Nationality: French. Born: Paris, 29 October 1947; daughter of famed avant-garde theatre director Jean-Marie Serreau and writertranslator Geneviève Serreau. Education: Studied music and dance at the Conservatoire de la rue Blanche; also studied acrobatics. Career: First of many leading roles on the French stage, in L'Escalier de Silas, by her mother Geneviève, 1970; first collaborative theatre work, Thérèse est triste, 1970; first documentary feature, Mais qu'estce qu'elles veulent? 1976; first feature film, Pourquoi pas?, 1977; wrote and starred in award-winning play Quisaitout et Grobeta, 1993. Awards: César Awards for Best Film and Best Screenplay, for Trois hommes et un couffin, 1986; César Award for Best Screenplay, for La Crise, 1993; Commandeur de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres, awarded by the Ministry of Culture, 2000.
Films as Director:
Mais qu'est-ce qu'elles veulent? (But What Do WomenWant?) (doc)
Pourquoi pas? (Why Not?) (+ sc)
Qu'est-ce qu'on attend pour être heureux! (What are youwaiting for to be happy!) (+ sc)
Trois hommes et un couffin (Three Men and a Cradle) (+ sc)
Romuald et Juliette (Mama, There's a Man in Your Bed) (+ sc)
"Contre l'oubli" ("Écrire contre l'oubli"; "Against Oblivion"; "Lest We Forget") (3-minute episode in anthology film)
La Crise (The Crisis) (+ sc)
La Belle verte (The Green Planet) (+ sc, mu, ro as Mila)
On s'est trompé d'histoire d'amour (Bertuccelli) (co-sc, ro as Anne)
Sept morts sur ordonnance (Rouffio) (ro as Mme. Mauvagne)
Three Men and a Baby (Nimoy) (co-sc)
On SERREAU: books—
Austin, Guy, Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction, Manchester, 1996.
Forbes, Jill, The Cinema in France: After the New Wave, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996.
Powrie, Phil, French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis ofMasculinity, Oxford, 1997.
Rollet, Brigitte, Coline Serreau, Manchester, 1998.
About SERREAU: articles—
Modleski, Tania, "Three Men and Baby M," in Camera Obscura (Bloomington), May 1988.
"'Mama, There's a Man in Your Bed': Coline Serreau—Remade in America," in American Film, March 1990.
Durham, Carolyn A., "Taking the Baby out of the Basket and/or Robbing the Cradle: 'Remaking' Gender and Culture in Franco-American Film," in The French Review, April 1992.
Vincendeau, Ginette, "Coline Serreau: A High Wire Act," in Sightand Sound (London), March 1994.
Dalmolin, Elaine, "Fantasmes de maternité dans les films de Jacques Demy, Coline Serreau, et François Truffaut," in The FrenchReview, March 1996.
* * *
Genette Vincendeau's insightful survey of Coline Serreau's career calls it a "high wire act," but one might shift the metaphor a little to "balancing act": for Serreau has managed to keep a steady balance between political activism and commercial success, outright farce and drama of sentiment. Her first feature, a documentary, was hailed as a landmark of feminist filmmaking, while her comedy Three Men and a Cradle (later critiqued by some American academic writers as misogynistic) was not only the highest-grossing French film of 1985 but one of the most successful since World War II. She has furthermore balanced a career in filmmaking with a life in the theatre, as playwright and actress, with involvement in music and even acrobatics as well.
With a background in feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and modernist theatre, Serreau has made films that both interrogate gender roles and pose utopian possibilities. Her documentary Mais qu'est-ce qu'elles veulent?—containing interviews with women as socially and economically diverse as a Swiss church minister and a sex film star—was named after Freud's famous expression of bafflement: "What do women want?" Her first fiction film, Pourquoipas?, portrays a successful ménage à trois (in which the woman has a career and the bisexual male partner manages the household), while Qu'est-ce qu'on attend pour être heureux! is about a group of actors rebelling against the commercial film they are making. The sensationally popular Trois hommes et un couffin shows the transformation of three "typical male" types when circumstances lead them to raise an infant, while Romuald et Juliette—truly a balancing act of fairy tale, wry observation of gritty detail, utopian hope and elaborate farce—tells of the successful marriage of a white business executive and a black janitor in his building.
