Flickhead
Appreciation
By Ray Young

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Stéphane Audran, Jacqueline Sassard in Les Biches

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Stéphane Audran

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    As she moved across the bridge, it was a heady mix. The lighting subdued to a pastel haze, the audio a woozy blend of distant music and organic resonance, all of it rubbing together like the moist palms of a patient, scheming conspirator. Arriving into view on this late afternoon, Stéphane Audran, so elegant in black, seduces us from the start. If one wishes to experience her sleek charisma, look no further than these opening moments of Les Biches (1968).
    From the latter years of the French nouvelle vague, it was directed by Claude Chabrol. After a variety of supporting parts in his earlier work (they were once married and have done over twenty films together), Les Biches was a first endeavor at exploring Audran’s command and vulnerability in a complex lead -- an arrogant lesbian reigning over a secluded world of psychological role play. Yet within the simmering drama, there are moments of delightful buoyancy -- Audran introducing her new girlfriend to the cook, or when she covers her ears from the resident “musicians.” Yes, she’s quite excellent in comedy.

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Stéphane Audran, Claude Chabrol and Jacqueline Sassard filming Les Biches

    Born in 1932, rarely taking breaks from the screen since the late 1950’s, Audran has appeared in over a hundred films. English-speaking audiences have encountered her, albeit all-too briefly in ventures that failed at providing her any lasting mainstream celebrity: as the femme fatale in the George Segal comedy, The Black Bird (1975); Ivan Passer’s unnoticed Silver Bears (1977); Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980); plus small roles in the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, Maximum Risk (1996), and the children’s comedy, Madeline (1998). She has also acted extensively for television, and was in the popular mini-series, Brideshead Revisited (1981). But most of her work (and fame) has remained in France, in many unassuming movies that haven’t attracted distribution outside its borders.
    Above all the other filmmakers, Chabrol prized Audran’s fine face and perfect body, and, as far back as Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), understood a low-angle close-up of her profile brought forth an exquisite declaration. Her large, almond-shaped eyes with glistening emerald centers, could effortlessly entrance from a deadlock stare. And her lovely voice would gently tremble from its delicate semi-monotone when feigning confusion or subtly issuing an order, immediately snaring one’s attention. You can see it displayed in several of the director’s thrillers: the La Muette segment of Paris vu Par (1965), where she played the wife to Chabrol’s on-screen character; pouty and seductive in La Femme Infidèle (1969); having a tipsy chat with Jean Yanne during a leisurely (and lengthy) stroll in Le Boucher (1969); as the working girl fleeing oppression in the woefully overlooked La Rupture (1970); and scrambling to make love with Michel Piccoli in Les Noces Rouges (1973).
    Her image vital to the nouvelle vague, Luis Buñuel cast Audran along with his hungry bunch of Euro-chic fashion plates in Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie (1972). Constantly prodded by the surrealist’s droll fate, her character deflects all opposition with a vacuous smile. Plucking straw from her hair after rolling in the garden with Jean-Pierre Cassel, she skillfully embodied the stony hauteur set in Buñuel’s sites.
    Her nearest approach to international stardom came with the surprise success of Gabriel Axel’s Babettes Gæstebud (1987). Older, visibly withdrawn, but with a mild glimmer of cynicism (watch her haggle over prices with the fisherman), Audran portrayed yesterday’s elitist deflated to housekeeping for a pair of spinsters. Her wondrous eyes now revealed the distress in Babette’s bruised soul, a gaze of longing soured to grief. But: how she came to life in the kitchen! It’s a charming film, and Audran, toiling over a dinner of Soupe a la Tortue a la Louisianne and Caille en Sarcophage, serves us well.

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Claude Chabrol and Stéphane Audran

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This article by Flickhead originally appeared