Lynden Barber meets a leading light in French cinema - just don\'t ask about her sister.
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25 Feb 2009 - 10:06 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

One of the secrets of the continued health of the French film industry, which achieved a record number of global box office admissions last year, is the breadth of its acting talent and the deep roots of its star system. To take female performers alone, the obvious iconic figures such as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and (now arguably) Juliette Binoche join stars such as Emmanuelle Beart and Sophie Marceau in a huge pool of respected talent.

The rise to prominence this decade of a newer generation of bright French actresses including Emanuelle Devos, Cecile de France, Ludivine Sagnier, Virginie Ledoyen and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi will surprise few Australian fans of French cinema and certainly no-one who reads the credits for this year's Alliance Francaise French Film Festival. Devos appears in Arnaud Despleschin's family reunion story A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noel), de France and Sagnier star in the two parts of crime saga Public Enemy Number One, while the petite Ledoyen appears in no less than three comedies.

Bruni Tedeschi meanwhile not only appears in two titles, including murder mystery The Great Alibi (Le grand alibi), directed by Jacques Rivette's screenwriting partner Pascal Bonitzer, but co-wrote and directed one of them, Actresses (Actrices), thus making her one of a small coterie of French actresses to have turned to directing including Julie Delpy, Josiane Balasco and Agnès Jaoui.

Since being struck by her for the first time in Tickets, a 2005 tryptich set on a train directed by veterans Ermanno Olmi (Italy), Abbas Kiarostami (Iran) and Ken Loach (UK), I have found her to be a mesmerising screen presence. Witness 5x2, the first of two films she has made for Francois Ozon, which echoes Harold Pinter's Betrayal in depicting a failed marriage starting from divorce before working backwards.

While arguably not quite as classically beautiful as her very famous sister, ex-model, singer and France's first lady Carla Bruni (recently married of course to French president Nicolas Sarkozy), this French-based, Italian-born actress projects an earthy sensuality and coltish unpredictability that forms a bold contrast with her younger sibling's almost eerie coolness. The women's father, a wealthy Italian industrialist, and mother moved the family to the safer ground of France in the 1970s when Bruni Tedeschi was nine and the Red Brigades were targeting prominent businessmen, which makes the sisters' recent lobbying of Sarkozy to prevent a convicted Red Brigade terrorist from being extradited to Italy all the more strange.

Before interviewing her in Paris I am told Bruni Tedeschi clams up when asked about her sister (a query about her family is indeed politely batted away) but I immediately discover she can be alarmingly candid when talking about acting. No sooner do I mention Tickets than she tells me how “terrible” an experience it had been working for the revered Tree of Wooden Clogs director, “the only time in my life,” she says, “that I was completely disappointed – and by a BIG director.“ The veteran filmmaker had rung her to ask that she agree to another actress dubbing her voice. I said, 'you do what you want'. It was like 'ohhh!'” She shivers in mock horror, before pointing out that she has not had other any bad experiences making films. ”In theatre yes - you can see the story of Actresses!” she laughs.

The film, which she co-wrote, is her second as a director. To call it explosively autobiographical would be an understatement. In it she plays with startling conviction an emotionally fragile actress suffering an emotional breakdown. This happens while rehearsing for a production of Turgenev's A Month in the Country in Nanterre, and falling out with, and being raped by, the sadistic director (played by Bond villain Mathieu Amalric).

It is more than sheer coincidence, she spryly admits, that in real life she studied theatre and film acting at Nanterre (under well-known stage and film director Patrice Chereau, for whom she has made three features), made her first stage appearance at exactly the same theatre, and later had an ugly falling out with her director during a production of the same Turgenev play, leading to her being replaced by the director's personal assistant. The Turgenev experience was “very painful”, but she points out it was only the starting point for the film, and the stage director – whom she prefers not to name or to blame – did not rape her. But why recreate the painful of this time in her life? For her the most important way she can access her most authentic emotions is through a confessional process, she explains. “The confession is really the biggest reason why I do this work.”

The actress-director reports that she had to ”fight, fight, fight” for years to raise funding for her first movie, 2003's It's Easier for a Camel. “They didn't want to give me money because I was a 'fragile actress', “ she says. Having won the prestigious Grand Jury prize at Cannes with Actresses, she is getting the last laugh.