Friday, January 5, 2007
Sometime on June 26th, 1967 a rented Renault 10 slammed into a post just outside of Nice, flipped over and burned the young woman driving alive. Her body was soon identified as French actress Francois Dorleac, she was one of the most popular and beloved stars of the sixties and she was just 25 years old. Her family and friends were shattered to hear the news, including her 24 year old sister Catherine Deneuve. Messages from all over the world poured in from colleagues and fans all reflecting the same stunned reaction that such a beautiful and talented young woman had been taken away.
Dorleac came from a theatrical family, her father was French stage actor Maurice Dorleac and she was in the theatre herself as a young child. Growing up she was known for her vivacious personality and always seemed to give the family, which seemed closed off, a lightness.
She was only 18 when she began her film career and she was featured in series of small roles until landing two roles just after her 21st birthday that would change her life. The two roles would show her amazing versatility, one would let her play close to herself while the other would call upon her to mine some of her family's polar qualities.
Philippe de Broca's hysterical and frantic spy spoof That Man From Rio would give Francoise opportunity to show her comedic chops opposite one of France's biggest stars, Jean Paul Belmondo. She stole the film outright, winning over not only the audiences that flocked to see it but the cast and crew as well. Everyone seemed to agree on one thing about Francoise, they all loved her.
The Soft Skin was the film that really solidified her as a dramatic force to be reckoned with. One of Francois Truffaut's coldest films and most controversial. It divides many of his fans and briefly damaged his career since his film just before had been the hugely popular Jules and Jim. While The Soft Skins critical reception was cold reaction to Francoise's performance as the airline stewardess that leads Jean Desailly in an adulterous affair was universally acclaimed. Truffaut himself would rhapsodize about her to the press and finally conceded that even if the film was one of his weakest, working with Dorleac had made it a valuable experience.
She would continue to work in France for a couple of years before branching out to the English language market with Genghis Khan and Where The Spies Are. Film offers were pouring in when she would release her greatest film and one of the key films of the 60s, Cul-De-Sac directed by a young Polish filmmaker named Roman Polanski.
Polanski was just at the beginning of his legendary career and Cul-De-Sac is an important work that, along with his Repulsion and Knife In The Water, would establish him as the great master of cinematic oppression. Never had a filmmaker been able to tap so securely into people's darkest neurosis and psyches. He was a virtual hurricane of ideas and creation in this period and Dorleac delivers a great performance for him, tapping into dimensions that her earlier work had only hinted at. Polanski would get the same out of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion as Catherine had followed Francoise into films.
Francoise would change gears completely after Cul-De-Sac with the colorful musical Young Girls of Rochefort opposite Hollywood legend Gene Kelly and her sister Catherine. She would prove equally at home in a Hollywood style musical under the direction of Jacques Demy and truth be told outshone her legendary sister with ease.
Her final film, Billion Dollar Brain, would be made by Ken Russell, here at the beginning of his career and just before making a string of genius films. A cold war drama co-starring Michael Caine that has grown in stature over the years shows Francoise at the peak of her beauty and talent.
Francoise Dorleac is much more than one of the could have been great ones. She would have without question become one of the most respected and important actresses of the seventies and had already shown that she could have conquered International and American films. Her death changed everyone around her, mostly her sister who would become the legend Francoise never had the chance to. Recalling the young girl that he had made The Soft Skin with, Truffaut wrote in 1968:
"Francoise Dorleac represented even more,
a person such as one meets rarely in one's lifetime,
an incomparable young woman whose charm, femininity,
intelligence, grace and unbelievable moral force made her
unforgettable to anyone who had spoken with her for an hour."
These photos are from the lovely book that her sister put together in the late 90s called Elle Sappelait Francoise...
She is still missed and loved by those who knew her and by us who remember the roles and spirit she left us.