. Alain Delon
The son of movie star Jean-Pierre Cassel (Army of Shadows), Vincent Cassel is a protean actor and a very modern sort of movie star. He’s someone who moves freely between mainstream genre films, hard-hitting dramas (like Irreversible) and occasional international productions (Eastern Promises). He can change his appearance drastically, as in the gangster opus Mesrine, and impresses with his openness and energy. His next three films are directed by Dominick Moll, Darren Aronofsky and David Cronenberg, which says something about his appeal.
After a troubled childhood and a spell in the army in Indochina, the devastatingly handsome Alain Delon found his vocation in cinema. It was Rene Clement who saw the cold calculation behind Delon's angelic looks, and the role of Tom Ripley in Plein Soleil, the first adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 'The Talented Mr Ripley' made him a star ('a hommage to Alain Delon's crotch,' as one critic put it). Delon went on to make key films with Antonioni, Visconti and Jean Pierre Melville.
6. Yves Montand
For a good many years it seemed like every French film to get a UK release starred Monsieur Depardieu. Hardly your typical leading man, Depardieu is a great big slab of a man, who looks more like a stevedore than a movie stare. A delinquent who left school at 13, he found that his great appetite for life translated well to acting – and he's well on the way to his 200th film. If it’s fair to say he’s been coasting these last few years, he can still turn it on when he wants to, as in his cameo in the first part of Mesrine.
Montand was actually born in Italy (in 1921), though he grew up in France and quickly established himself as the natural successor to Aznavour and Boyer... He was a tall, slender, handsome man who could equally well play working class heroes or conflicted businessmen. (Montand himself was well known for his socialist views.) He was married to another French heartthrob, Simone Signoret, for 30 years – they were the first couple of French cinema, though he dallied with Marilyn on her last film, Let’s Make Love. Before his marriage, he’s also dated Edith Piaf, and he was a successful singer in his own right too.
The 25-year-old cinema student rose to fame in France through a smattering of TV movies that screened in the country in the late 90s. Since then he's moved into movies starring alongside Amelie star Audrey Tatou in A Long Engagement and recent Cannes competition entry The Princes of Montpensier. He is also the face of fashion brand Longchamp alongside Kate Moss. While Hannibal Rising failed to kick start his US career, he still has plenty of time to develop.
Canet originally had equestrian ambitions, till a bad fall stopped him from following a career as a show jumper. No bad thing, as he's become one of France's brightest stars. He stared in 2003 sleeper hit Love me if you Dare alongside his now girlfriend Marion Coutilard, while his work with ex-wife Diana Kruger on 2005 Joyeux NoŽl earned an Oscar-nomination for Best Foreign Film. Not only that, by Canet has breached out into direction with the superb Tell No One, in which he also starred. Little White Lies, his next directorial outing, is a taut drama that debuts in France later this year.