Going to see Le Bal des Actrices on the same night as the orgy of self-congratulation that is the Oscars, I must admit to having felt some apprehension. A film about an actress/director making a documentary about other actresses portended self-indulgence on the grandest scale, especially as nobody does self-indulgence in the cinema quite like the French.
I need not have worried, however, because overall Le Bal des Actrices is amusing, moving, quirky and, most important of all, able to poke fun at itself. Apparently Isabelle Adjani turned down a part in the film, prompting the director, Maïwenn, to remark that Adjani rejected the role because she was unable to laugh at herself.
Those actresses who were able to take the joke and who play versions of themselves include Charlotte Rampling (who seems much more natural here than in so many of her other roles), Karin Viard, Jeanne Balibar, Muriel Robin, Julie Depardieu, Romane Bohringer and Maïwenn herself. The singer Joey Starr (currently serving three months in jail for assaulting his former partner) plays what he is in real life, Maïwenn’s partner.
As spectators, we sometimes witness the documentary as filmed by Maïwenn and sometimes a film of the documentary (as it happens, also directed by Maïwenn!). These clips run alongside little musical numbers in which the various actresses perform and dance, as in director François Ozon’s 8 Femmes.
Although none of these different genres is startlingly original, at its best Le Bal des Actrices is sublimely funny, camp and at times affecting. Two of the highlights for me were Viard, in sumptuous form as a prima donna-ish actress attempting to make it to Hollywood but failing dismally in her English-language audition, and Robin, whose battles with the director Jacques Weber during play rehearsals are frighteningly real.
Nor is the 32 year old Maïwenn afraid to tell some unpalatable truths about the egos of almost all actresses and the declining number of roles for many as they get older, perhaps most touchingly shown in the case of Romane Bohringer.
The first half of the film goes at a cracking pace, but thereafter it becomes somewhat pedestrian. The insertion of a lesbian kiss and naked cavorting between Maïwenn and Estelle Lefebure do not ring true, and the reconciliation between the director and her partner feel like unnecessary add-ons.
For the joy of seeing so many excellent actresses at the top of their game, however, and for the director’s wit and energy, this film is a must-see.