Taking a turn behind the lens

What many Gallic actors really want to do is direct

What do "Days of Glory" star Roschdy Zem, the hapless victim Maiwenn Le Besco in French-made slasher movie "High Tension" and seasoned character actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin have in common? They are all part of the growing band of Gallic actors who recently made the switch to behind the camera.

Actors turning director is about as old as cinema itself, but in France it's getting hard these days to find an actor who hasn't made the move. The most recent release in this area is the well-received "Ne le dis a personne" (Tell No One), adapted from a Harlan Coben novel and the second directorial effort by Guillaume Canet. Released by Europa Corp., the film this month netted an impressive 1.5 million admissions in its first two weeks in France.

Nearly every month seems to bring the announcement of a new project. The latest is from comic Jean-Paul Rouve, star of a string of recent hit comedies in France, who starts shooting his first picture, "Numero 1," next year with producer Elia Films.

"There are so many bankable stars now in the midst of personal film projects that it's hard to find actors to star in films," quips producer Frederic Niedermayer, who has directed a number of films by actor-director Emmanuel Mouret. "There is a definite trend of more actors taking up directing," echoes Jean-Michel Frodon, film critic for newspaper Le Monde.

Recent converts include Eric Caravaca, whose first film, "The Passenger," screened in Critics' Week at the Venice International Film Festival last year. Nils Tavernier (son of Bertrand) made his first venture into fiction features after several documentaries with the fairy-tale dance film "Aurore," released in March. Melvil Poupaud made his debut with "Melvil," which screened in the Director's Fortnight sidebar in Cannes.

Some of these first-time directors are starting to win commercial success as well as critical acclaim. Television actress and writer Isabelle Mergault hit the jackpot with her debut feature, romantic comedy "You Are So Beautiful," which racked up a stunning 3.5 million admissions for Gaumont this year. And Canet's first film, "My Idol," won a Cesar for best first fiction work and sold a half-million tickets — a respectable showing.

Several Gallic actors are in postproduction on their second features, some despite the poor showing of their first. One-time teen heartthrob and Bond girl Sophie Marceau is finishing her second movie, "Trivial." Her first film, "Speak to Me of Love," failed to make much of an impression, and the actress is understood to have struggled to put together the $5 million for her second picture. Despite poor boxoffice on his first feature, Vincent Perez is finishing follow-up thriller "The Secret," starring David Duchovny. And Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi ("5x2") is completing her second feature, aptly titled "Actress."

Reasons for this rise include the dominant role television now plays in financing to how directors are trained.

Le Monde's Frodon thinks the trend is being driven by the heft of television in film financing. French television channels, especially pay channel Canal Plus, have been the principal source of funding for French cinema for many years through their legal obligations to invest in movies. While channels are not allowed by French law to serve as executive producers, their relative weight as the largest source of financing holds much sway, Frodon says. And channels like to tap famous actors to use in their publicity to court subscribers and viewers.

The actor-director phenomenon gets mixed reviews from critics and industry insiders. "A lot of cinema is being done right now by people who know each other," says Frodon, who is also a critic for film review Cahiers du Cinema. "Nepotism is trendy," echoes Emilie Georges, producer for Tavernier's "Aurore" through her Cinefacture banner.

Yet another reason for more actors turning to directing is a mentoring system starting to take hold in France, Georges says. "More and more directors are taking young actors under their wing," she says, citing Isild Le Besco, sister of Maiwenn, who worked for years under the instruction of director Benoit Jacquot. "Sponsoring is really taking hold," Georges adds.

Isild Le Besco won an award for a first screenplay at the Paris Film Festival 2000 for her debut, "Demi-tarif." She is in postproduction on her second effort as writer-director, "Charlie," which she also produced. "I always wanted to direct. I didn't go to film school. It just seemed natural to me to be a director," Le Besco says. "With the new digital cameras, directing is accessible to everybody. You no longer have to get your project approved by a film commission, where a highly singular vision for a film has a hard time getting the backing from everyone on the committee."