April 4, 2018

The Style, Strength, and Daring of Stéphane Audran

By Stuart Mitchner

If the seismic impact of the deaths of film stars could be measured, Jeanne Moreau’s might have scored a 7 or 8 on the Richter scale last August. Not so the death last week of Stéphane Audran, at least not in this country, where she is best known as the title character in Babette’s Feast (1987). Her stature in France was such that her passing was announced by the culture minister. Moreau’s was announced by President Macron.

In 2001, after referring to the cliché that life is a mountain (“You go up, reach the top and then go down”), Moreau said, “To me, life is going up until you are burned by flames.” She was 73 at the time.

Audran’s self-portrait of herself was less scripted. At 56, she claimed that she liked “jumping into the unknown.” Six years later, she told another interviewer that acting “starts with the clothes” because “the way you wear your clothes is the way you are.”

Smoking in the Street

The dynamic of daring and dress informs Hélène, the stylish schoolteacher who saves a killer’s soul in Le Boucher, and Hélène, the stylish ex-stripper who prevails against odds in La Rupture. Both films were released in 1970 and directed by Audran’s then-husband Claude Chabrol. She was 38 at the time.

Audran comes elegantly, funnily into her own early in Le Boucher as she and Popaul the butcher (Jean Yanne) are walking tipsily down the street after a wine-drenched wedding party. She’s wearing a classy sleeveless black and white check dress and smoking a cigarette, which surprises her companion, who looks less like a butcher than a man about town (this is a French butcher after all); it seems that women don’t smoke in the street in the provinces, certainly not the town schoolteacher and headmistress, Mademoiselle Helene, as her students call her, and here she is sashaying along with the cigarette jutting from her mouth and a swagger in her walk as if she and le boucher were strolling down the ChampsÉlysées. To put it crudely, she’s smoking the hell out of that cigarette, moving it around, making it talk, and generally doing things with movieland’s favorite prop that would prompt a smile from seasoned smokers like Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. It’s not that she’s showing off or arrogantly defying the conventions of the town. She’s simply high, enjoying the back and forth with a new friend who may be a serial killer; most of all she’s feeling good in that dress, wearing it as if it were made for her and she were made for it. As she said in the interview quoted above, it’s all about “the way you wear your clothes.”

Balzac’s Hélène

In four of her groundbreaking films with Chabrol, Audran plays a woman named Hélène. The others are the unfaithful wife whose husband murders her lover (La Femme infidèle, 1969), and the faithful wife whose husband murders his lover (Juste avant la nuit, 1971). If, like me, you’re wondering why Chabrol chooses to impose this fictional surname on an actress who happens to be his wife, the most likely answer is the scene in Le Boucher where Mademoiselle Hélène has her little ones writing out a piece of heightened prose from Balzac’s wildly romantic novella, Une femme de trente ans, something it’s hard to imagine any real-life teacher assigning to kids their age, even in France. After some giggling because the passage being dictated is about an exotic woman who shares the same surname as their teacher, the children dutifully copy into their notebooks a sentence freighted with phrases like “a feeling of greatness” and “a majestic firmness” that ends with “a profound sentiment that would impress the coarsest nature” — all about Balzac’s Hélène.

When Chabrol’s Hélène is startled to see Popaul the butcher (Jean Yanne) peering in the window, trying to get her attention as she’s reading the concluding words, you realize that Chabrol is the teacher and you’re the class. In case you (and the class) don’t get it all down, she repeats the part juxtaposing “profound sentiment” with “coarsest nature.” Having set his theme to the tune of Balzac’s prose, Chabrol has the butcher enter the classroom with a leg of lamb wrapped like a bouquet for “Mademoiselle Hélène,” which is what Popaul calls her throughout the film; she’s the teacher and he’s the student, and it’s his cherished Mademoiselle Hélène whose life he spares when there’s nothing but a knife between them.

Powerfully Intimate

In the study of Alfred Hitchcock that he co-wrote in 1957 with his fellow director Erich Rohmer, Chabrol refers to Balzac’s Honorine and The Village Curé. In the context of “a fundamental leitmotif of world literature,” the idea is that Balzac is writing about “the eternal conflict between liberty and morality” and “the burden of a remorse or a scruple from which the hero — and more often yet the heroine — is freed only by a confession.”

While it’s doubtful that Chabrol would reprise the idea more than a decade later in his screenplay for Le Boucher, Popaul is freed by confessing to Hélène and showing her the murder weapon before turning it on himself; it’s also clear that this is the sort of situation Audran had in mind when she spoke of “jumping into the unknown,” because his confession has freed her as well; this is her moment, this is when she becomes truly heroic, rising to the sort of transcendent romantic occasion of which Balzac was a master; as he falls heavily into her arms, she removes the knife, helping him stem the flow of blood and somehow managing to half-carry, half-drag him to her car, which she drives to a hospital as he’s bleeding out; since the only way to move him is to hold him close, it’s a powerfully intimate sequence.

As Hélène follows the gurney toward the hospital elevator, Audran is finding her way through acting’s “unknown.” It’s not as if she’s any less poised and competent and sure of herself than she was walking through the town with a cigarette in her mouth or teaching class or cooking a leg of lamb or dancing the Gavotte with her students or shielding a child from the sight of a butchered corpse; now the clothes she’s wearing are secondary to the way she’s holding the dying man’s frantic needful gaze, keeping her eyes on his, her face expressing the “profound sentiment/coarsest nature” essence of the moment when she leans close to give him the kiss she had refused him earlier in their relationship. It’s one of the tenderest scenes in the work of a director more adept at violence and passion than sentiment.

What about the Hélène in Balzac’s novella? As a child, she accidentally on purpose pushed her little brother off a cliff to his death and as a young woman eloped with a murderer.

Going to Extremes

Balzac is also present in the wildly melodramatic extremes of La Rupture with its boarding house of eccentrics (Chabrol’s hommage to the Maison Vauquer in Pere Goriot) and in the Balzacian machinations employed by a lowlife played to the sleazy hilt by Jean-Pierre Cassel, who destroys himself attempting to frame and defame Audran’s character, Hélène Régnier. The notion of acting as a stylish plunge into the unknown is in play from the moment Hélène hammers her psychotic husband (Jean-Claude Drouot) with a frying pan after he tries to strangle her and hurls their young son into a wall. 

Vincent Canby’s New York Times review reflects the film’s visceral power with Canby admitting that he finds “it difficult to sit comfortably through a movie in which innocence and virtue are so hopelessly imperiled,” and because it has “so many beautiful things in it,” he’s “tempted to suspect some terrible weakness in himself rather than in the film.” Watching it is “tortuous” and “emotionally harrowing.” Although he finds Audran “extraordinarily gifted,” he apparently doesn’t recognize how the film’s excesses only serve to glorify her beauty, strength, and sheer moral stamina. At first you wonder about her shadowy past, but the more you see of her, the more you appreciate her power. Her seeming vulnerability to the onslaught of devices meant to bring her down only reinforces your sympathy and your awareness of the dimensions of her resistance. She’s indestructible. And when she finally sees what her vile antagonist is up to and tells him off, you feel like cheering.

Both Le Boucher and La Rupture, along with Babette’s Feast and a number of Audran’s other films are available on DVD at the Princeton Public Library.