Babette's Feast actress Stephane Audran dies at 85

French actress Stephane Audran, who drew acclaim for performances in Oscar-winning films like Babette's Feast, died on March 27, 2018. She was 85.
French actress Stephane Audran, who drew acclaim for performances in Oscar-winning films like Babette's Feast, died on March 27, 2018. She was 85.PHOTO: AFP

(Washington Post) - Stephane Audran, the coolly elegant and craftily enigmatic French actress who drew acclaim for performances in the Oscar-winning films Babette's Feast and The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie as well as many dramas by her husband, director Claude Chabrol, died on Tuesday (March 27). She was 85.

Her family announced the death, according to French media reports, but did not disclose further information.

Her persona on-screen was that of a glossy, almost mannequin-like sophisticate, a swan-necked beauty with high cheekbones who yearns, cuckolds and destroys with not so much as a Gallic shrug. She was the stylish fire-and-ice muse for a stylised New Wave filmmaker such as Chabrol, who cast her in menacing dramas with overtones of class consciousness begetting sexual violence.

She was one of the ill-fated young Parisian salesgirls in Les Bonnes Femmes (The Good Girls, 1960), a rich and moody Saint-Tropez lesbian at the centre of a bisexual menage a trois in Les Biches (The Does, 1968), a repressed schoolteacher courted by a village meat cutter and serial killer in Le Boucher (The Butcher, 1970), and a cheating spouse who gains a new respect for her foppish husband after he kills her lover in La Femme Infidele (The Unfaithful Wife, 1969).

The last was a showcase for Audran's droll minimalism. "She controls a sense of social parody so sustained that her simple 'Bonjour' becomes a major critique of French language and civilisation," New York Times film critic Roger Greenspun observed.

In Chabrol's Violette Noziere (1978), Audran played against type, as the working-class mother of a notorious Parisian teenage murderess of the 1930s (Isabelle Huppert). Audran won a Cesar Award, the French equivalent of the Oscar, for her supporting performance.

Other directors took strong advantage of her ethereal allure, which made her ideal for roles that stripped away the veneer of civilised behaviour. In Luis Buñuel's surreal masterpiece The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972), she was the embodiment of polite society who, at one point, throws her husband into shrubbery for a nooner before sitting down to a refined lunch.

In director Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast (1987), Audran portrayed a Parisian political refugee in the late 19th century who seeks asylum in a Denmark coastal town and becomes housekeeper for two spinster sisters. Her inscrutable personality and ferocious artistry at the stove is ultimately revealed through the sensual meals she prepares. It was based on a short story by Isak Dinesen and, like Discreet Charm, won the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

"It speaks about the choices in life, and should be interesting for anyone who wants to express themselves but cannot because of what they have to do to survive," Audran told the Chicago Sun Times. "And it is about the profound needs in life, which are material as well as spiritual. When you forget either one, you can feel that something big is missing."

Audran appeared in a handful of English-language films, including as Jean-Claude Van Damme's mother in the action film Maximum Risk (1996). She also played the Italian mistress of Laurence Olivier's Lord Marchmain in the British TV miniseries Brideshead Revisited (1981).

Colette Suzanne Jeannine Dacheville was born in Versailles, France, on Nov 8, 1932. She was six when her father, a physician, died, and she was a sickly child whose overprotective mother was not keen to see her express acting ambitions. An early marriage to acting school classmate Jean-Louis Trintignant ended in divorce.

Audran had small roles before gaining wider attention as a seductress in a black dress in Chabrol's Les Cousins (1959), a film that placed him in the New Wave pantheon alongside directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer. She soon became his muse, and in 1964 his wife, and appeared in nearly all his films over the next two decades.

Among them were The Third Lover (1962), The Champagne Murders (1967)and Wedding In Blood (1973), most of which were variations on Chabrol's concern with middle-class pretense, with a savage twist.

She and Chabrol had a son, actor, director and screenwriter Thomas Chabrol. A complete list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed.

Audran and Chabrol divorced in 1980 - he later said that he "found myself becoming more interested in her as an actress than a wife" - and she remained an important supporting player in several of his films, notably as an alcoholic in Betty (1992).