Danielle Darrieux, a luminous beauty of French cinema whose portrayals of wistful ingenues, romantic temptresses and tragic adulteresses spanned more than eight decades, died Oct. 17 at her home in Bois-le-Roi, France. She was 100.
Her companion, Jacques Jenvrin, confirmed the death to Agence France-Presse but did not provide the cause.
Ms. Darrieux’s poise, languid glamour and fine singing voice catapulted her to stardom as a teenager in the early 1930s and kept her there for decades, whether in melodramas, frisky comedies or light musicals. She appeared in more than 100 films in addition to her work in television and theater.
Her career was seriously threatened immediately after World War II, when she faced accusations of collaboration with the wartime Vichy regime and the German government. But she managed to clear her name, and her career continued unimpeded through the years.
If her prewar movies emphasized her sparkle and charm, the postwar years elicited some of her most riveting dramatic performances. Much of her critical legacy rests on three celebrated films she made with director Max Ophuls: "La Ronde" (1950), "Le Plaisir" (1952) and "The Earrings of Madame de . . . " (1953).
They are love stories, droll, anguished and highly theatrical in their plotting and swirling camera movements. In "La Ronde," she was the understanding paramour of a young man facing sudden impotence. She was a prostitute in "Le Plaisir," based on stories by Guy de Maupassant, and in "Earrings" she played an aristocratic officer's bored wife whose life is upended when she finds passion outside her marriage.
“These are extraordinary pieces of filmmaking,” Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan said in a 2012 interview for this obituary. “If you love film as visual medium, these are some of the masterpieces, and Darrieux was one of Ophuls’s muses. ‘Earrings’ is a quintessentially romantic film but a very artificial story, and it takes a really great actress to take this artificial character — an artificial character in an artificial art — to make it real and moving and subtle. She is quite a presence.”
Ms. Darrieux brought a tender and restrained sympathy to what she regarded as her most delicately calibrated performance: the married woman who falls in love with an opportunistic young man (Gerard Philipe) in "Le rouge et le noir" ("The Red and the Black," 1954), based on the Stendhal novel set in post-Napoleonic France.
In addition to her movie roles, Ms. Darrieux worked in television and theater. In 1970, she replaced Katharine Hepburn on Broadway as the indomitable Gallic entrepreneur Coco Chanel in the musical “Coco.”
The change was greeted warmly by critics. As Mel Gussow dryly noted in his New York Times review, “She is French, and she can sing.” More than that, he wrote, she imbued the role with the hallmarks of a Darrieux performance: beauty, charm, flirtatiousness and vulnerability.
The film historian David Shipman noted those qualities when he wrote, “It is always an unpleasant surprise to all young men when they first go to France that all Frenchwomen are not like Danielle Darrieux.”
Danielle Yvonne Marie Antoinette Darrieux was born May 1, 1917, in Bordeaux, the daughter of an eye doctor and Algerian concert singer. Her father died within a few years, and her family, now in Paris, struggled on her mother’s income from giving music lessons.
She entered film work in 1931 after answering an open-casting call for “Le Bal,” an adaptation of an Irène Némirovsky novella. She won the role of a headstrong adolescent who takes revenge on her social-climbing mother. She appeared in 20 films over the next five years.
She excelled in light fare such as “Battement de coeur” (“Beating Heart,” 1940) as a student in pickpocket school and appeared convincingly in period dramas such as “Port-Arthur” (1936), set during the Russo-Japanese War. She also played unconventional roles, including a willful young bride who consummates an affair with her middle-aged husband’s son in “Mademoiselle ma mère” (1938).
Ms. Darrieux made her deepest early impression on audiences in "Mayerling" (1936) as the doomed lover of an Austrian crown prince played by Charles Boyer, who would later play her husband in "The Earrings of Madame de . . . "
Writing of "Mayerling," New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent wrote that Ms. Darrieux "has a cameo-like perfection of feature and a limpid serenity of manner which make her portrayal of the tragic young Baroness one of the hauntingly charming performances of the year."
After a brief sojourn in Hollywood — she co-starred with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the screwball comedy "The Rage of Paris" (1938) — Ms. Darrieux resumed her career in Europe. (In California, she had complained openly of the lax shooting schedule that amounted to "sitting around" for $4,000 a week.)
She was also France’s highest-paid movie star of the era, but her personal life grew complicated. Her first marriage, to writer-director and former Olympic swimmer Henri Decoin, ended in divorce.
In 1940, she became the companion of Dominican playboy and diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa. When he was held prisoner by the invading Germans in a hotel at Bad Nauheim, Ms. Darrieux traveled to Berlin reputedly to charm high-ranking officials of the Nazi regime into freeing Rubirosa so they could marry (they did, in 1942).
Her visit to the German capital drew the attention of the French Resistance as did her work with Continentale, a Franco-German movie production company founded by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Rumors spread that she was a Nazi sympathizer. She and Rubirosa were once shot at while driving in the streets of Paris, prompting them to move far outside the city limits for the next few years.
After the war, Ms. Darrieux spent an exhausting period working to clear her name as a collaborator. She then joined her husband on his new diplomatic assignment in Rome. The marriage soured because of what Rubirosa once called his “deviations from strict conjugal orthodoxy”; he soon ran off with tobacco heiress Doris Duke.
“One woman is not enough for him,” Ms. Darrieux quipped at the time. “A man like him needs a harem.”
Ms. Darrieux’s third marriage, to author Georges Mitsinkidès, lasted from 1948 until his death in 1991. Besides Jenvrin, a complete list of survivors was not immediately available. She had a son from her third marriage.
In addition to the work for Ophuls in the 1950s, Ms. Darrieux continued a wildly diverse career. In the Georges Feydeau farce “Occupe-toi d’Amélie!” (made in 1949 and released in the United States as “Oh, Amelia”), she played an enticing and teasing free spirit who is pursued by many suitors.
She played a deceitful countess in the acclaimed spy thriller "Five Fingers" (1952) opposite James Mason and starred in a French version of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" (1955), based on the D.H. Lawrence novel.
Ms. Darrieux appeared in dramas about the Resistance, including “Le coup de grâce” (1965) as the wife of a collaborator played by Michel Piccoli and “En haut des marches” (“The Top of the Stairs,” 1983) as a woman who seeks to avenge her husband’s wartime death.
Starting in the 1960s, Ms. Darrieux was closely linked to another icon of French cinema, Catherine Deneuve. She played Deneuve's mother in many films, including the musical extravaganzas "The Young Girls of Rochefort" (1967) and "8 Women" (2002), the last of which featured a mostly all-female cast that included Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart and Fanny Ardant.
Ms. Darrieux remained active on-screen through recent years, drawing favorable reviews as the voice of the resilient Iranian grandmother in the 2007 animated feature “Persepolis,” set before and after the Islamic revolution.
In interviews, Ms. Darrieux revealed that she was an instinctive performer who shunned rehearsals and did not like to talk about process.
“That’s why they gave me my first role, at 14: because I didn’t know anything,” she told the French newspaper Le Figaro. “I don’t put myself ‘in the skin’ of my characters. I read the thing, I know if I like it or not.”
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