Agnès Jaoui may have directed the highest-grossing comedy in France last year, but in person she’s intense, soft-spoken, and serious. Jaoui wrote The Taste of Others with Jean-Pierre Bacri, her real-life partner, and stars alongside him in her directorial debut, a tender, biting satire of territoriality and provincialism among artists and business people in French society. It’s the fourth film collaboration by the couple, who have scripted and performed in Alain Resnais’s musical Same Old Song (1997) and Cédric Klapisch’s comic chamber piece Un Air de Famille (1996), the latter based on a play they wrote about the noxious confluence of social failure and unresolved oedipal fixations.
“If there’s a common theme to our work, it’s conformism,” says Jaoui. “In this film, it’s cliquishness and exclusivity, a kind of group mentality, where people assume their taste makes them superior to others.” Jaoui, who is 35, was born in Paris to Tunisian Jewish parents. She studied classical song and trained as an actress at the prestigious École de Nanterre, then under Patrice Chéreau’s direction. “Acting is a very strange profession for women,” she notes. “Even at the age of 15, when I took my first drama classes, I felt that I lagged behind, because there were 12-year-old girls who were already known. So at 26, if you’re not terribly famous, you can find yourself panicking pretty intensely.”
She met Bacri when both were performing in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. They moved in together and started writing plays soon after. Their Kitchen With Apartment (1992), a theatrical hit, became their first film; it takes place during a dinner party where the guests include a former friend, now a television celebrity. Jaoui played the star’s wife; Bacri was her ex-boyfriend, a grumbling malcontent. She claims that, while they’re able to write a variety of roles for him, her own characters—young women ill at ease in society—mirror her true feelings. “Success doesn’t change that much,” she affirms. “It gives you the financial and artistic freedom not to submit to outside pressures. But otherwise, I still get headaches, I do my shopping, I have problems with my parents, I get older, I’m going to die. My fundamental anxiety remains.”