After a challenging year, French actress, musician, and muse Vanessa Paradis returns to film as a tough-love single mom with an impassioned heart. Her reality—filled with her children, new projects, and an adventurously open mind—is not much different“I know what I’m doing next, and next is my record. But after that I don’t know,” says Vanessa Paradis. The French actress, musician, and model is enjoying the voyage that began when she was 14 years old with her international pop hit “Joe Le Taxi,” in 1987, and continued apace when, three years later, she won a César (France’s national film award) for Most Promising Actress, in recognition of her performance in the controversial, cross-generational romance Noce Blanche. She went on to record with Serge Gainsbourg and Lenny Kravitz and to act opposite Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. In the past year Paradis publicly ended her 14-year relationship with Johnny Depp, with whom she parents their children, Lily-Rose and Jack. She has also been in New York prepping for her role as an Orthodox Jewish widow in John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo, the first film in twelve years in which Woody Allen acts without also directing.
The actress is receiving plaudits for her current project, Café de Flore, a stylized meditation on happiness from writer-director Jean-Marc Vallée, acclaimed for his films C.R.A.Z.Y. and The Young Victoria. She was eager to work with the rising French-Canadian auteur, who enjoys a reputation for uniquely charged storytelling. “If you’ve seen the movies of Jean-Marc Vallée, you know that they are very, very powerful,” she says. (Vallée’s next project, The Dallas Buyer’s Club—a true story from the late ’80s about a Texan electrician dying of AIDS who smuggles non-FDA approved HIV medication into the United States—is the reason for the recent, startling gauntness of Matthew McConaughey.) In Café de Flore, Paradis plays Jacqueline, a single mother living in 1969 who is both infinitely generous and hardened by desperation, determined to raise a son with Down syndrome despite her limited means and unwilling to betray any fragility, lest she risk losing him, her greatest love. Jacqueline’s story is intercut with the travails of a privileged nightclub DJ negotiating love and family in present-day Montreal; the narratives are closely and often metaphysically tethered.
Costar Marin Gerrier, the seven-year-old actor with Down syndrome who plays Jacqueline’s son, Laurent, appears in almost all of Paradis’s scenes. He made for an incomparable acting partner, delivering true surprises upon which she built her performance. “He made me a better actor,” she says with adoration. “And the grace, the truth, and the power of this little boy...It just pushed us to be on a higher level. It is a characteristic of Down syndrome to be very demonstrative with tenderness, with kisses and hugs—everything is pretty much like that. It’s totally pure. It’s not damaged with a way of thinking. It’s very, very honest and very generous.”
Though she has the heart of a lioness, Paradis was almost denied the part in Café on account of her acute loveliness. “I think he was looking for somebody completely different than me,” she says of Vallée. “I don’t think he was very convinced that I could be the one. But then we had another conversation and I told him everything I thought about the script. I don’t know what made him go for it, but he hired me! I think when he met me at first, I have...I don’t know...this kind of glamorous magazine image, and he was looking for a tough mother with no makeup, no artifice, no seduction. I guess he was wondering if I could do that.”
Her physical transformation for the film is both necessary and natural, which speaks to the elegant self-possession that is surely one part French and another part that poetic, vintage-inflected Vanessa Paradis thing. But what kind of older woman does she want to become herself? “I wish to grow old naturally, and I hope to be a woman who still has her child’s eyes,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how many wrinkles you have. You still have an interest in life and in people and they can see that light in your face.”
A full-fledged icon, Paradis has deep ties to the house of Chanel that date back to Jean-Paul Goude’s gorgeous, politically questionable 1991 video for the fragrance Coco, in which she starred as a bird in a gilded cage chirping “Stormy Weather” through bee-stung lips. There have been numerous campaigns since, most recently in 2010, for Rouge Coco lipstick—a lighter, airier, uncaged affair, directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino—in which Paradis sings “What a Day for a Daydream.” She continues to be a manically photographed front-row fixture at their fashion shows. “I’m in awe of Chanel,” she says. “And the more I know them and the more I work with them, the more I am mesmerized. It’s not only a house of fashion and dreams and glamour, they are artisans. I’m passionate about people who create beautiful things with their imaginations and with their hands.”
Taking into account the recent evolution of her personal life, does the risk-taking but selective Paradis intend to be more artistically active? “If I do more than I’m doing right now, I’m going to be fired as a mother,” she says with a laugh. “I do a lot of things. But I don’t see it like, Oh, well, now I’m going to do more things. There are things that you investigate—especially music, because music is my thing. It’s different than being part of a movie when you’re into someone else’s vision, someone else’s project—although I love that also.”
Paradis is currently working on her sixth studio album, a collaboration with the celebrated French singer and producer Benjamin Biolay, who produced and co-wrote Keren Ann’s first two albums (and was once married to Chiara Mastroianni, the daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni). She promises arrangements influenced by a travelogue of genres spanning African, French, reggae, and Cuban. “I wish to do just as I’m doing now, except with different adventures,” she says. “It’s whatever comes down your road.”