Nathalie Baye, one of France's finest actresses, has a roster of outstanding pictures to her credit, but her latest, Nicole Garcia's "Every Other Weekend" (opening Wednesday at the Fine Arts), affords her a striking departure from the usually self-controlled, even passive women she plays with such expert understatement.
In her best-known film, "The Return of Martin Guerre," she is an enigma, keeping us guessing as to whether she realizes the husband, played by Gerard Depardieu, who has returned after years of absence is an imposter. Baye, 42, is marvelous at suggesting the inner life of her women with a minimum of fuss or dialogue, but "Every Other Weekend" demands fireworks, and it's a pleasure to watch her let loose as a mother desperate to win the love of her young children, whom she has neglected.
"For me, it is a very important film," Baye said during a recent trip to Los Angeles. "You have an image that sometimes protects you. Even if you're trying to do something different, your image may be stronger. But now people can imagine me in different kinds of roles." On screen Baye, who speaks English with only an occasional hesitancy, has a beauty that is usually subdued but in life is radiant. Chatting in her West Los Angeles hotel, she reveals a sparkle that makes you yearn to see her in a comedy.
Baye and Garcia, a fine actress in her own right who is making her feature directorial debut with "Every Other Weekend," have long been friends and have even acted in the same film, Bertrand Blier's suspenseful, pitch-black 1981 "Beau Pere," although they had no scenes together. "Nicole said to me, 'I wrote this script, sometimes thinking of you, sometimes not thinking of you,' and she gave it to me. I like to read a script alone, then discuss it later. I don't like it explained to me in advance, but as Nicole is an actress, I let her tell me about it first.
"Then I read the script and said, 'Nicole, I want to do it. I'll be completely open to you.' I don't like to try to prove something for myself in a role. I put myself at her disposal. She believed we could work together very well, and we did."
Baye said, however, that "Every Other Weekend" was "not very comfortable to make." Essentially, it's a road movie, in which she plays a divorcee, a failing actress, who takes her children with her during a dreary promotional appearance in Vichy and winds up unexpectedly on the run. This meant a nine-week shoot to accommodate the film's many locales and the amount of time the two child actors, Joachim Serreau and Felicie Pasotti, were allowed to work.
"I was working with the children all the time, and children are tough to work with. Your concentration must be absolute, constantly. You're lost if you play 'natural' because, with kids, they're always more natural than you could ever be." (Baye has a 7-year-old daughter by singer-turned-actor Johnny Hallyday; she was with Baye on location part of the time during her school vacation.)
The actress Baye plays in the film has had a career that is the diametrical opposite of her own. She's been in a TV series, but it has not been renewed. She is lost and beginning to realize what it means to have given up custody of her children to her ex-husband. "As an actress, she may be good at doing one or two things, but doesn't know any other kind of work," said Baye. "She hasn't the courage to stop trying to be an actress. I have a friend that took 10 years to give up acting. It's really not important for the story that she is an actress--she could be something else--except that to be an actress is to be different!"
One suspects Baye has always felt different. She says that as a result of dyslexia she was "a terrible student" whose parents, both painters, let her leave school in favor of a ballet academy, which led her to New York at 17 for 1 1/2 years of further dance training (while working part time as a nanny to three children). Acting, however, was always her real goal, and she returned to France to study acting at the National Conservatory of Music and Art. Robert Wise gave her her first film role--one scene--in his 1973 "Two People," with Peter Fonda and Lindsay Wagner.
That year Francois Truffaut gave her the part of the script girl in "Day for Night," and she was on her way. She won best supporting actress Cesars for her roles in Godard's "Every Man for Himself" (1979) and Pierre Granier-Deferre's "A Strange Affair" (1981), and a best actress Cesar as a smart, tough, self-respecting prostitute in Bob Swaim's "La Balance" (1982). Her performance as a provincial schoolteacher coping with a breakdown in Bertrand Tavernier's superb "A Week's Vacation" (1980) established her as a serious actress as well as a major star.
"You cannot always make incredibly good films all the time, but if you have three to five behind you that you are proud of they sustain you," said Baye, who completed another film, "The Voice," with Granier-Deferre last October. This fall she starts another picture, with first-time director Francois Margolin, playing a woman who comes to realize her husband is bisexual--"We're still looking for someone to play the husband."
She has no particular desire to work in Hollywood but said that if she did, "I'd prefer to do a very small part in a very good film, a real American film, not one of those international things that never work."
What Baye really wants to do most is to return to the stage after a four-year absence. "I want to do something classic, perhaps Racine. I want to have a beautiful text --it feeds you!"