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Chinese portrait with Rachel Ward, Australia

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Marc Jérusalmi speaks through Chinese portrait with Rachel Ward about which flower she’d be, her marriage with Bryan Brown, and her film “An Accidental Soldier”.

Rachel Ward is back in France and to French-speaking audiences. Internationally known for her great character in the TV series Thornbirds, the film director, actress and producer recently directed An Accidental Soldier (Soldat malgré lui), a well-made Australian-French movie set during the First World War.

An intelligent, tough and romantic film, An Accidental Soldier follows a young baker and Australian volunteer, lost on the fronts of the Somme and Marne. He meets a French woman, who is a weapons labourer and farmer, unfairly accused of high treason – an amazing performance by French actress Marie Bunel, who plays a brave woman disrupted in her daily routine by love, friendship, war and tenderness. (Marie Bunel was also a star of Les Affaires sont les Affaires (Business is Business), a play {a nice piece of contemporary theater} at the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon, France.)

Rachel Ward directed the film in Western Australia near Perth in French and English. She agreed to answer our questions about her artistic, personal and intellectual life, speaking to Marc Jérusalmi, our correspondent in Australia and France, through Chinese portrait.

If you were an old French movie, which would it be?
I’d be “Au Revoir les Enfants” because it was so simple and quiet, and unpretentious. Beautiful. And children speaking French is the most beautiful sound in the world.

If you were the perfect animal or flower?
I’d be a sunflower because I’d have lots of other sunflowers to play with, bees would come and tickle my stamens all day long, I’d follow the sun all day long and I’d bow my head and rest my neck at night.

If you were a museum or gallery in France?
I’d be the great Parisian Arts Centre Pompidou because they exhibited the “elles@centrepompidou” in 2009, which solely focused on female artists. The collective force of all those women made me happy and proud to be working in the arts.

If you were a French actress, dead or alive, who would you be?
I’d much rather have been a French actor – they can be ugly as a trout and old as the hills, and still be considered a bankable sex symbol. If I had to be an actress, I’d be Jeanne Moreau. She had a long career; she played lots of inconvenient, demanding, fierce, self-confident women, but never lost her femininity; she was never a push-over, and she looked great with a cigarette dangling from her lips. Then I’d like to be Marie Bunel, because she is one of the most effortlessly talented delightful women I’ve ever met, with a radiant smile to boot.

If you were to meet Jeanne Moreau in real life, what would you tell her?
What would I ask her?…I wouldn’t be interested in her past. Beauty and success when you are young is of no interest to me. I’d be more interested to hear about her transition from all the easy stuff to dealing with ageing, the death of loved ones, dependency and navigating the existential questions. That takes more grace and courage, and sometimes the struggle is harder if your youth has been kind.

If you were a French meal?
I’d simply be a bowl of French fries. A little salty, a little bad for you, offended to be dressed up with sauce – and always delicious.

If you were a painting or sculpture?
I’d like to be kept in the racks out the back because I don’t like being stared at or to have people whispering loudly in front of me that I’m overrated.

Is the international celebrity of your feminine character in Thornbirds a stone in your handbag?
Curiously, The Thornbirds was a mixed blessing. Critics are very snobbish about soap operas, but the public love them. They especially loved The Thornbirds. I understood the ratings were massive but I also read the critics and your first public rubbishing is quite painful. You imagine everyone is laughing at you. But it toughens you. The Thornbirds isn’t even a stone in my handbag anymore.

If you were a special member of the next Cannes Festival Jury?
I’d be saddened by the very small opportunities and therefore representation of female directors at the Cannes Festival, but I’d be delighted to discuss movies or anything else with my dear friend and compatriot George Miller…

Why don’t you ask him the question? He is your neighbour after all. Offer him to be part of the Jury!
In Australia, it would be considered very pushy to invite yourself anywhere. You wait to be asked. When we colonised Australia but we were still British, but I think our manners have improved since 1788…

If you were a band or a musician that you love to listen to, who would you be?
I’d be Nico from Velvet Underground or Marianne Faithfull. Whenever I do karaoke I find myself channeling those cool blonde ’60s icons, with their haunting voices eulogising drugs and Berlin. Unfortunately, I sing more like Miss Piggy from Sesame St!

If you were a champagne what would you be? And with whom would you drink one?
I’d be Prosecco. Cheap and cheerful, and even better in a creative partnership. Prosecco plus Apricot and, hey presto, Bellini! Who would I drink a glass of champagne with? If we manage to get distribution or a sale for An Accidental Soldier in France, I’ll be drinking champagne with Marie Bunel. We both love this film, but it is made by women about a woman so it is always harder to get a foot in the door.

I think perhaps buyers of content aren’t aware that women are at least half the cinema or TV audience.

Your husband Bryan Brown plays the character of a military lawyer with a great heart in your movie. At the end of the day, who directs who in real life? Are you more often Mrs Brown, or is he more often Mr Ward?
A happy marriage is a negotiation of give and take with grace and generosity. I took my husband’s name and moved to his country (I was born in the UK), he has always supported me in whatever impulsive direction I took, and has always equally shared domestic duties. I have directed him twice and he has script edited all my scripts. We’re sort of grafted on to each other.

That said, there are times, like in all marriages, I like to get out my “sequiturs” and prune him.

Do you know that you have probably directed the best feature-length French-Australian film ever?I am very glad you think so, although this is probably not a huge genre. We should do more. Australians and the French people seem to have mutual admiration. I think we both find each other rather exotic and charming. On the other hand, it might be good to keep our distance and maintain the mystique.

If you had a social, political or artistic message to the French or French-speaking people in the World, what would you tell them?I’ve already articulated everything I wish to say with my film. That beneath all our differences, we are human, and if we remain open to our shared humanity we will find the best in each other, always. This story is playing itself out on the Island of Lesbos as we speak where young Israeli volunteers are welcoming and giving medical help to Arabs fleeing their countries. Take away the politics and differences and there are just human beings reaching out to help each other.

Marc Jérusalmi

Marc Jérusalmi is a French journalist, correspondent and translator about Cinema, Arts and Television, Society, Travels and Medias in France (Versailles and Paris), England (London), Australia (Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney) and New Zealand (Auckland and Cambridge).

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