If someone asked me to choose the ultimate in Stéphane Audran scenes — not her best or most emotive acting, but a sequence that summed up her talent, her presence — I would choose an early moment in Juste Avant la Nuit (Just Before Nightfall, 1971), directed by her then-husband Claude Chabrol. Her character, Hélène Masson, is in the kitchen of her family’s spectacular modern mansion, baking a chocolate cake with her daughter and the girl’s au pair. She is mixing the batter with a wooden spoon, holding it up from time to time to check whether it has reached the proper consistency. Her posture is erect and graceful as she walks around the room with her bowl, chatting and mixing. Hélène has no apron over her Karl Lagerfeld outfit. There is no need, as Hélène probably has not stained an outfit since her days in lycée. The hard work of baking has touched neither her hair nor her maquillage.
Charles, her glum and homely husband, played by Michel Bouquet, seems if anything lightly annoyed by the perfection of his wife, her outfit, and her devotion to her batter. Well, he just strangled his mistress (and best friend’s wife) during a bit of afternoon s&m foreplay, so Charles is a mite preoccupied. Besides, he’s used to Hélène being there, being perfect. And this complacent marital boredom must inevitably be part of his downfall, for how could a normal man ever get used to Stéphane Audran?
Catherine Deneuve is often cited as the epitome of cool French beauty, but Audran, who died last week at the age of 85, had an equal claim to that title, with her sculpted face, extraordinary eyes, and chicly slender figure. In two dozen films directed by Chabrol — before, during, and after their marriage, which lasted from 1964 to 1980 — Audran was often the ideal of a worldly and beautiful Frenchwoman. Especially during the early years, Chabrol delighted in exploring the variations, the enigmas, of his wife’s face. One of the most famous images of Audran is our last glimpse of her in Les Biches (The Does, 1968), in which she plays Frédérique, a rich and conscienceless society woman. Frédérique is looking in the mirror, using a gold pencil to touch up her lips, with no suspicion of the fate looking over her shoulder in the person of Why (Jacqueline Sassard), her discarded lover. It is a look that Chabrol captures and holds, like the face of Greta Garbo at the end of Queen Christina, but with a macabre twist.
Like Garbo and many another star who radiated poise, Audran grew up shy and awkward, her early life stunted by circumstances beyond her control. She was born Colette Suzanne Jeannine Dacheville in Versailles in November 1932. Her doctor father died when she was six. Colette suffered from chronic renal colic into her teens, and her mother was intensely protective. Still, she had the acting bug — she once said that her lack of childhood playmates had caused her to invent her own — and went to acting classes, where she met Jean-Louis Trintignant and briefly married him.
She played some stage roles, making little impression in any of them. Then, at the end of the Fifties, she met Chabrol. He cast her as a petit vamp in a little black dress in Les Cousins (The Cousins, 1959), and, for the first time, an Audran performance caused audiences to pay attention. The following year, in Chabrol’s early masterpiece Les Bonnes Femmes (The Good Time Girls, 1960), she played Ginette, the pretty salesgirl whose confidence masks both a desire to sing and intense doubt as to whether she can. From there on, for many years, it was Chabrol whose films seemed able to bring out every facet of Audran’s persona and talent. He was the earliest of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics to turn his hand to directing, with Le Beau Serge in 1958. Thereafter, he became the most prolific of the New Wave directors, with fifty-odd films to his credit. Chabrol’s best work has an understated elegance and mordant wit; of this Hitchcock-worshipping coterie of directors, it is Chabrol who primarily invites sustained comparison to the master. And most of his best films had Stéphane Audran in the cast.
Audran’s looks often seemed to typecast her as a French bourgeoise, as in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), where Luis Buñuel took her unflappable dinner-party manners and pushed them as far as they would go. But her roles for Chabrol, while superficially similar to one another, have tremendous variation in personality and values. In Le Boucher (The Butcher, 1970), she is a pensive schoolteacher, deprived of an object for her romantic dreams, who grows fond of a charming butcher (Jean Yanne) even as she begins to suspect that he’s a serial killer (he is). In La Rupture (The Breach, 1970 — a personal favorite), Audran plays another Hélène, this one a mother fighting for custody of her son after her husband attacks the child in a psychotic rage. The opening scene is one of Chabrol’s most frightening, as Hélène goes from trying to prepare breakfast to wielding a frying pan against her son’s own father.
Audran was always convincing as a mother in these Seventies films by her husband: patient, reasonable, as respectful of her children as she is of anyone else, no matter the craziness swirling around them (which, in a Chabrol movie, means serious craziness). A standout example of this kind of part is Les Noces Rouges (Wedding in Blood, 1973), where Audran’s Lucienne has a cozy, almost girlfriend-like relationship with her teenage daughter, one that she believes she can maintain even after helping her lover (Michel Piccoli) murder the girl’s insufferable stepfather.
The idea that France, unlike the U.S., still provides juicy lead roles to women in late–middle age is something of a myth, as Audran would have told you: “Men are flesh-oriented and they like their flesh fresh,” she said after she and Chabrol divorced. Even before their breakup, Audran had transitioned to supporting roles. But these showed how versatile she was when given a chance: the slatternly working-class mother to Isabelle Huppert’s murderess in Violette Nozière (Violette, 1978), the wife whose shrewishness helps drive Philippe Noiret’s policeman over the brink in Bertrand Tavernier’s wonderful Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate, 1981). Another gem, light but delightful, is the underseen Poulet au Vinaigre (Chicken With Vinegar, 1985), where she plays an obsessively controlling, wheelchair-bound mother whose postman son brings her the town’s mail to steam open and read.
Most obituaries have given pride of place to Audran’s late-career triumph in Babette’s Feast (1988), from Danish director Gabriel Axel, where she plays a French refugee in Denmark — a part that required Audran to learn her lines phonetically in Danish. Axel uses Audran’s wondrous calm to great effect, as when Babette — who back in her Paris days was a cordon bleu chef — must listen to her elderly female employers’ long-winded explanations of how to prepare salt cod, ale-bread soup, and other horrors.
Her last role for Chabrol was in Betty, in 1993. Audran said that when she read the script, she knew he was telling her they would not work together again. She plays Laure, a rich alcoholic widow who has moved into the Trianon hotel in Versailles to while away the rest of her days and, she hopes, keep loneliness at bay. The film, however, focuses not on Laure but on Betty (Marie Trintignant), an extraordinary wreck of a young woman who’s washed up in town after signing over custody of her children. Laure takes Betty under her wing, and, because this is a Chabrol film — based on a Georges Simenon novel to boot — betrayal is nigh.
After the betrayal happens, Laure sits on her bed and drinks a full tumbler of J&B. She packs her bags and, after a stay that has lasted years, Laure checks out of the hotel, without explanation. She clasps the hands of the employees — the clerk, the bellboy, the valet — one by one, calls them by their names, and bids them au revoir. Laure’s clothes are impeccable, her head is high, her movement is as elegant as if she never had a drink in her life. Dry-eyed and without a trace of self-pity, she climbs behind the wheel of her car and drives off.