That 'je ne sais quoi': How French actresses trounce everyone in the style stakes

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

When the French actress Marion Cotillard swiped the Bafta for Best Actress from under the noses of Keira Knightley and Julie Christie, she not only trounced them on the big screen, but also on the red carpet. The star of the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose, Cotillard looked radiant in short, sequined Chanel, making everyone else seem stuffy, including a rigid, pouting, Dior-clad Knightley.

It was the perfect example of it being not what you wear, but how you wear it. Cotillard may be 10 years older than Knightley, but she embodies the quirky, flirty insouciance that French women do so well, and we Brits rarely seem to get right. Two weeks later, Marion won the Oscar for Best Actress.

This June sees the release of Priceless, a glamorous romantic comedy branded the French Breakfast at Tiffany's. In it, Amélie's Audrey Tautou stalks the Côte d'Azur looking for rich men to keep her in couture. Watching her trade sex for designer trinkets, one can't help thinking that, were the film set in Britain, there would be a whiff of Footballers' Wives about it. But there's nothing trashy about Audrey Tautou. Instead, she conveys the irresistible mix of simplicity and sophistication of that other stylish Audrey, Miss Hepburn.

Vanessa Seward, the creative director of Azzaro, the designer label behind most of the dresses Tautou wears in the film, agrees. "Audrey Tautou has the gamine-like charm of Hepburn," she says. "She can wear very sexy clothes without ever being vulgar."

This is the essence of French style. One of the Azzaro dresses in the film, appropriately called "Tramp" thanks to its indecently plunging neckline, is carried off with a giggle, a wink and not a hint of desperation. As a result, it's more Riviera chic than China White strumpet. "French women are able to wear expensive clothes in a casual way that makes them look cool," explains Seward. "If they wear sophisticated clothes, then the make-up and hair will be light and soft, never overdone."

So, is that our problem? Do we Brits just make too much effort? Not in the case of our female politicians, who were recently branded "Dowdy Street" by the tabloid press, in comparison with their French counterparts. A recent Elysée Palace banquet unleashed the kind of red-carpet glamour generally reserved for the Oscars, with a special mention for the 42-year-old French Justice Minister Rachida Dati in a spectacular floor-length blue gown. Needless to say, our Gallic friends make it all seem frustratingly effortless.

Take the most French of fashion institutions, Chanel. French women don't truss themselves up in the woven-wool skirt suits. Rather, they give the designs a twist that proves the timelessness of the fashion house that's nearing its centenary.

The queen of Chanel is, arguably, Vanessa Paradis, who has been associated with the label since the iconic birdcage campaign of 1992. Even her daughter, eight-year-old Lily-Rose, has her very own pink Chanel handbag. "She is such a girlie girl!" Paradis has remarked by way of explanation. "She was rocking perfectly in my Chanel pumps when she was two."

If Chanel represents sophisticated French style, albeit with a twist, Balenciaga offers a more rock'n'roll, crushingly cool alternative. Leader of the Balenciaga pack is, of course, Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of the über-stylish British actress Jane Birkin and French singer Serge Gainsbourg.

Charlotte Gainsbourg has said she will only wear designs by Balenciaga's creative director Nicolas Ghesquière. "I don't pay attention to other things," she once said, "because I just like what he does." Watching her on the big screen (her wardrobe in last year's romantic comedy I Do consisted mainly of Ghesquière's military jackets), it's easy to see why.

But, classic tailoring aside, French girls have a way of wearing clothes that, on any lesser mortal, would look simply ludicrous. Lou Doillon, another of Birkin's offspring, this time with the French director Jacques Doillon, has just launched a capsule collection of denim pieces for Lee Cooper. Her signature piece, a pinstripe tail jacket, styled with a top hat, is described as, "the Artful Dodger, had he fought in the French Revolution". Not a look many of us could carry off.

And style isn't only a young girl's game in France. There's Juliette Binoche, 43, Emmanuelle Béart, 44, Julie Delpy, 38, Sophie Marceau, 41 – all looking better than most of us did at 25. Lou Doillon explains: "They know what suits them. In France, you would never see a fat woman trying to dress like Kate Moss – they know they would look absurd. French girls dress to suit their body."

The French actress Clémence Poésy, who stars in the new Colin Farrell film, In Bruges, has her own theory: "It's important to be yourself. What you wear reflects what you are, so you need to be strong enough on the inside to ignore what the fashion gurus say you should wear on the outside."

So the je ne sais quoi of French style will remain just that, although that won't stop us longing for the self-assurance that underlies the mix of innocent mischief and sophistication expressed through French women's clothes. But, before you enrol on a French course and move to the Left Bank, remember that here in the UK we many style icons of our own.

Take Poésy's fashion inspirations. "Marianne Faithfull, Mick Jagger and Jane Birkin," she sighs,. Yes, all British. And, as cool as Gainsbourg and Doillon are, it's their British mother who has the most iconic of handbags – the Hermès Birkin – named after her. You can't beat that.

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little