It all began more than a century ago and since then, it often proved to be a successful formula: a wonderful professional collaboration resulting into great movies that stood and stand the test of time when film directors worked time and again with their preferred leading ladies.
American film pioneer and director D.W. Griffith was the trendsetter when Lillian Gish made her screen debut in several of his shorts in 1912, until they made their first feature together, “Judith of Bethulia” (1914), followed by screen classics such as “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), “Intolerance” (1916), “Hearts of the World” (1918), “Broken Blossoms” (1919), “Way Down East” (1920) and “Orphans of the Storm” (1921).
Also in the silent era, Charlie Chaplin directed and co-starred with actress Edna Purviance in over 60 shorts and features, beginning one hundred years ago in “A Night Out” (early 1915), with Miss Purviance in a small and uncredited role, but before the end of the year, she had become his leading lady and would hold that key position for his next 40 shorts and features, a collaboration which eventually ended with the drama “A Woman of Paris” (1923) which Chaplin wrote and directed, and in which he appeared in a small bit part.
Later on, other combinations that worked out very successfully, include the teaming of directors and actresses such as
- Clarence C. Badger and Gloria Swanson (1916-1917, 10 shorts)
- Cecil B. DeMille and Gloria Swanson (1919-1921, 6 films)
- Robert Z. Leonard and Norma Shearer (1920-1942 , 8 films)
- Clarence Brown and Greta Garbo (1926-1938, 7 films)
- Josef von Sternberg and Marlène Dietrich (1930-1935, 7 films)
- Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck (1930-1941, 5 films)
- William A. Wellman and Barbara Stanwyck (1931-1943, 5 films)
- Alfred E. Green and Bette Davis (1932-1937, 7 films)
- George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn (1932-1979, 10 films)
- Robert Z. Leonard and Jeanette MacDonald (1935-1940, 6 films)
- Michael Curtiz and Olivia de Havilland (1935-1958, 9 films)
- Henry Koster and Deanna Durbin (1936-1941, 6 films)
- Walter Lang and Betty Grable (1940-1948, 6 films)
- John Ford and Maureen O’Hara (1941-1957, 5 films)
- Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland (1944-1948, 4 films)
- Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman (1950-1954, 5 films)
- Ingmar Bergman and Bibi Anderson (1955-1973, 13 films)
- Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri (1957-1978, 9 films)
- Vittorio De Sica and Sophia Loren (1960-1974, 7 films)
- Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina (1961-1967, 8 films)
- John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands (1963-1984, 7 films)
- Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann (1966-2003, 8 films)
- Carlos Saura and Geraldine Chaplin (1967-1979, 9 films)
- Ken Russell and Glenda Jackson (1969-1989, 5 films)
- Robert Altman and Shelley Duvall (1970-1980, 7 films)
- Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews (1970-1986, 9 films)
- Woody Allen and Diane Keaton (1971-1993, 1 short and 7 films)
- Peter Bogdanovich and Cybill Shepherd (1971-2014, 5 films)
- Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia Coppola (1972-1990, 7 films)
- Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke (1976-1983, 4 films)
- Claude Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert (1978-2006, 5 films)
- Nicolas Roeg and Theresa Russell (1980-1995, 7 films)
- André Téchiné and Cathérine Deneuve (1981-2014, 7 films)
- Joel and Ethan Coen with Frances McDermond (1981-2016, 8 films)
- Woody Allen and Mia Farrow (1982-1992, 13 films)
- Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep (1983-2004, 3 films and 1 mini-series)
- Derek Jarman and Tilda Swinton (1986-1993, 7 films)
- Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (1989-1993, 4 films)
- Robert Rodriguez and Salma Hayek (1994-2003, 7 films)
- Pedro Almodovar and Penélope Cruz (1997-2013, 5 films)
A lot of the earlier teams were brought together as a result of studio contracts and the inevitable studio policy; there were also a few couples among them, but in a lot of cases the chemistry between the director and his actress simply defined the success of their collaboration. In recent decades, there’s also another component which determines the hows and the whys of a good and solid professional relationship. Take Uma Thurman for example, she sort of became the muse of Quentin Tarantino after appearing in his films. First there was “Pulp Fiction” (1994), and then after a break she took from filmmaking to concentrate on motherhood, he relaunched her career with “Kill Bill: Volume 1” (2003) and its sequel “Kill Bill: Volume 2” (2004). The magic they had brought on the screen in “Pulp Fiction” had never faded away. It was solid as a rock. You just felt it. Chemistry on the silver screen can’t be broken if you let the very best work it out together. Even with only three films to their credit, as a team, they are simply impeccable.
