Versatile French actress who went beyond Babette’s Feast

French actress Stephane Audran, in a photo taken in 1988, thrived on challenges, covering a wide spectrum of roles in her career.
French actress Stephane Audran, in a photo taken in 1988, thrived on challenges, covering a wide spectrum of roles in her career.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Stephane Audran, the French actress who served up one of cinema’s most sumptuous meals as the title character in the 1987 film Babette’s Feast, died on Tuesday. She was 85.

French Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen, announcing her death on Twitter, said “her presence, her elegance and her inimitable voice remain and resonate”.

Audran’s son, actor Thomas Chabrol, told Agence France-Presse that his mother had been ill for some time and had died at home, but he did not give a location.

Although Babette’s Feast was her best-known movie internationally – it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film – Audran by then had been famous for decades in France.

Her persona onscreen was that of a glossy, almost mannequin-like sophisticate, a swan-necked beauty who yearned, cuckolded and destroyed with not so much as a Gallic shrug.

She was the stylish fire-and-ice muse for stylised New Wave film-maker Claude Chabrol, to whom she was married from 1964 to 1980. He cast her in menacing dramas with overtones of class consciousness begetting sexual violence, including The Good Girls (1960) and The Butcher (1970).

The Unfaithful Wife (1969), in which she was a cheating spouse, was a showcase of the actress’ droll minimalism.

New York Times film critic Roger Greenspun observed: “She controls a sense of social parody so sustained that her simple ‘Bonjour’ becomes a major critique of French language and civilisation.”

Another career high point was Luis Bunuel’s comedy The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972), another winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, in which Audran played one of a group of cultured guests at a dinner party that turns increasingly surreal.

She appeared in a handful of English-language films, including as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s mother in the film Maximum Risk (1996). She also played the Italian mistress of Laurence Olivier’s Lord Marchmain in the British television 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. She was a sickly child whose overprotective mother was not keen to see express acting ambitions. An early marriage to acting school classmate Jean-Louis Trintignant ended in divorce.

In a career in which she covered a wide range of roles – drama, comedy, romance – she was best known for her turn in Babette’s Feast. Audran played the enigmatic title character, a sophisticated Frenchwoman who arrives unexpectedly in a remote Danish fishing village in the 1800s and shakes things up when she prepares a sumptuous, cosmopolitan meal for a group of its dour, upright inhabitants.

The movie was by Danish director Gabriel Axel, who said casting the quintessentially French Audran, rather than a Danish star, was crucial. “She opens a door differently from a Danish woman,” he said in a 1988 interview. “She even moves differently. Now this is very important. It wouldn’t have been the same with a Danish actress.”

In a 1994 interview with The Chicago Tribune, Audran had an unusual description of how she begins to find a character. “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.”


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2018, with the headline 'Versatile French actress who went beyond Babette’s Feast'. Print Edition | Subscribe