Legendary French film actress Bernadette Lafont tells Tom Dawson how great it is to still be making movies
The veteran French actress Bernadette Lafont is casting her mind back 50 years and recalling her first ever film role. It was in a short called Les Mistons (The Brats), made by a tyro filmmaker called François Truffaut. Shot in her hometown of Nimes, the story was about a beautiful young woman (Lafont) being pestered by a group of adolescent boys. A year later Lafont starred in Claude Chabrol’s bleak vision of provincial life Le Beau Serge, and the Nouvelle Vague was launched.
‘We had no idea we were making history,’ explains the robust 69-year-old Lafont, on a recent trip to London’s Institut Français. ‘We were a handful of people between the ages of 18 and 25, who wanted to make films. We were lucky because we coincided with technological advances: the new faster film stock and lighter cameras meant you could shoot outside. Suddenly we had the freedom to do all this stuff we hadn’t been able to do before.’
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Lafont continued to work with auteurs such as Rivette, Malle and Jean Eustache in the epic relationship drama La Maman et la Putain, the film that brought down the curtain on the New Wave movement. Was Lafont aware of how groundbreaking these films were?
‘Not at the time,’ she smiles. ‘It was thanks to critics, journalists and festivals, and above all the public. People would tell you that your films had transformed their lives. You learn that once you’ve finished a film, it no longer belongs to you.’
Lafont delivers a superb performance in an absorbing new road movie Les Petites Vacances from writer-director Olivier Peyon. Playing an ex-teacher, Danielle, taking her two grandchildren on an impromptu summer holiday, the actress shows how, beneath her character’s practical-minded façade, there lies an emotionally fragile woman, scared she no longer has a purpose in life.
‘To me the part represented a challenge,’ explains Lafont. ‘I feel strong and healthy and Danielle is quite feeble – she has these fainting spells. I decided to play her naturally, so one of the first things I stopped doing was dyeing my hair, and allowing the white to come through.’
‘There is something of a taboo in the cinema of showing women of a certain age,’ she continues. ‘What I found interesting about Les Petites Vacances is it showed somebody, who fears she is about to be pensioned off. It’s the last trip she’s going to make with the kids, because by next year they’ll be going on the train themselves. That’s what tips her over; you’re not sure what she’s going to do. When she attacks the ferret with a broom, you’re worried that she might turn on the kids.’
Since shooting Les Petites Vacances, Lafont has completed Zoe Cassavetes’ debut feature Broken English and a marital comedy with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Prete-moi ta main. And she’s delighted that directors such as Peyon have been inspired to make films because of the trail blazed by the New Wave pioneers. ‘It’s great to feel that continuity through time, and that people are still interested in things you did at the beginning of your career.’
Les Petites Vacances, GFT, Glasgow, Fri 10–Mon 13 Aug.