Obituary: Stephane Audran
Award-winning actress who struck a famous partnership with top film director
Stephane Audran, who died last Tuesday aged 85, was one of the most celebrated actresses associated with the New Wave that transformed French cinema in the 1960s. For many years she was married to Claude Chabrol, one of the founders of that movement, and appeared regularly in his films, notably Le Boucher (1970).
In real life, they shared an appetite for good food and fine wines, and almost all their films managed to feature at least one slap-up domestic meal. Her finest on-screen banquet was the one that she served in the Oscar-winning Danish picture Babette's Feast (1987) - a truly resplendent affair that is savoured as the most succulent feast film fans never tasted.
This was the fun side of Stephane Audran's career, but she was also widely respected for her straight acting, notably in films such as Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and Chabrol's Violette Noziere (1977), based on a notorious 1930s' murder case and for which she won a Cesar Award in France.
She was born Colette Suzanne Jeannine Dacheville on November 8, 1932 at Versailles, the daughter of a doctor who died when she was six. Despite being a sickly child, she began her career on stage, where she met and befriended two young actors, Gerard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy.
When they were both cast in an early Chabrol film, they invited her to drop in on a post-production party. There she was introduced to the director and, half in jest, asked for a part in his next film. Sensing her potential, Chabrol agreed and cast her in Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) as Ginette, one of four Parisian shop assistants in search of a spicier life. They were married four years later.
Chabrol cast his wife regularly, initially with limited success. The Tiger Loves Fresh Blood (1964) was a parody of comic strips that few found thrilling or even funny. But from Les Biches (1968) onwards (in which Chabrol filmed her playing erotic scenes with her previous husband, Jean-Louis Trintignant, to whom she had been briefly married), the pair gradually discovered a new working maturity unmatched in modern French cinema.
La Femme Infidele (1969), the first of four films in which the leading characters were named Charles and Helene, marked a breakthrough. It seemed initially to be fairly conventional - merely a commonplace tale of marital infidelity like many another. But there was a secondary, underlying influence. Before becoming a film-maker, Chabrol had published a book with Eric Rohmer analysing Hitchcock, and La Femme Infidele had rich undertones of Psycho.
In the film, Stephane Audran's screen husband murders her lover and dumps the body in the lake, just as Anthony Perkins does with his victim in Psycho. This role signalled a new maturity to Stephane Audran's playing, only for her magnificently to cap it in Le Boucher.
The butcher, both literal and figurative, is a small-town shopkeeper who takes a fancy to Stephane Audran's character Helene, a schoolteacher. At the same time, the community is fearful of an unidentified sex killer. It proves to be him.
In the same year, Stephane Audran and Chabrol made La Rupture, in which she played a concerned mother seeking to wrest control of her child from her husband and his vindictive father. Just Before Nightfall (1971) completed the quartet of her acting triumphs. Les Noces Rouges (1973), however, was sadly not in the same league. The marriage to Chabrol ended in 1980, although they continued making films together, including Betty (1992).
Attempts to build an international career outside France were not successful. She scarcely registered in her only Hollywood thriller, The Black Bird (1975), while Eagle's Wing (1979), a western shot by the British director Anthony Harvey, though unexpectedly insightful, was not what fans of the genre were looking for and soon vanished.
She played a supporting role in The Big Red One (1970), a tribute by Samuel Fuller to America's 1st Infantry Division (hence the title) in World War II, but her contribution was barely noticed.
Her later career never matched the achievements of her best work with Chabrol, and tailed off with supporting roles. But she could still rise to the occasion if the material was of sufficient quality.
One such was the British television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1981), in which she played Lord Marchmain's mistress, which older television viewers may still remember with affection.
Among her later films was La Fille de Monaco (2008), a comedy-drama in which she plays a woman accused of killing a former lover.
Interviewed in 1994 about her approach to learning a role, Stephane Audran observed: "It starts with the clothes. It is the first thing you have to think of. It's helpful because, if you notice, the way you wear your clothes is the way you are."
She is survived by her son, the actor Thomas Chabrol.