Sandrine Bonnaire possesses a face which, in its planar, geometric architecture, seems designed to be in front of the camera, rather than behind it; a face which, when disclosed on screen, cannot help but bend every ray of light back on itself. In Fleur d’âme, her third feature-length film as a director, and her second documentary, it is notable by its absence. While Bonnaire’s voice regularly intervenes to help narrate the story of the musician and pop icon Marianne Faithfull, which the film, via several direct-to-camera interviews, and archival footage, takes as its focus – the French-born actress and director consciously withholds her own image. This strategy – also exercised in her first documentary, Elle s’appelle Sabine – subtly resists an economy of ‘star power’ and of fetishistic visuality. In this unconventional biopic, emphasis is placed instead on gesture, oral histories, and a more intuitive dissemination of the stories making up Faithfull’s vibrant and eventful life.
The film opens with a clip of a filmed interview with a young, hesitant Faithfull, in which she alternates between taking nervous drags from a menthol cigarette and responding to questions in her charming, consciously imperfect French. This sequence readies the audience for the double game of mirrors that will presently take place: or for the strange refraction of Bonnaire, as archetypal and mythologised ‘French woman’, making a film about Faithfull, who, like Jane Birkin, mined her aristocratic, Anglophilic roots for continental gains. “Je ne sais pas” is Faithfull’s way of ultimately batting off the male interviewer’s prying, predatory line of enquiry, introducing a motif which will haunt the remainder of this cogent, 60-minute portrait: that of a self in exile, estranged from itself in the foreign, ongoing masquerade of the feminine.
Bonnaire – from the film’s opening settings – is eager that her project be established as dual-authored and collaborative. In another early scene, in which Faithfull has been primed and lit for a direct-to-camera testimonial, she asks how her subject feels about this being a film necessarily constructed à deux. Faithfull’s response, if filtered through a parodically haughty and aloof sensibility, is encouraging and affirmative. “I like it, because I like you, Sandrine,” she replies. But her response to Bonnaire’s subsequent enquiry – of whether she approves of the more or less equal weighting between vintage and contemporary footage – somewhat forfeits this accommodating tone. A practice of collaborative fusion and of inclusivity is indeed substituted for a sense of psychic splitting and a desire to maintain firm boundaries as Faithfull admits to a sense of relief at how little of her younger self will feature in this portrait: “Because then it becomes a film that is not all about me”. An eerie and disruptive statement that becomes more lucid if we approach Marianne, as Bonnaire’s work enables us to do, as someone who has had to hitch a life on the constantly patrolled fault line between public and private worlds.
One of Fleur d’âme’s most convincing strands is its chronicling of Faithfull’s graduation from the figure of ‘the girl’ to the evolved woman artist on her own, uncompromising terms. In many of the clips that Bonnaire samples of her younger subject performing songs for television, she is introduced by invariably male presenters as a “beautiful girl that came out of nowhere” or “a very beautiful girl who has only recently made a name for herself”, as if etherised from nothing but the potent air of Sixties London. In another clip, we encounter Andrew Oldham, the former manager of The Rolling Stones who ‘discovered’ Faithfull at a party, convinced – the question of talent aside – “she had a face” onto which various projections of consumerist desire could be screened. Moving through the film, it is noticeable that this repressive framework of the face is – echoed by Bonnaire’s own insistence on her audio, as opposed to visual, subjectivity – blurred over with the subtle, yet persistent strain of Faithfull’s voice. She laughs, coughs into her ashtray, sings. While such activities might strike the viewer as mundane, Bonnaire’s framing of her subject as a figure who is always in the process of articulating herself testifies to the extent to which culture freezes women at the lissome point of their photogenic adolescence, choosing to embalm them at their most static, and most mute. Such a process is well known to Bonnaire, who, for many, will forever be confined to her breakthrough performance as a wilful and erotically voracious teenage girl in Maurice Pialat’s captivating A Nos Amours. Of her now taken-for-granted endorsement of such a figure, Bonnaire has said, in interview, “I was extremely naïve.”¹
Bonnaire’s project, though undergirded by a strong desire for reparation, is not without levity. Faithfull’s wry sense of humour fumigates the piece, offsetting reports of the notorious Stones drugs raid, and subsequent trial, in 1967, with comments like, “I thought that it would be just a lovely weekend taking acid with my friends”. Later on, Faithfull links her knack for running into difficulties with US Customs at John F Kennedy airport (a knack to which even the sporadic flyer to New York can emphatically relate) to her life-long identification with the status of an ‘undesirable alien’. “You have been loved by many men,” is Bonnaire’s counter-protest, to which Faithfull offers an alternative perspective: “I was living in a glass house… and couldn’t get out”. An ensuing sequence detailing the singer’s temporary gamble with homelessness – billed as a Burroughs-inspired ‘art experiment’ rather than material necessity – demonstrates, perhaps, the padded strictures of fame’s cage.
In her essay ‘The Double Standard of Aging’ from 1972, Susan Sontag writes that “[T]o be a woman is to be an actress. Being feminine is a kind of theater, with its appropriate costumes, décor, lighting, and stylized gestures”.² Such an observation becomes harder to unpack at the point when performing for the camera, independent of the theatre of one’s gender, has become one’s primary profession, too. In Fleur d’âme, whose title both rehearses Faithfull’s florid self-mythology and her ephemeral fragility, Marianne appears to oscillate between a fierce attraction to the spotlight and an aversion to it. She frequently instructs Bonnaire to turn the camera off, to stop filming, yet knows to holds her posture and the muscles of her mouth in place while she does it. In her definition of the figure of the ingénue, the critic Carina Chocano notes that she (for we must assume that her gender, if not strictly her sex, is feminine), “is credulous and vulnerable and dependent on a protective paternal figure, and lives in constant peril of being exploited or corrupted by some lurking cad or villain. This threat is the central tension of her life. What makes her interesting is the question of how she will navigate this world, who she will become, and what will become of her.”³
Throughout Fleur d’âme, Faithfull’s wariness of excess discursivity punctures Bonnaire’s eagerness to tackle such concerns. “It won’t be a wonderful film if I go on talking too much” is another typical intervention. For her part, Bonnaire is mostly tolerant of Faithfull’s sudden, prickly retractions, her unpredictable shuttling between a desire for attention and to close off from the world. In its final minutes, nonetheless, she and her film risk evading the question that Chocano pinpoints: of how Faithfull will ultimately make this tightrope walkable, without falling off one side. A final segment where Bonnaire attempts to probe her protagonist a little further on her past addictions is again cut short by Faithfull’s protests that her questions are “too deep”. Ultimately, she argues, “the only thing that matters is love”, which is ventured as “the bottom line.’
To wish for an alternative conclusion teeters close to patriarchy’s constant wish to cover over and to re-inscribe. All the same, I would have liked Bonnaire’s project to conclude at a stronger, and less toothless, point. At the root of Fleur d’âme is something spikier and more intractable than ‘love’ as idealised cure-all. Underneath the lingering patois of the Swinging Sixties lurks a portrait of a woman who both yearns for fame and the pleasures of interiority and who dares – despite sizeable resistance – to have both.
Alice Blackhurst is a writer and researcher based at King’s College, Cambridge
 ‘Entretien avec Sandrine Bonnaire’, La Libre, Belgium, 27th March 2001, Accessed 11 January 2018.
 Susan Sontag, ‘The Double Standard of Aging’, Saturday Review, September 1972.
 Carina Chocano, ‘Thelma, Louise, and All the Pretty Women’ New York Times Magazine, April 21, 2011. Accessed 11 January 2018.