Les Rêveurs (Dreamers) by Isabelle Carré: Stages of Life

Well-known award-winning French actress Isabelle Carré’s autobiography adopts a style which seems popular with French writers. It is fragmented and anecdotal, often putting more emphasis on minor rather than major incidents, fictionalising events without making it clear when this is the case. The author sometimes writes about herself in the third person, sometimes adopts the viewpoint of a third party to imagine or interpret the memory of an occurrence, even from before she was born.

So it is that she begins with a description of the unmarried pregnant teenager who turns out to be her mother. Forced to hide away alone in a Parisian flat by her hardhearted aristocratic parents, she refuses to hand the child over for adoption, and is “saved” by marriage to the young art student, son of a railway worker, who has become infatuated with her resemblance to a Fra Angelico madonna. This gives a flavour of an unorthodox upbringing in the 1970s, when conventions were breaking down anyway.

Isabelle Carré may devote a whole chapter to a stranger in the Metro who reminds her of someone she once knew, or to the behaviour of a family on the beach compared with her own, without ever explaining how she established herself as an actress, or whether she has a husband. This approach seems to stem from creative writing advice that it is better to select memories, rather than attempt to “cover everything”, since in childhood in particular, one’s impressions tend to be partial and subjective.

In interviews, she speaks of the importance she attaches to dreams, since real life without them can seem too “brutal”. She is fond of the image of one’s life as an iceberg, in which only a small part is visible. Another preoccupation is the eternal tantalising question of “what might have been”, inspiring her to play with a situation and develop it along a different path from what really happened. Yet in what is essentially an autobiography we are not told when this is the case.

French readers will no doubt gain a warm sense of nostalgia from the frequent cultural references. I found looking them up a good way of maintaining my interest in a narrative which often seemed quite tedious, despite some dramatic incidents. So it was that I discovered the “Les Neiges du Kilimanjaro”, rated one of the best French pop songs of the 1960s. The author’s tendency to express her feelings in snatches from past pop songs or quotations from plays became rather trying after a while, also giving the sense that she conceals herself behind the words of others, that is, forever acting.

Clearly a highly imaginative child, she injured her leg badly jumping out a window in an attempt to fly. Was the overdose which landed her in a psychiatric hospital aged fourteen, a result of “nature” or dysfunctional “nurture” or a mixture of the two?

Her mother seems clinically depressed, perhaps through a combination of her own mother’s neglect, living in an apartment with a red décor and large collections of African masks, and a husband who comes out as a homosexual when it is still barely legal. This culminates symbolically in his painting the outside of the front door with the naked figures of two men, running to freedom along a beach, which unsurprisingly arouses the neighbours’ wrath even more than his elder son’s loud piano-playing.

Isabelle seems to harbour resentment against her mother’s coldness and lack of maternal feeling, and show more of a rapport with her father with whom she chooses to live when her mother eventually insists that he leaves. Alone aged fifteen in the flat he buys her, holidaying with him in situations where she is the only female present with his gay friends, could have destabilised her further, but perhaps simply fed her versatility as an actress, finding consolation by immersing herself in acting out imaginary lives.

Following up the reference to her father’s design of a spherical record player used in a film starring Serge Gainsbourg, revealed that her father is the well-known French designer, Alain Carré. Since in later life he went on to run a successful company employing 90 people, one wonders how he reacted to her descriptions of his previous Walter Mitty-type loss-making projects, his quest for happiness with a male lover, his imprisonment for fraud, and subsequent alcoholism.

In interviews, Isabelle Carré appears somewhat intense, but charming, charismatic and humorous. Admitting that she wrote the book primarily for herself, is discussing it really just another role for her to play? Quoting a playwright she explains, “J’écris pour qu’on me rencontre”, but to what extent is this true? How much of her do we actually “meet”?

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