Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Above everything else, Sandrine Bonnaire’s performances are haunting. Surely, this quality is one of the most difficult to define or to describe, but yet it is one of Bonnaire’s gifts, and it is important to try to consider the nature of this mystery and its origin.
So, where does the haunting quality come from?
The solution here is to try to be specific. This indelible quality can best be seen in Queen To Play (“Joueuse”), The Light (“L'équipier”), and Intimate Strangers (“Confidences trop intimes.”)
Of all these films, The Light has a scene that perfectly reveals Sandrine Bonnaire at her best.
The Light is an account of a woman, Mabé Le Guen (played by Bonnaire), who is married to a light house keeper, Yvon Le Guen (played by Philippe Torreton). The drama begins when a new lighthouse keeper, Antoine Cassendi (played by Grégori Derangère) arrives. Antoine appears on the day of the funeral for Mabé’s father, who was also a lighthouse keeper. Now that he is dead, a new keeper is needed. Mabé and her husband live in a somewhat isolated farmhouse in Brittany, which has a view of the light house. And, when Antoine arrives, it is during dinner after the funeral for Mabé’s father. Ten or so local people are there, the priest, some men from town, a young woman whose father owns a hotel in the nearest town, and some family members. The haunting begins with Antoine sitting down at the table. It is instantly obvious that something is going on between the new light house keeper and Sandrine Bonnaire’s character. And how is this done? Or what qualities does Bonnaire bring to this, right from the beginning? She begins to work with a smile. In the beginning, in the first conversation, or when she hears her husband explaining the rules for the shift of the lighthouse, which are very complicated, Bonnaire produces a smile which is at once charming and yet suggests something else, a wisdom or sadness or awareness of something that can’t be summed up. It is a wink between the actress and the audience. The smile is at once subtle and electrifying. So, the smile is a combination, in the beginning, of vulnerability and something else, or a number of other things, charm, awareness, intelligence. Of course, the attraction between Mabé and Antoine increases, but this is done in a particular language, which is in Bonnaire’s glances, her smile with that vulnerability, and in Antoine’s realization of how powerful her presence is. The director, Philippe Lioret, lets this attraction, this recognition between the two of them smolder. The audience waits for the consummation.
This takes place with one of the most longing expressions of a woman in almost all of cinema. Antoine had been staying in the house of Mabé and her husband, but Antoine’s knowledge of just how powerful the attraction is makes him move into the one hotel in town. The daughter of the hotel owner is interested in him, but of course, he only wants a woman he can’t have. On Bastille Day the town celebrates with a variety of fair, where people play music, dance and drink. The daughter of the hotel owner, Brigitte is there and she is flirting with Antoine. Brigitte is played by Émilie Dequenne, who brings to this part an uncanny sense of late adolescence desire and sensuality. Her presence seems to say, “Just give me a chance…”
Mabé (Bonnaire) watches as Antoine and Brigitte dance. The young woman puts her arms around Antoine’s neck, leans against him, her hair against his face.
Here is the moment. Bonnaire is sitting at a table with friends and is watching this dance. We know, of course, that she is feeling the power of the attraction, too, and that she is distressed about a young woman making up to Antoine.
Bonnaire looks down, away from the dancers, then turns to one of her friends and half smiles, then looks down again, and when she looks up, the expression on her face is at once so powerful, so filled with longing that it pierces the scene, and utterly commands it. The power of Bonnaire’s performance is like an emotional wind, if you can say that, which leaves the viewer with a shock and the unforgettable realization that never has a performance suggested such longing. It is haunting.
But how does it work?
This expression is commanded by the eyes, and it is the change in Bonnaire’s eyes that is pure talent. In fact, like all real talent, it is hard to say how she does it, but it arrives with a lingering shock. It is as though the longing and the anger at not being able to relieve the longing is combined with a furious sense of isolation. Along with that she adds or suggests in that glance some deeper wisdom or a hint about being human and the complications of human desires. It is all encoded in this glance.
Of course, it is not long after this, after a sort of argument between Antoine and Mabé, that they have their first, real embrace. So, that’s the first part of Bonnaire’s haunting performances. She is able to bring an indescribable but still clear emotion to a particular moment, and this clarity still has an unsaid combination of anger, desire, regret, and an awareness of the keenly difficult aspects of being human. She gets this into one glance.
There is another aspect to this haunting quality, a little different but still powerful for all that. Bonnaire shows this other aspect in Queen to Play (“Joueuse”). Here, Bonnaire plays Hélène, a woman who works as a chamber made in a hotel on Corsica and also cleans the house of an American, Dr. Kroger, perfectly played by Kevin Kline.
Hélène is mysteriously drawn to chess, and she asks Dr. Kroger to teach her to play. She learns, becomes better and better, begins to beat Dr. Kroger once and then regularly, and he suggests that she enter a tournament, which she does.
This is the basic story, but how does Bonnaire bring a different variety of that haunting quality to this part?
First, she uses that smile, at once cheerful and suggesting more complicated feelings. Still, there is something new in this performance.
When Hélène wants to enter a tournament, she asks Dr. Kroger for a letter of introduction to the president of chess club that is organizing it. In the letter, which Hélène hasn’t read, Kroger has only mentioned that she is his cleaning lady. The president of the chess club reads the letter in her presence and asks if she could clean for his wife.
Bonnaire’s reaction to this question is the beginning of her invocation of that haunting quality, although with a new element. She shows, in her face, in her eyes, how hurt she is, but it isn’t only being hurt, but something larger, which is the nature of human disappointment and how people can be caught in this moment of exquisitely painful humiliation.
That’s the first part. The haunting advances. We see Hélène as she confronts Kroger. She tells him he has hurt her, and she does this with that glance, although here it has a quality from the depths of those feelings we have all had of betrayal and disappointment but can’t really express.
Still, it advances beyond that. Ultimately, she plays in the tournament, and, of course, we have the scene where she is matched against the president of the chess club, a man who is the mint grade arrogant bastard, perfectly played by Daniel Martin. In the beginning he is confident, condescending and smug, but as the game goes along and Hélène begins to win he looks increasingly chastised.
But the haunting quality is in Bonnaire’s reaction as she wins. She uses that charming smile, but it has the hint of something else, too, which is this. This smile seems to say, with mesmerizing power, “Yes, I have charm and my heart is in the right place, but underneath all that is something else, and by god you better not invoke that other quality, not if you want to go on without being taught a lesson.”
These qualities, charm, a sense of wisdom, fury, the nature of human disappointment, of desire, all combined with an exquisite vulnerability make for performances that are a new language to describe the human heart.