Trois hommes is both comic and sentimental in its tale of three Parisian bachelors having to curtail their usual amorous activities, and even their professional careers, to raise an abandoned infant. Farce is the engine that drives the plot at first: the writer-director seems to have asked herself what could, after all, induce three perennial swingers to settle down even unwillingly to such a task. But the latter part of the film manages to be touching without becoming treacly or preachy, or larded with gratuitous chase scenes—unlike, one might claim, the also very popular American remake, Three Men anda Baby. In its efforts to demonstrate that men too can be nurturing parents, Serreau's film has been accused of glorifying patriarchy at the expense of women, in that the men eventually seem to claim exclusive rights over the realm of childcare, while there are no sympathetic females in the picture other than the infant, and the mother is literally infantilized as she sleeps in the crib at the end of the film. But Serreau's droll observations of the bachelors suggest a more complex perspective: for example, when one of them, citing all the books he has read, tells off a haughty "Seconde Maman" from a governess agency, he is being comically vain himself; and in the final reunion of the infant with the bachelors, their all standing shirtless (just aroused from sleep) may not be an assertion of patriarchal authority but a signifier of both an absurd masculinity and emotional vulnerability.
The farcical setup of Romuald et Juliette is considerably more ingenious than that of Trois hommes. Here, a yogurt tycoon on the eve of his greatest financial coup is the victim of three different and coincidental plots at the same time: his executive protegé is having an affair with his wife; another executive sabotages the yogurt plant to make Romuald and the protegé look culpable; and a third executive is using Romuald's secretary/mistress to trap him in a phony insider trading scheme. All this is the means of igniting the unlikely romance of the title, between the tycoon and his office cleaning woman, a black mother of five who lives in a cramped tenement. The scène à faire, in which Juliette tells her boss about one plot after the other that she has overheard, is truly hilarious, thanks not only to the explosive release of tension but to Daniel Auteuil's performance (and Serreau's direction), mixing genuine friendliness with strained politeness and baffled incredulity. Equally brilliant is a later matching scene in which Juliette (the superb Firmine Richard) reacts to Romauld's marriage proposal with comparable astonishment but also indignation, even exasperation. Some have found the film's ending problematic, with Romauld's vast wealth seeming indeed to buy happiness, or at least serving to overcome Juliette's reservations, and with Juliette rather too neatly becoming an earth mother for the late 1980s. At least, in its delirious vision of family harmony despite racial and economic barriers it is consistent with Serreau's utopian/comic outlook.
La Crise follows to a considerable extent the pattern set by its predecessors. The opening crisis is actually a multiple one in which the protagonist loses his job, is deserted by his wife, and finds most of his friends and relatives having momentous quarrels with their spouses and lovers. In this case the outsider who leads the middle-class protagonist to reconciliation is not an infant girl or African woman but a lower-class sot who accompanies the "hero" on a sentimental journey. As in her other films, Serreau keeps a cool eye on her obtuse—but educable—male protagonists.
Most recently, La Belle verte carries Serreau's utopian proclivities a great deal farther: in this comic fantasy the writer-director herself plays Mila, inhabitant of a "green planet," where everyone lives free of stress, pollution, and bureaucracy, while practicing vegetarianism and acrobatics. Mila's visit to Earth, armed with a device for "deprogramming" people so that they can be their "natural" selves (to the shock of other earthlings), allows Serreau herself to play the role of the beneficent outsider. Whether La Belle verte marks a new direction in her filmmaking or is a fanciful interlude amidst her relatively more down-to-earth comedies remains to be seen; meanwhile, she has devoted more of her time to the theatre. Earlier plans to direct the American version of Trois hommes, and later a version of Romuald et Juliette, were never realized, so that her career and fame reside largely in France, where her success as actress and musician, playwright and screenwriter, composer and film director has long been recognized.