Laurent Lafitte and Fanny Ardant. Picture: Supplied

Actresses have long been one of the crowning glories of French culture, queens of the silver screen who enjoy a status far higher than their counterparts in other countries, including the United States.

From post-war legends such as Jean Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and Anouk Aimee and art-house darlings Isabelle Huppert, Isabelle Adjani, Nathalie Baye and Juliet Binoche through to contemporary hotties Marion Cotillard, Melanie Laurent and Lea Seydoux, these femmes fantastiques are adored, elevated and, most crucially, attract audiences way past the traditional Hollywood use-by date.

Indeed, the career of 87-year-old Emmanuelle Riva stretches from her debut in the 1958 Nouvelle Vague classic Hiroshima, Mon Amour through to Amour (2012), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, while the amazing Gisele Casadesus (My Afternoons With Margueritte) continues to act even though she is turning 100 in June this year.

Compare this to Hollywood where the fate of actresses was best summed up by Tina Fey introducing Gravity while hosting this year's Golden Globes: "(It's) the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age."

The loyalty of the French to their actresses means filmmakers are able to better reflect the ageing of the population, to grow old, so to speak, with both their audience and their greatest stars.

There's no more vivid example of French cinema's devotion to its ageing icons than Bright Days Ahead, one of several comedies and dramas dealing with late-life romance in this year's Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, which kicked off last night and runs for the next three weeks.

Fanny Ardant, still stunning at 64, gives a vivacious performance as a retired dentist who out of boredom accepts a trial membership at a seniors centre with a name - Bright Days Ahead - as uplifting as it is anonymous.

Ardant's Caroline initially flees the club because of the condescending attitude of one of the instructors. However, when her husband of many years can't figure out what's wrong with his PC she agrees reluctantly to return and take a computer class run by a hunky young skirt-chaser named Julien (Laurent Lafitte).

The pair tumble into a torrid affair, which involves trysts in the storage closet at the seniors centre (its sexier than it sounds). But soon Caroline is struggling to reconcile the desire that has been awakened by Julien and her knowledge she's just another notch on his bedpost and he will move on.

Bright Days Ahead is no masterpiece but one that pushes the envelope in giving us a fully sexual older woman who more than holds her own with an attractive but rather dim younger man and who, like her male counterparts, refuses to lay down and die.

In Folies Bergere, Ardant's great contemporary Huppert is also grappling with feelings that should have faded long ago. She plays a jaded farmer's wife who finds a new lease of life when she meets a charming Dane (Michael Nyqvist).

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to preview Folies Bergere but it is worth the price of admission to see "Madame Frosty", as she was dubbed by the British press, thaw out during a Paris jaunt, rather like Greta Garbo in Ninotchka.

Emmanuelle Devos is not quite of the Ardant/Huppert vintage but she stars in two films at this year's French Film Festival as dissatisfied older women - a housewife and mother who is bored with her well-heeled but routine suburban existence in Domestic Life; and a cash-strapped actress who abandons her lover for a man she encounters on a train (Gabriel Byrne).

Devos has been making films since the mid-1980s and is still best know for Jacques Audiard's Read My Lips. But now at the age of 49 she seems to be hitting her straps, imbuing her characters with an ocean of feeling that comes from living a lot of life.

Of the two, Domestic Life is the more interesting. Adapted from Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park, Domestic Life is about a group of uburban mothers who struggle with the dull repetition of their seemingly perfect existences and whose beautifully decorated homes feel like gilded cages.

But it is not just the women that French directors are happy to follow into later years. Eighty-one-year-old Jean-Pierre Marielle and Pierre Ardati, who is 69, star in Family Matters, about an incorrigible father and son whose relationship is reinvigorated by a vivacious, free-spirited nurse.

Ardant at the peak of her physical beauty is showcased in the retrospective portion of this year's French Film Festival, with screenings of three of the greatest movies of Francois Truffaut, that most cherished of Gallic directors who died at the tragically young age of 52 in 1984.

We getting to see on the big screen The 400 Blows (1959), one of the films that kicked off the Nouvelle Vague and still the best movie ever made about childhood; then there's the transcendent Jules and Jim whose lush, melancholic soundtrack by Georges Delerue makes the heart beat faster; and Truffaut's last work, Finally, Sunday!, which features his lover and the mother of his daughter, Fanny Ardant.

Ardant has charm and sex appeal to burn in this black-and-white Hitchcock homage in which she plays a secretary who sets out to prove the innocence of her boss (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who has been accused of murder. Finally, Sunday! is Truffaut most light-footed, playing at being Hitchcock but imprinting every frame with his impish personality.

In the most intriguing addition to this year's French Film Festival the organisers handed over the choice of the closing-night movie to the audience, who were asked to select from the small but unparalleled oeuvre of Jacques Tati.

They voted for Mon Oncle, Tati's 1958 classic in which Tati's stiff-limbed pipe-smoking traditionalist Monsieur Hulot continues his battle against the post-war French obsession with modern architecture, consumerism and mechanical efficiency.

This time around the sterility of contemporary France is represented by the geometric home of his nephew's parents, a fully automated nightmare that's in stark contrast to the crumbling buildings in the old neighbourhood where Hulot lives.

I would have chosen Playtime, widely acknowledged as Tati's masterpiece, or I can watch Monsieur Hulot's Holiday over and over again. But Mon Oncle speaks clearly to our obsession with designer homes and neighbourhoods so this lovely, hilarious film might be the most relevant in the entire festival (and a nice double with Domestic Life).

The West Australian

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