French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet and actress Audrey Tautou share that very same on-screen magic. When they first worked together, making “Le falubeux destin d’Amélie Poulain” (2001, US title “Amélie”), they probably would never have realized what the aftermath of this bright, original and fresh comedy would be like. A lighthearted, charming and most of all innovative fantasy about a young and shy waitress working in a corner bistro, she overcomes her sad childhood and grows up to bring cheer to the needful and joy to herself. The thought of it just makes you smile, and the inspiring story makes your day.
“Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain” became a wordwide blockbuster, and was nominated for five Academy Awards (including for Jeunet’s screenplay which he co-wrote with Guillaume Laurant). In France, “Amélie” was nominated for thirteen César Awards and won four, including for Best Picture and Best Director. The film grossed a staggering $ 33 million in the limited US theatrical release alone, making it the highest-grossing French-language film ever released in the US – and on the European continent, “Amélie” grossed almost € 16 million in Spain and Italy, while in its home country France, it was the second highest grossing film of the year with almost 9 million tickets sold, only surpassed by “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, the first film of the Harry Potter series. Consequently, actress Audrey Tautou rose to international stardom.
Then both Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Audrey Tautou split up – film wise – went their own way, got involved with various projects and made other films. Three years later though, their paths crossed again with another film that would make history. This time not a comedy, but a drama, set in the darkest days of World War I – during and right after the War – called “Un long dimanche de fiançailles” (2004, US title “A Very Long Engagement”). It turned out to be a most engaging, stylish and satisfying epic of love and war, along with hope and memory when Tautou’s fiancé, presumed to have died during the War in the trenches of the Somme, might still be alive. She begins to track down eyewitnesses and survivors, hoping to discover his fate and ultimately find her fiancé who, if still alive, will need her help.
With Jodie Foster and Marion Cotillard in impressive supporting roles – for Mademoiselle Cotillard, this was way before she became the Marion Cotillard – this enlightening film is a piece of rich and candid storytelling which indicates that a war can keep people apart, but it can also bring them together. Reviewer Philip French wrote in his film review for the British newspaper The Guardian that the film is ‘a remarkably rich movie, full of detail, and it grips and entertains like a detective story while never losing sight of the horrors of war.’ Very true indeed: although there are moments of charm and humor, the grip depiction of war is always present.
Again, Academy Award nominations (two, this time, for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction), five Césars out of twelve nominations (including a César for Marion Cotillard who gave a powerhouse performance as a woman in the French resistance); along with a US box-office gross of over $ 6 million and a worldwide gross of $ 70 million, both Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Audrey Tautou brought out the best in each other once again. Quite an amazing team. So if they wouldn’t work together anymore, why ruin a good thing?
In 2009, Audrey Tautou followed into Nicole Kidman’s footsteps and became the face of Chanel No. 5, resulting into a two-and-a-half-minute commercial which, by ad standards, does take a little too long, but with the direction of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it actually looks, feels, sounds and almost smells like a two-and-a-half minute feature film which almost makes you forget it’s an ad. Why don’t you judge yourself?
On the English-language version of his official website, where you can find all the background information, as well as lots of stills of Mr. Jeunet’s entire body of work, his detailed commentary about making the commercial, which you can read here, indicates his approach when making an ad on a high-scale professional level. There’s also a ‘behind the scenes’ video available which includes Mr. Jeunet’s own English-language commentary:
This was the third professional project Mr. Jeunet made with Miss Tautou. In between, they both have very successful careers. Mr. Jeunet directed a number of shorts before becoming a film director in 1991 with “Delicatessen” as his feature debut. So far, he made seven features, including in the US “Alien: Resurrection” (1997), the fourth installment in the “Alien” series, with Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder, which became a worldwide box-office hit. Other Jeunet films include “Micmacs à tire-larigot” (2009) with Dany Boon, and the highly acclaimed “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet” (2013) which he made in Canada with Kyle Catlett, Helena Bonham Carter and Judy Davis.
Miss Tautou became a fine and established international actress when she appeared opposite Tom Hanks in Ron Howard “The Da Vinci Code” (2006), but worked mostly in her native country as one of France’s most prominent leading ladies with films such as the romantic comedy “Hors de prix” (2006, US title “Priceless”), “Coco avant Chanel” (2009) and “La délicatesse” (2011, US title “Delicacy”).
So far, that makes three projects they have in common and which are out there for anyone to see. Audrey Tautou and Jean-Pierre Jeunet: they do make a difference, their projects are all very worthwhile and are wonderful pieces of filmmaking and storytelling. Film wise and creatively, Mr. Jeunet and Miss Tautou are both among the best of what their country has to offer to an (international) audience. So maybe the time is right now to continue their professional collaboration and start looking for a fourth film? We can only hope so: it would definitely be something to look forward to. A tremendous gift, mostly appreciated by numerous people, not only in the French-language territories, but by all means all around the globe as well.
© Leo Verswijver