Stéphane Audran belongs to the generation of actresses closely associated with the French New Wave, especially for her work with Claude Chabrol, whose partner, and then wife, she was from 1959 to 1980 (and with whom she had a son, Thomas, born in 1963). Her cool beauty also graced other classics of European cinema, notably the 1987 art house hit, Babette’s Feast.
Born Colette Suzanne Dacheville in Versailles, Audran trained for the stage at the Charles Dullin school in Paris, where she met her first husband, the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (they quickly went their separate ways). She appeared in a couple of small mainstream film parts, and, after a cameo in Les Cousins (1959), began her collaboration with Chabrol proper in Les Bonnes femmes (1960). In this landmark New Wave film, Audran plays Ginette, part of a quartet of Parisian shop assistants who are portrayed as ‘good time girls’ – as the English-language title of the film has it – a misogynist view of women that Audran’s droll and detached manner elegantly transcends.
She came into her own as a leading actress a few years later in a remarkable series of Chabrol films that included Les Biches (1968) and the so-called ‘Hélène cycle’, with La Femme infidèle (1969), Le Boucher, La Rupture (both 1970), and Juste avant la nuit (1971), films often considered chronicles of the affluent Georges Pompidou years. The tall, stunning Audran, with her high cheekbones, striking green eyes and sensual mouth, dominated the films, in which her persona solidified as the sexy but mysterious, impeccably dressed (often by Karl Lagerfeld) bourgeois woman for whom men committed adultery or killed each other. Her performance style was defined by ironic distance, a combination of imperious looks and slow diction. This is also in evidence in her role as a rich hostess in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).
The fate of the male auteur’s ‘muse’ however is that as time goes by she is replaced by a younger woman. On the Chabrolian screen, Audran gave way to Isabelle Huppert (while in real-life the couple divorced and the director married Aurore Pajot, his script supervisor). The watershed, symbolically, was Audran playing the young Huppert’s mother in Violette Nozière in 1978, a part for which she won a César as supporting actress.
Her career from then on took a more diverse turn, alternating international film and television productions (such as Brideshead Revisited in 1981), mainstream French films and a few notable auteur productions, including Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de torchon in 1981 and several titles with Chabrol, amongst them Poulet au vinaigre (1985) and Betty (1992). She would appear on screen until 2008 and in 2009 she published a book on alternative medicine and the environment. But if she kept busy, she was rarely in lead parts.
One major exception was the Danish costume film Babette’s Feast in 1987 (directed by Gabriel Axel, based on a Karen Blixen story), which won the best foreign film Oscar and a host of other prizes, including for Audran. In it she plays a brilliant Parisian chef in exile (fleeing the Paris Commune in 1871) in a remote Puritan community in northern Denmark, who spends money won in a lottery on a lavish banquet for the locals. While Audran remains the image of Parisian sophistication in Chabrol’s bourgeois dramas of the 1960s and 70s, Babette’s Feast proved a fitting, if belated, tribute to her talent, beauty and elegance.