Danielle Darrieux in Max Ophuls’s “Madame de…,” playing at the Cinematheque Toulouse Thursday. Image courtesy Cinematheque Toulouse.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
I’ve spent the past month or so in the company of the most charming, droll, drop-dead gorgeous, glamorous *and* down to earth, alluring, funniest, romantic, and timeless of French actresses — the one who formed the mold for all the others who followed. Since Danielle Darrieux died at the age of 100 on October 17, I’ve been catching up on some of her films, from Henry Koster’s 1938 American comedy “The Rage of Paris,” in which the 21-year-old Darrieux plays a New York chorus girl who poses as a Parisian femme du monde to bag a millionaire through the 1958 “Drole de Dimanche” and “La Vie a Deux,” the latter a series of sketches about troubled marriages. I haven’t yet had time to re-screen Jacques Demy’s 1967 “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort,” the musical in which Darrieux, portraying the mother of Françoise Dorléac and her real-life sister Catherine Deneuve (whose model she may have been, although Darrieux is smarter), was the only cast member whose voice wasn’t dubbed, the actress also being such an accomplished chanteuse that not only did she sing, but her singing often set off the plot. (And when I say she sang, I don’t mean that she was another one of those French actors who thinks s/he can sing, a la Gerard Depardieu in his new album covering Barbara. I mean that if she wasn’t an actress she could have been a full-time singer; the sheer warmth and beauty of her voice even went against the high-pitched ((Frehel)) or morose ((Piaf)) tonalities that were the mode when she came up. Grover Dale, our colleague who played opposite Darrieux in Demy’s film, told the DI and AV, “It was apparent that Danielle was a wise and melodious woman. What a privilege it was… just being in the vicinity of her music.”)
Unfortunately, the only film I’ve screened which seems to be part of the Cinematheque Toulouse’s tribute, running through December 13, is Max Ophuls’s 1953 “Madame de…,” a 19th century melodrama in which she cheats on Charles Boyer’s dignified general with Vittorio de Sica’s caddish baron, which screens in the French Midi city Thursday. What that film has in common with all the others — besides Darrieux’s blood-warming singing — is that she inevitably succeeds in re-conquering a man she’s betrayed, rejected, or otherwise disappointed: James Mason as a traitor she’s double-crossed, who can’t help smiling at how he’s been out-foxed at the end of the 1952 “Five Fingers”; Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who falls for her anyway after spending most of “The Rage of Paris” trying to unmask her before his enchanted best friend, the millionaire (and in which film, like any good comedian, Darrieux’s not afraid to show herself at unflattering angles, as when she gets stuck in a collapsed window, leaving only her pajama-covered butt projecting into the room); Bourvil as the estranged husband who finally relents after spending most of a “Drole de Dimanche” plotting to kill her (there’s a droll scene in which a very young Jean-Paul Belmondo, pursuing the couple in a roadster with Bourvil’s landlord to try to derail his plot, pulls out a trumpet to mimic a police siren to get the car ahead of them to pull over); and most of all a heartbreaking Boyer, who finally challenges de Sica’s baron to a duel not for cuckolding him, but for abandoning Darrieux and sending her into a mortal spiral. At one point Boyer’s general (whose own cheating, it should be pointed out, is one chain in a series of seemingly chance events sealing his wife’s doom), agonized by her growing distance from him and apparent determination to let go of life, tells her, more with regret than rancor, “I’m not the figure you’ve made me out to be.” As an actor, part of Darrieux’s gift was to make all her partners better than they were. (If Boyer was always a deft comedian, I’ve never seen him so poignant; he almost steals the show, his character’s fate seeming just as tragic as hers — and it’s clear that being a helpless witness to Darrieux’s demise sets this off.)
Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio de Sica in Max Ophuls’s “Madame de…,” playing at the Cinematheque Toulouse Thursday. Image courtesy Cinematheque Toulouse.
For her part, Darrieux was as brilliant a comedian as she was a heartbreaking tragedian. If her desperate, eyes-shut refrain “Je ne vous aime pas, je ne vous aime pas” while pounding her head against the door of her mansion as de Sica parts on the other side, meant to convey the opposite of “I don’t love you,” is devastating, her impeccable rhythm in a fracas with her lover in “La vie a deux” is also an example of verbal repartee and physical timing that should be required viewing in every acting class.
In the one film I haven’t yet had the courage to watch in its entirety, “Crime doesn’t pay,” yet another of the formulaic ‘sketch’ films that were popular in Europe in the early 1960s, Darrieux, still ravishing at 45 and having derouted yet another male who would have had her hide, ends the film with a semi-deliriius, flirtatious, luxuriant “J’ai soif” from her bed. 100 ans, Danielle Darrieux, et on a toujours soif de vous.*
PS: Darrieux isn’t the only grande dame of French cinema we’ve lost this past year. Jeanne Moreau, Michelle Morgan (at the age of 97), Emmanuelle Riva and, most recently, Anne Wiazemsky, one of Jean-Luc Godard’s muses, 70, have also disappeared. (To hear an audio broadcast, in French, of Wiazemsky’s autobiographical story “Mon Enfant de Berlin,” click here.) All these deuils are enough to make one regret that the State no longer throws national funerals for departed giants of the theater, like the mass procession for Sarah Bernhardt. (Whose name pops up in “Madame de …” when Boyer, having confirmed Darrieux’s infidelity but refusing to discuss it, proclaims, “Tonight we shall speak only of Sarah Bernhardt.”)
*100 years, Danielle Darrieux, and we still haven’t got enough of you.