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Jodie Foster: An American In Paris

In Paris to film Roman Polanski’s latest movie, the legendary Hollywood star reflects on her career, and lifelong love affair with France.

Jodie Foster: An American In Paris
Jodie Foster (Franz Richter)
Marie-Noëlle Tranchant

PARIS - Francophile film star Jodie Foster is due to preside over the Césars award ceremony in Paris this Friday, the French equivalent of the Oscars. But the American actress doesn't need to fly in for the appearance: she's already in the French capital for the shoot of Roman Polanski's next film, an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's play The God of Carnage.

Is the film in French? "No," she explains. "The story has been transposed to New York, which works really well because it deals with universal themes." Polanski cannot return to the United States, where he faces charges of sexual assault against a minor, so an American backdrop has been recreated in a studio in Bry-sur-Marne on the eastern outskirts of Paris.

The story revolves around two couples who meet-up to shed light on a playground fight between their respective sons. Foster stars alongside Cristoph Waltz as one couple, opposite Kate Winslet and John C. Reilly as the other parents.

The meeting, which starts off as a civilized discussion winds up in a full-scale verbal brawl. "These are sophisticated, well-off people, who had children late in life. They live through their children," Foster explains. "They don't throw punches, but instead use words, which are no less destructive."

A lifetime's work

After roles in a number of children's series and films, Foster left the bosom of the Disney family at the tender age of 12 to study her craft with very grown-up directors like Martin Scorsese and Alan Parker. Scorsese, fascinated by this little, blond girl with "the voice of Lauran Bacall," cast Foster in the role of the tough-talking Audrey in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. He then offered her the even harsher character of Iris, the child prostitute and drug addict in Taxi Driver opposite Robert De Niro.

"I thought to myself that this was a great role for a 21-year-old, but was risky for a child," she confides. Foster jumped at the opportunity with that knack she had throughout her youth of mixing ages: at once a child with wisdom beyond her years and a razor-sharp mind, and immature adult who refuses to dress sexily or pose nude. "I'm not developed enough," she explained at the age of 15.

In 1976, Jodie Foster was the youngest star at the Cannes Film Festival, where she presented not one, but two films. Scorsese's Taxi Driver, which picked up the Golden Palm and Bugsy Malone, Parker's gangster movie parody starring child actors, in which she played the sassy vamp Tallulah. That same year, the actress also played a young murderer in The Little Girl Who Lives down the Lane.

Foster is something of phenomenon with her own set of world records. She has one of the longest Hollywood acting careers relative to her age. Having started out in advertising at the tender age of three, she has spent 45 of her 48 years working as an actress. "In America, lots of actors start out young," she says with characteristic modesty. Yes, but not all of them also come out top of the class at the Lycée Français in Los Angeles before picking up a literature degree at Yale University.

Violence, as fiction and reality

She says she prefers tragedy to comedy. These descents into murky and violent universes don't appear to unsettle her. "For sure," she confides. "Having outside intellectual pursuits has helped to keep a distance between me and this profession, which in turn has enabled me to follow my instincts."

Not everyone is so lucid. In 1981, when Foster was just 19, John Hinkley shot U.S. President Ronald Reagan as a way to get the actress to notice him. This traumatic episode came back to haunt her. She wrote about it with a startling terseness. "A stranger approached me in the street and said, "You're not the girl who shot the president are you?"

How does Foster deal with her own anger and fears. Perhaps she exorcizes them through the thrillers she loves so much. The actress swears she prefers tragedies and is not scared of violence. She has proved this again and again – from her first Oscar-winning her role as a rape victim who fights her aggressors in Jonathan Kaplan's The Accused, to her performance as a young FBI agent opposite Anthony Hopkins in the guise of a serial killer in Silence of the Lambs, to the character of a woman seeking revenge for a brutal attack in Neil Jordan's The Brave One.

In each case, her characters have an unusual relationship with men, based more on power-play than seduction – although she has played more traditional roles opposite Richard Gere in Sommersby and Mel Gibson in Maverick.

Foster only recently spoke publicly about her homosexuality. Throughout her life, she has been surrounded more by women than men: the father figure, whether her own or that of her children, has always been absent. Foster's mother, instead, raised her with a distinct love of the French language and culture.

"She dreamed about Europe and France, drove a Peugeot and took me to see French films which imbued me with a sense of this country." Since then, Foster has always kept one foot on this side of the Atlantic. "It's crazy how much a language can convey," she says. "When I speak French, I'm a different person, with a sense of humor and sensitivities that are subtly different."

That said, Foster remains very American. She is preparing to direct a new film, Castor, with old friend Mel Gibson. "It's about a depressed and suicidal man who rediscovers life through a puppet. It's a fairytale, but psychologically realistic."

Read the original article in French

Photo credit - (Franz Richter)

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Ideas

Calmez-Vous, Americans: It's Quite OK To Call Us "The French"

A widely mocked tweet by the Associated Press tells its reporters to avoid dehumanizing labels such as "the poor" or "the French". But one French writer replies that the real dehumanizing threat is when open conversation becomes impossible.

Parisians sitting on a café terrasse.

Parisians sitting on a café terrasse.

Dirk Broddin on Flickr
Gaspard Koenig

-Essay-

PARIS — The largest U.S. news agency, the Associated Press (AP) tweeted a series of recommendations aimed at journalists: “We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing 'the' labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college-educated. Instead use, wording such as people with mental illnesses.”

The inclusion of “The French” in this list of groups likely to be offended has evoked well-deserved sarcasm. It finally gives me the opportunity to be part of a minority and to confirm at my own expense, while staying true to John Stuart Mill's conception of free speech: that offense is not a crime.

Offense should prompt quips, denial, mockery, and sometimes indifference. It engages conflict in the place where a civilized society accepts and cultivates it: in language.

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