The thick trademark eyeliner is still in place, but these days, François Truffaut's Dark Lady is a little more auburn than she used to be. Indeed, long time admirers of Fanny Ardant should take note: in her latest film, a clever, sunny May-to-December rom-com called Bright Days Ahead, she's a dazzling blonde.
“I thought it would make more of a difference than it did,” she tells me. “It was interesting to see my reflection in the mirror suddenly. But it was more like seeing myself in a costume.”
Darkness suits Fanny Ardant. She prefers the orient to the occident, she says: “My soul belongs to the East. During the Cold War, the Americans did not like to hear that.”
It’s not that she isn’t capable of levity: she has, in fact, a most musical laugh and a playful way with words. But there is something mysterious about this grandest of dames: she’s known to keep to herself on set, she has never married and she describes herself as a loner.
"I have no friends in film," she says. "I love working with people like Gérard Depardieu and Jeremy Irons. But when the filming is done, it is done. I am happy to talk to people when I meet them. But I have been like this since I was very young. My generation was very politicised. But I never belonged to any political or student group. There is a danger in groups, of losing yourself."
Truffaut, who cast her in iconic The Woman Next Door (1981) and who lived with her for the last three years of his life, used to say of Ardant: "She comes from a country that doesn't exist". Sure enough, her origins can be traced to an old extinct class of bourgeoisie. Her father was a cavalry officer in the French army. She mostly grew up in Monaco, where he was part of Prince Rainier's personal guard.
“I grew up around a lot of stupid rich people,” laughs Ardant. “It was a good education for me. Because I had to be my own character. I read a lot. I was not looking around to see what others were doing. Outwardly, my father was upper-class. But inside he was cultured. He was a dreamer. Anyone can be a dreamer. Even a policeman can be open-minded. My father loved the idea of being free. It is something I love too.”
Mademoiselle Ardant – and it is, most definitely, mademoiselle – talks repeatedly of freedom. It’s a notion that has guided her career since she first took a bow on a Parisian stage in 1974.
“You must follow your instincts, your pleasures, your love. And you will be a winner. I never had a strategy. If you try to control everything, if you try to plan, it can only interfere with your imagination.”
Ardant’s ability to speak many languages and her interest in the stage, and later film, was inspired by her parents’ love of music and theatre: “I remember my parents used to bring me to opera. Italian, Russian, French. All kinds of opera. And I remember thinking about the other side of the curtain. I knew in my deep soul I would be on the other side of that curtain one day. Why? I don’t know.”
She’s passionate about acting and movies: “It’s like living in a house where you haven’t searched in every room,” she says. “So you open doors and find something you didn’t know were there. It is a joy.”
And yet, following her passion, hasn’t always been easy. She was 30 before a French miniseries set during the first World War made her a household name in France and inspired Truffaut to give her a call: it was a partnership that would change her life, both professionally and personally.
“He loved cinema. He loved being a director,” she recalls. “He welcomed everyone on set. Everybody was important to him. Every day was a privilege.”
She went on to work with European cinema's heavyweight auteurs: Antonioni, Zeffirelli, Resnais. More recently, she has inspired a younger generation of directors: Paolo Sorrentino cast her in Il Divo and The Great Beauty, and she took her place among France's most recognisable screen sirens in François Ozon's 8 Women.
Ardant has a reputation for being a muse, the kind of fabulous, mysterious beauty who pops up in Mika videos or, as herself, in The Great Beauty. And yet she insists that there are no differences between male and female directors. She ought to know: she has directed two features, Cadences obstinées and Ashes & Blood. And she has lately starred in Anne Fontaine's Nathalie and Marion Vernoux's incoming Bright Days Ahead.
"Can you tell that a Kathryn Bigelow film is made by a woman?" she asks. "I make French films and Italian films. I make films with men and women. Cinema is made by human beings. And human beings are more than one thing. Gérard Depardieu has a very feminine side. Many women have masculine sides."
In this spirit, Ardant loved Caroline, her character in Bright Days Ahead, precisely because she is a contradictory soul: a smart women who is capable of behaving like a flibbertigibbet; a married, retired dentist who is recklessly running around with a thirtysomething computer teacher.
“A contradictory character is one that is alive,” she cries. “Life is contradictory. If you are not contradictory it means you are sticking to one line or one ideology. If you love life, you love contradictions.”