Follow the lead: SFIFF opening night film Micmacs actor André Dussollier is the focus of another film in the Festival, Alain Resnais' Wild Grass, above.

SFIFF53: Deft Dussollier In 'Micmacs,' 'Wild Grass'

Dennis Harvey April 21, 2010

Given Hollywood’s global reach, major American stars tend to be fairly well known abroad. But how many foreign-language stars do American moviegoers know? Not many, apart from those few who regularly dominate exported films or go “international” in English-dialogue features. My favorite living French actor, André Dussollier, appears prominently in two high-profile films at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. While Dussollier is, I imagine, instantly recognizable to just about any Gallic film patron, regular festival and arthouse attendees here may only identify him as a vaguely familiar face.

Well, better late the never, as far as making Dussollier’s acquaintance goes: One can begin right now, with the 53rd SFIFF’s opening night film, Micmacs, and continue later in the Festival, which runs April 22 May 6, via Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass.

Micmacs is Dussollier’s third film with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet; he played a role in A Very Long Engagement and was the narrator of Amelie. A deft, experienced farceur, Dussollier is one of two villains (the other being Nicolas Marie) who are wealthy, rivaling, duplicitous arms manufacturers destined for comeuppance by the film’s scavenging heroes.

In Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass (which, like Micmacs, Sony Classics will release to U.S. theaters later this year), he is, for a change, the narrative’s main focus, despite the presence of several popular younger actors. Dussollier and flame-haired Sabine Azema–both Resnais veterans since 1983’s Life Is a Bed of Roses –play strangers thrown together by the theft of her purse, which he recovers. That’s just the beginning of a very rocky relationship in which both characters reveal a lot of unexpected sides.

That directors of Resnais and Jeunet’s stature have drafted this actor over and over again surely speaks to his talent (and, one guesses, how easy he is to work with). He’s also made films for Truffaut, Lelouch, Chabrol, Rohmer, Duras, Rivette, Blier, Costa-Gavras and the Taviani brothers. He’s won three Cesar awards (and been nominated five times more). Some recent arthouse hits in which you might have seen him include Resnais’ Private Fears in Public Places, as the real-estate agent who suspects his born-again secretary of being an exotic dancer; missing-person thriller Tell No One; and Dominik Boll’s Lemming, as the Machiavellian boss.

Like many top French actors, he’s done the occasional prestige TV project throughout his career, as well as theater work. (Weirdly, his only foray into English-language cinema was also La Cage aux Folles director Edouard Molinaro’s sole English-language film: The 1984 romantic comedy Just the Way You Are, starring equally forgotten leads Kristy McNichol and Michael Ontkean.)

At 64 he’s no longer the male ingenue of his early career, which began in earnest when he was cast as the sociologist interviewing jailbird Bernadette Lafont (and becoming her latest conquest) in Truffaut’s 1972 “Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me.” That role set a certain mold: Since conveying empathetic intelligence came easily to him, he was often positioned as the observer of or more stable contrast to more turbulent figures (like G‚rard Depardieu in several films).

He could be dashing, for instance as the male romantic lead in Lelouch’s 1974 And Now My Love. That movie’s made-for-each-other protagonists don’t actually meet until the very last shot–after we’ve seen the lives of his thief, Marthe Keller’s spoiled heiress, and even their ancestors leading up to that “historic” moment.

But more typically he is the still center around which others flutter erratically. Claude Sautet’s classic 1992 A Heart in Winter finds him patiently waiting for the inevitable moment when ex-lover Emmanuelle Beart will get her heart broken by his own business partner Daniel Auteil and come running back to him.

Similarly, in Jacques Bral’s 1980 Exterieur, Nuit (a neglected drama that never won U.S. distribution but will become more readily available this year), he’s again the least volatile side of a triangle–the one we identify with, as well as our narrator. He’s got the apartment tattooed freeloader Gerard Lanvin deigns to crash in–and even gives up his bed when this friend (they met behind the radical-politic barricades of May ’68) wants to shag Christine Boisson as the take-no-prisoners female cabbie they’ve both fallen for.

We’ll likely see more of André Dussollier soon: He’s in the next film by André Téchiné‚ (Wild Reeds, The Witnesses), another by Yasmina Reza (writer of the widely successful play Art), and has already won raves for a most unlikely role in An Ordinary Execution. The latter has him as Joseph Stalin on his deathbed, weakened yet still monstrous–an odd casting, perhaps, for an actor typically wry, low-key and appealing. But think of Bruno Ganz as Hitler in Downfall, another normally gentle screen presence electrified by the chance to embody lunatic evil.