This past summer, having wrapped Callas Forever, in which she plays the soprano still revered as La Divina, Fanny Ardant headed off to the Amalfi coast south of Naples for a spell at the dreamlike cliff-side compound of her director, Franco Zeffrelli. She was assigned a little house of her own, once occupied by the great Nijinsky. Later visitors shyly complained to their host of ants, but Ardant took no notice.
"Franco said I might have a visit from Nijinsky's ghost," she says over a glass of Kronenbourg 1664 in the lobby of the Hotel Scribe, a stone's throw from the Palais Garnier, where Callas once reigned. "I was hoping. But no. He did not come." Ardant is on easy terms with immortals. Last fall, just as Callas Forever was opening in France, she was on the Paris stage breathing life into Sarah Bernhardt (another tigress of the stage known as the Divine).
Ardant, 53, came up the hard way. In the beginning, she played Corneille and Racine -- the Frenchman's Shakespeares -- in passionate obscurity on the stage. Next came television, where she made a splash in a family saga set in Normandy during World War I. At a time when no self-respecting French film director would consider a small-screen actress for work in a feature, François Truffaut cast her in the title role of The Woman Next Door (1981). They became lovers, but from then on, Ardant's status as a diva in her own right was never in doubt.
Zeffirelli, one of Maria Callas's closest friends and associates, speaks of Ardant's performance in his new film in terms of "reincarnation." "How else do you explain it?" he asks. "The features are nothing like Maria's. Look at a picture. Compare those eyes, the forehead, the bones. And yet when I think of Maria now, it's Fanny I see."
Rather than biography, Zeffirelli's film is frankly a fiction. As every fan knows, not one full-length operatic performance by Callas was ever captured on-camera. Yet by general consent, she was perhaps the most extraordinary actress of her century, in any medium. Zeffirelli's script asks, what if, after losing her voice and Aristotle Onassis, the love of her life, the gloomy recluse had been coaxed into filming a signature role or two? True, she could no longer sing them, but never mind. Recordings from her glory years could serve as the sound tracks. In Callas Forever, a ponytailed rock impresario (Jeremy Irons) cajoles her into the experiment. Their vehicle is Carmen, an opera the real Callas performed only for the microphone. Once onboard, Ardant's diva tears into the part with a ferocity both exhilarating and scary to behold. But in the end, the character rejects the accomplishment on the soundstage as a lie.
Zeffirelli meant his story to get to the truth of Callas the artist, and in this, he has succeeded: In the blaze of Ardant's portrayal, the whole scaffold of the imaginary scenario burns away like so much kindling. "I don't care about reality," says Ardant, who has played Callas before, in Roman Polanski's nonpareil Paris production of Terrence McNally's Master Class. "I'm not interested in documentaries. To me Callas is a character, like Lady Macbeth." And if possessive idolaters seethe at the presumption of enacting a fictional Callas on-screen or in a playhouse, Ardant doesn't mind. "That's something I share with Callas," she says. "You always need someone in the shadows, like a weapon! A sword poised to strike at you. It's important to keep that. It's a source of your power."
This run of playing divas -- how did it come about? "Pure hasard, " she answers, using the French for "chance." The curtain has just rung down on the Sunday matinee, the last show of the week. Ardant has discarded Bernhardt's heavy flame-red tresses to reveal her own chic, dark bob, and traded the wardrobe department's flowing dressing gown for her own immaculately tailored gray suit and laced bottines. Autograph hunters cluster outside the heavy iron gate by the stage door. Onstage, Ardant's voice had ranged from honeyed to thunderous, carrying effortlessly at any dynamic. On the street, she murmurs her answers in a shy undertone. But when strangers ask for a snapshot, and even embrace or kiss her, she lets them. Night is falling, yet she hides her eyes behind dark glasses.
"Master Class, Callas Forever, Sarah," she says in the safety of the hotel. "They all came to me. There may be a problem for the audience that I am playing historic characters, but for me they are romanesque, consumed with love, with art."
A key to Ardant's magnetism in parts like these is her disdain for pious convention. A diva's ability to play her audience's emotions (and her own) like a violin has its comic aspects, and Ardant is truthful enough to expose them. As Sarah, she delivers a snippet of the death scene of The Lady of the Camellias for farce. As Zeffirelli's Callas, though, lipsynching to Madama Butterfly in the solitude of the apartment she inhabits like a mausoleum, Ardant wrings the heart in what might seem, on the face of it, sheer self-indulgence.
"There was something in the script that shocked me," she tells me, "shocked me in the best way. Callas says, 'I was honest.' You only have one little life, but even in the smallest details, it must be truthful. Always in my acting, I try to be honest. That's the main quality. If you're not sad, don't cry. If you're not angry, stay calm. Otherwise -- sic transit.... It all turns to nothing. The theater is a great school! On a movie set, there are always people running around. 'Would you like a glass of water, Mme Ardant?' 'Would you like a car, Mme Ardant?' 'May I style your hair, Mme Ardant?' In the theater, there is no one. You must do everything yourself. It cleans the blood. People say, 'Sunday afternoons! What a bore. Nobody comes but old ladies.' No! You must give everything. How do you know? Maybe your guardian angel is there."