Beart laid bare

Having made her name as a sex symbol in the 1990s, French actress Emmanuelle B�art is choosing challenging roles in both her professional and personal life, as she explains to Pierre de Villiers

Sitting in the garden of her home on the outskirts of Paris, Emmanuelle B�art is almost unrecognisable from the voluptuous sexbomb that has graced the big screen and magazine covers over the last 20 years or so. For her next role as a cancer patient, the actress has cut her hair short, while a punishing diet over the last few weeks means she now tips the scales at just 46 kilograms.“I’m not allowed to have my curves at the moment,” B�art explains. “But I’m used to changing the way I look and using my body as an instrument. When I take on a role I go all out. I don’t believe in half measures.”

Sexual imageB�art’s latest transformation is part of a career-long battle she has waged to get people to see a serious actress beneath a particularly beautiful exterior. Despite being blessed with the sort of figure and face that could launch a thousand projects in Hollywood, the star has sought out complex, often controversial, roles in her homeland that demand more of her than to pout and look pretty. However, the fact that B�art often takes her clothes off on screen means she still has a very sexual image – something that frustrates the 46-year-old no end.“I can’t stand when people say: she’s like this or she’s like that because I think I can be anybody,” she says. “Every time someone tries to put me in a cage I do my best to fly away. I feel like, as an actress, I have nothing to lose anymore. The only reason I’m staying in this profession is not because I need money but because I enjoy the work. I love travelling around the world and doing films that are challenging and provocative.”Movies don’t come much more challenging or provocative than her latest offering, Vinyan. B�art and British actor Rufus Sewell play married couple Jeanne and Paul Belhmer who, while living in Thailand, lose their child in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Believing their son was actually kidnapped, the couple head for the mysterious jungles of Burma, where Jeanne slowly descends into madness. Signing up to Fabrice du Welz’s controversial film – which has been criticised for using the tsunami as a backdrop – pushed B�art to her physical limit.

Lucky break“It was such a tough shoot in the jungle in Thailand that it was a case of just trying your best to get through it,” she explains. “We were working in hailstorms, in thick smoke, covered in mud in the middle of the night. I got such a bad ear infection, I couldn’t hear anything. But it was important for me not to let the rest of the cast and the director down so I used everything that was happening to improve my performance.”B�art’s work ethic is all the more extraordinary given the fact that she became an actress by chance. Her parents – former model Genevi�ve Gal�a and singer Guy B�art – split when she was nine months old, and B�art and her four siblings were raised by her mother on a farm in the Proven�al village of Gassin.  “I grew up without movies or television so I had no desire to be an actress,” B�art explains. “I remember running around barefoot and really enjoying the sea and the nature that surrounded me. Exactly how I went from that to being an actress, I’m not really sure. I fell into acting by chance and continued because of love. I didn’t realise that it would be a love story.”Before B�art fell into acting she fell out with many of her teachers and got expelled from five schools.“I guess you can say I was a rebel,” she says. “My dream at that time was just to be free and independent.”Unsure of what she wanted to do in life, B�art headed for Montreal at the age of 15 to work as an au pair and learn English. There she was spotted and cast by director Robert Altman in a project that never got off the ground and soon afterwards she returned to Paris and enrolled in drama school. Her big break came when, in 1986 at the age of 23, she landed the role of mountain girl Manon in Claude Berri’s popular Manon des Sources. After more than two decades in the film industry, B�art, who married actor Michael Cohen last year, feels she has now struck the right balance between her personal and professional life. As a mother of two teenagers (daughter Nelly, 17, comes from her marriage to actor Daniel Auteuil and son Johan, 13, followed after a relationship with composer David Moreau) she admits it has been tough in the past to juggle parenthood and her career.

On motherhood“I love being a mother, it’s probably what I’ve done the best,” says B�art. “But it’s hard because sometimes you work many, many hours. As much as I can, I have no nannies to take care of my children, unless I go away, which happens. I’m trying to do my best with them. But isn’t it just the life of most women today?  They have their house, their profession, their children, their husbands. We have to be so many different women.”To get away from the stresses of life, B�art spends time by herself at her home in the 5th arrondissement. “I’m not a very social person and the older I get the worse it is,” she says. “I need solitude. I never get bored when I’m by myself. I need to read. I need to do nothing and my garden is ideal for that. It’s so quiet here that you hardly hear any noise. It’s how I protect myself and how I relax.”With a full diary B�art will find it difficult to relax over the next few months. In addition to her film work she is an extremely effective Unicef ambassador as well as a campaigner for the rights of illegal immigrants in France. B�art has also joined the size-zero debate with relish, famously posing in all her curvaceous glory on the cover of French Elle in 2003 in what she says was a protest against the use of super-skinny models in magazines.

Changing image“Being nude on the cover of Elle was a way of saying, Stop that’,” she explains. “Yes, we can be 40 years old and we can have curves and still be a woman. I’m truly afraid of all those young women who want to be so thin. I think each one of us knows their weight. I believe that you are what you eat.”While the French public gave their support to B�art by buying the magazine by the truckload (the entire 550,000 print run sold out in just three days), it only perpetuated the sexual image she is trying to shake. While the actress realises she faces an uphill battle to change some people’s narrow view of her, B�art vows to keep tackling challenging roles, like a woman dying of breast cancer in the upcoming Ma Compagne De Nuit.“I play someone who knows, because they are telling her, that nothing works anymore and she knows she is going to die,” B�art explains. “She doesn’t want to be helped but has a 16-year-old daughter that doesn’t want to see her die. It’s an emotionally draining part but, as always, I’m ready to give everything. I am a person who takes responsibility for every role and works like crazy. Hopefully that is the image people have of me.”

FilmographyManon des Sources (1986)B�art’s break-out performance sees her playing a captivating goatherd with a penchant for skinny dipping in Claude Berri’s hugely popular sequel to Jean de Florette.

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La Belle Noiseuse (1991)B�art bared her soul, along with everything else, as Marianne, the model who inspires former famous French painter Frenhofer, in Jacques Rivette’s poignant drama. She was rewarded with a C�sar nomination.

Un Coeur en Hiver (1992)To prepare for her role as musician Camille in Claude Sautet’s romantic drama, B�art spent 18 months mastering the violin, living up to her reputation as perfectionist.

Mission Impossible (1996)This Tom Cruise juggernaut marks one of the few times B�art flirted with Hollywood and the results are patchy at best. While the film was a smash hit, B�art’s duplicitous spy left many critics cold.

Nathalie (2003)B�art raised a few eyebrows when she prowled bars in Paris for prostitutes on which to base her character in Anne Fontaine’s drama. The actress excels as the sex worker who is hired by a woman to see if her husband is being unfaithful.