Anouk Aimée obituary: French New Wave embodiment of sophisticated romance

Aimée, who has died aged 92, combined sensuousness and vulnerability in celebrated films by Jacques Demy, Federico Fellini and in the Palme d’Or winner A Man and a Woman.

Anouk AiméeImage preserved by the BFI National Archive

In the mythology of French cinema, Anouk Aimée was often identified with her role in one of the more dubious Cannes Palme d’Or winners: Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman (Un homme et une femme, 1966). Whether swooning sensuously or blinking pensively behind the upturned collar of her sheepskin coat, Aimée’s Anne Gauthier, a role that won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, became an international 1960s embodiment of the sophisticated romantic woman whose often absent gaze says she knows something – about love, about life – that we don’t. A key moment comes when Jean-Louis Trintignant asks if she is married, and Anne replies with a knowing, ambivalent “Mm hm…” You can bet this helped crystallise the English-speaking world’s assumptions about Euro-sexuality.

Lelouch’s film, while haunting, was Nouvelle Vague lite, the cinematic quintessence of lifestyle chic. A far richer role – justifiably mythical because itself freighted with earlier screen myth – was the title part in Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961). Aimée played a cabaret performer, part western saloon queen, part Marlene Dietrich, as the name suggests: but, in the film’s flickering play of silver-screen illusion and post-war drabness, she was also a single mother trying to hold life and dreams together in a seaside town, Demy’s native Nantes. 

Lola (1961)

Aimée plays her as skittish, flirty, grandstanding but vulnerable, a little girl in a femme fatale’s raincoat. Her great moment is ‘Lola’s Song’ (aka ‘C’est moi Lola’), a signature number in which the character, real name Cécile, presents her vamp credentials. We see her rehearsing it, delivering the tongue-twister lines to Michel Legrand’s Latin-styled music, singing in semi-spoken style with Monroe breathiness, pausing to tilt her top hat slyly at the camera. The voice is actually that of Jacqueline Danno, at one time a stage Sally Bowles, but Aimée ends the song in brisk soubrette style by suddenly asking a fellow performer the time. Hearing the answer, she gives a little gasp and exits.

Model Shop (1969)

Aimée would play Lola again, to poignantly downbeat effect, in Demy’s Model Shop (1969), which found the character stranded in tawdry Californian exile but keeping up iconic appearances, driving through LA’s hinterlands in an Audrey Hepburn guise of sunglasses and white headscarf.

There were also featured appearances opposite Marcello Mastroianni in two Fellini classics: in sunglasses by night in La dolce vita (1960), embodying jaded erotic ennui as a socialite who commandeers a prostitute’s bed; then in 8½ (1963), in hornrims and a severe crop as the wife of anti-hero Guido, her stiff demeanour exploding in bursts of rage and mockery.

Aimée was born Nicole Dreyfus, on 27 April 1932, the daughter of two actors: her mother Geneviève Soria had worked with Julien Duvivier and Jean Epstein. During the Occupation, she was evacuated from Paris and her name changed to Françoise Durand, to keep her safe as a child of Jewish parentage. In 1947, she was spotted by director Henri Calef, who cast her in La Maison sous la mer; her character was called Anouk, which became her professional name, ‘Aimée’ reputedly suggested by the poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert.

She went on to star in Romeo and Juliet variation The Lovers of Verona (André Cayatte, 1949) opposite Serge Reggiani, and with Gérard Philippe in Jacques Becker’s Montparnasse 19 (1958) as Modigliani’s partner Jeanne Hébuterne. The 50s also brought work for Alexandre Astruc, Georges Franju and Duvivier.

In the 60s, Aimée was often cast with European enigma in mind, not always to resounding effect: notably in Sidney Lumet’s The Appointment as the fashion model wife of a jealous lawyer (Omar Sharif), and in Lawrence Durrell adaptation Justine (both films 1969), after which director George Cukor lamented her lack of interest (she was, he shuddered, “indomitably refined”). Aimée confessed that she sometimes took roles because they paid, but art was a motivation too: she turned down the female lead in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) in order to work with Belgian auteur André Delvaux.

A Man and a Woman (1966)

She won best actress in Cannes for her role in Marco Bellocchio’s A Leap in the Dark (1980), as a woman in a morbidly troubled relationship with her brother (Michel Piccoli). In 1978, she won a César for My First Love (Elie Chouraqui); an honorary lifetime César would follow in 2002. There was also a heavyweight role opposite Ugo Tognazzi in Bertolucci’s Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981).

Along with smaller roles and prestige cameos (notably Robert Altman’s 1994 fashion satire Pret-a-Porter), there was also theatre: between 1990 and 2014, she appeared in productions of A.R. Gurney’s two-hander Love Letters with partners including Depardieu, Delon, Philippe Noiret and, naturally, Trintignant. She continued to be paired with the latter in A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later (1986) and her final film, 2019’s The Best Years of a Life – sequels that milked a French audience’s appetite for nostalgia, more successfully in the latter, which brooded tenderly and realistically on the effects of mortality on these feted screen lovers.

Indeed, Aimée remained a regular presence in Lelouch’s ever-glossier films as they took on an earnest philosophical dimension, including quasi-sci-fi Viva la vie (1984), with Aimée among a star cast (Piccoli, Rampling, Aznavour) discovering that The Truth Is Out There.

Aimée was married four times, her husbands including director Nikos Papatakis, Albert Finney and singer/musician Pierre Barouh, who also appeared in A Man and a Woman, and who put lyrics to that film’s silky Francis Lai music. 

  • Anouk Aimée, 27 April 1932 to 18 June 2024