02 February 2010

Field Guide: Danielle Darrieux

As Max Ophüls’ Madame de…, with Charles Boyer

To call Danielle Darrieux a national treasure is so obvious and so easy as to be downright lazy. She’s been making movies since 1931, and she’s still at it, at the age of 92. In her spare time, she’s been a concert singer and stage actress, with the occasional foray into both MGM and Broadway musicals, even replacing Katharine Hepburn in Alan Jay Lerner and André Previn’s Coco. Authentically French, a superior singer, and younger and prettier, too, Darrieux made Hepburn a nervous wreck.

In one of her recent films, Darrieux lent her voice to a character who is, in a way, another country’s national treasure: the grandmother in Marjane Satrapi’s animated memoir of Iran, Persepolis. The warmth, cultivation and familiarity of Darrieux’s voice must have provoked a pavlovian response in French audiences, because cinematically, she’s our grandmother. And one of that character’s signature touches — perfuming her brassiere with fresh jasmine blossoms — seems exactly the sort of thing Darrieux must do in real life.

Somehow, you know she smells good:
That’s the sort of woman she is.

I haven’t seen all of Darrieux’s movies (there are more than 100 of them), and I wonder whether she has. Several are among the best ever produced in this country: The Earrings of Madame de …, La Ronde, Le Plaisir (all by Ophüls), Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, even Ozon’s 8 Femmes. She also appeared in a number of glossy literary adaptations that strictly adhere to the so-called “tradition of quality” against which the Nouvelle Vague directors rebelled. Among these are the movie versions of two of my favorite novels, Zola’s Pot-Bouille and Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir.

Extremely pretty without being conventionally beautiful, she possessed two assets above all others. Well, three, actually: two sparkling eyes and an equally sparkling wit. With these gifts, she proved well-suited to characters who, if they’re not in a drawing-room comedy, usually act as if they were. Often she’s been cast as a bourgeoise, to exploit her innate elegance. (And it’s true that, if she ever played a fishwife, I’m in no hurry to see the results.)

Madame de
, perhaps her best-known film role, admirably sums up her abilities. She presents a spun-sugar lightness to the character, and then, as the circumstance turns from game to reality, she shatters that brittle façade, bringing into clear view a substantial, poignant core.

Darrieux has excelled at sophisticated comedy.
Here, a scene from La Vie à deux.*

One of my favorite of her pictures is Le septième ciel (Seventh Heaven), in which she plays a youngish, upper-class widow whose piety and charitable works are supplemented by her oh-so refined murder of people who really, really, truly deserve it. (Something like what I imagine Bernadette Chirac must be like, when nobody is looking, only quite a lot prettier and more tasteful.) The movie is a trifle, but her sense of comedy is simply sublime to watch in action.

In Le Rouge et le Noir, which I saw not long after reading the book, she wasn’t quite my mental image of Mme de Rênal — blonde instead of the brunette I’d pictured. But she did a brilliant job of conveying the character’s moral conflict, often with immense humor but equal sympathy. And as the story turns from bedroom farce to prison drama, Darrieux admirably conveyed Mme de Rênal’s growing passion and determination. Stendhal couldn’t have asked for better.

Wrestling with her conscience,
tiptoeing to her lover’s bedroom.
This scene from Le Rouge et le Noir is quite funny, actually.

If all goes well, next year will mark her 80th anniversary in motion pictures. Even Katharine Hepburn couldn’t claim such a record. But in both cases, it’s talent and personality — charm — and not merely longevity, that make an actress truly special. Danielle Darrieux has been sprinkling movie screens with jasmine blossoms for generations.

*NOTE: Not having seen La Vie à deux (by Yves Allégret, first husband of Simone Signoret and father of Catherine Allégret), I don’t know whether it’s a comedy at all, sophisticated or otherwise. But this is exactly how Darrieux looks in Le septième ciel, which was made around the same time.

1 comment:

William V. Madison said...

Danielle Darrieux is doing a bit of publicity for her latest film, Pièce Montée (Wedding Cake), including a lengthy interview on France 2.

At one point, discussing her musical training, the interviewer said, “In fact, you’d be happy to have pursued a career just as a singer.”

“Oh, yes,” she replied. “I never intended to become an actress. Not at all. I still don’t.”