Tonie Marshall dies at 68; French filmmaker took on sexism

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Tonie Marshall dies at 68; French filmmaker took on sexism
In this file photo taken on May 16, 2009 French director Tonie Marshall arrives for the screening of the film "Un Prophete" in competition at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival. French-US director Tonie Marshall has died, it was announced on March 12, 2020. Loic VENANCE / AFP.

by Katharine Q. Seelye

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Tonie Marshall, a French American filmmaker and actress and the only female director to win a Cesar award, France’s equivalent of the Oscars, died Thursday in Paris. She was 68.

France’s Equalities Ministry, which oversees matters of gender equality, confirmed the death but gave no further details, The Associated Press reported.

Marshall was not well known outside France, but at home she was a prominent woman in the male-dominated French film industry. Though she resisted being labeled a feminist, she confronted sexism head-on in her later movies. She became a vocal supporter of the French #MeToo movement and helped open up the industry to more women.

After 30 years as an actress and 10 as a director, Marshall created a sensation in 1999 with her movie “Venus Beauty Institute,” about three women who work in a beauty salon and their search for love and happiness. It swept the top three Cesar awards — for best film, best director and best original screenplay (by Marshall) — and one of its protagonists, Audrey Tautou, won the Cesar for most promising new actress.

Marshall researched the film by frequenting her local beauty salon, watching the interplay of clients and employees, and listening to their dialogue. One day a woman came in, removed her top and bra, and sat there naked in what Marshall saw as a display of power, not exhibitionism; the scene is replicated in the movie.

Her cinematic style was deeply influenced by director Jacques Demy, who most famously directed “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (1967).

But in “Venus Beauty Institute,” Marshall paid direct homage to another French film that examined love from a woman’s point of view — “Belle de Jour” (1967), directed by Luis Bunuel and starring Catherine Deneuve.

Marshall was especially enthralled by a famous scene in “Belle de Jour” in which Deneuve, playing a bourgeoise wife who is secretly a prostitute, is given a small, lacquered box by a client. She opens and closes it, without the audience seeing what is inside. Another character asks her how she can have sex with the unappealing man who gave it to her. “What do you know about love?” Deneuve’s character responds.

The scene was one of her inspirations in making “Venus.” After seeing “Belle de Jour,” Marshall told Cineaste magazine in 2000, “I was left wondering, ‘What do I know about love?’ ”

Marshall said she had been embarrassed to be the only woman ever to receive a Cesar for directing in a country that had so many talented female directors.

But she had also been ecstatic for herself, she said, finding the honors a vindication of sorts, since the film had had little financial backing and took four years to make.

“Success felt good, considering so many people had spat on this film for so long,” she said in an interview in 2018 with French journalist Marion Sauvebois.

“Sometimes when I try to make a film and things get tough, I tell myself, ‘Remember, you aren’t mad. Maybe people will see something in it, too,’ ” she said. “Or maybe they won’t. It’s a lottery.”

Marshall was born on Nov. 29, 1951, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just west of Paris. She grew up in the movie business, the daughter of Micheline Presle, a French film actress, and William Marshall, an American actor, director and producer who was once married to Ginger Rogers.

Marshall started out as a television actress in 1971. She later landed a bit role in Demy’s “A Slightly Pregnant Man” (1973), a star-studded comedy in which she acted alongside her mother as well as Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni.

She made her directorial debut with “Pentimento” (1989), a comedy that she also wrote in which a boy and girl meet during a funeral. Her other directing credits include “Nearest to Heaven” (2002), starring Deneuve and William Hurt; “Sex, Love and Therapy” (2014); and “Number One,” her last feature film, which was released in 2017 in the United States and the United Kingdom as “Woman Up!”

The movie tells the story of an ambitious corporate manager who faces vicious sexism as she aspires to become the first female managing director of a major French company.

Marshall said it took several years to make the film. Her original idea was to follow a network of eight influential women working in industry, politics, media and sports and their ambitions and confrontations with men, she told Eye for Film, a British film publication, in 2017.

“Not a single TV channel showed any interest,” she said. “So I put it on the back burner.”

As time went by, though, she added, she found herself stewing over society’s attempts to put women “back in their place,” which to her meant “at home looking after children and keeping quiet.” So she dusted off her idea. This time, instead of telling the stories of eight women, she narrowed her focus to one.

Just as she had researched “Venus” in a real beauty salon, she researched “Woman Up!” through in-depth discussions with female corporate executives.

“Their anecdotes and testimony gave me a lot of material, and everything in the film is based on fact,” she told Sauvebois.

One important thing she learned that surprised her, she said, was that regardless of how qualified women are to do the top job, they are often overcome with self-doubt and decline to become No. 1, preferring to be No. 2 or 3.

“And yet,” she said, “there are men without their skills or qualifications who just click their fingers, say, ‘I want it, I want it,’ and they get ahead.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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