Stéphane Audran, the coolly elegant and craftily enigmatic French actress who drew acclaim for performances in the Oscar-winning films “Babette’s Feast” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” as well as many dramas by her husband, director Claude Chabrol, died March 27 at 85.
Her family announced the death, according to French media reports, but did not disclose further information.
Her persona on-screen was that of a glossy, almost mannequin-like sophisticate, a swan-necked beauty with high cheekbones who yearns, cuckolds and destroys with not so much as a Gallic shrug. She was the stylish fire-and-ice muse for a stylized New Wave filmmaker such as Chabrol, who cast her in menacing dramas with overtones of class consciousness begetting sexual violence.
She was one of the ill-fated young Parisian salesgirls in “Les Bonnes Femmes” (“The Good Girls,” 1960), a rich and moody Saint-Tropez lesbian at the center of a bisexual ménage à trois in “Les Biches” (“The Does,” 1968), a repressed schoolteacher courted by a village meat cutter and serial killer in “Le Boucher” (“The Butcher,” 1970), and a cheating spouse who gains a new respect for her foppish husband after he kills her lover in “La Femme Infidèle” (“The Unfaithful Wife,” 1969).
The last was a showcase for Ms. Audran’s droll minimalism. “She controls a sense of social parody so sustained that her simple ‘Bonjour’ becomes a major critique of French language and civilization,” New York Times film critic Roger Greenspun observed.
In Chabrol’s “Violette Nozière” (1978), Ms. Audran played against type, as the working-class mother of a notorious Parisian teenage murderess of the 1930s (Isabelle Huppert). Ms. Audran won a César Award, the French equivalent of the Oscar, for her supporting performance.
Other directors took strong advantage of her ethereal allure, which made her ideal for roles that stripped away the veneer of civilized behavior. In Luis Buñuel’s surreal masterpiece “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972), she was the embodiment of polite society who, at one point, throws her husband into shrubbery for a nooner before sitting down to a refined lunch.
In director Gabriel Axel’s “Babette’s Feast” (1987), Ms. Audran portrayed a Parisian political refugee in the late 19th century who seeks asylum in a Denmark coastal town and becomes housekeeper for two spinster sisters. Her inscrutable personality and ferocious artistry at the stove is ultimately revealed through the sensual meals she prepares. It was based on a short story by Isak Dinesen and, like “Discreet Charm,” won the best foreign film Oscar.
“It speaks about the choices in life, and should be interesting for anyone who wants to express themselves but cannot because of what they have to do to survive,” Ms. Audran told the Chicago Sun Times. “And it is about the profound needs in life, which are material as well as spiritual. When you forget either one, you can feel that something big is missing.”
Ms. Audran appeared in a handful of English-language films, including the hard-boiled detective spoof “The Black Bird” (1975) as a chic woman of mystery; Samuel Fuller’s World War II drama “The Big Red One” (1980) as an underground resistance fighter in Belgium; and as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s mother in the action film “Maximum Risk” (1996). She also played the Italian mistress of Laurence Olivier’s Lord Marchmain in the British TV miniseries “Brideshead Revisited” (1981).
Her “phonetic and rigid” line readings in heavily accented English dimmed her charisma and her opportunities to work in Hollywood, according to the reference guide “International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers.” Nevertheless, she remained what Times movie critic Vincent Canby called “one of the great natural resources of European films,” whether playing Yves Montand’s estranged wife in “Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others” (1974) or the brazenly faithless spouse of a French colonial police officer in “Coup de torchon” (Clean Slate, 1981).
Colette Suzanne Jeannine Dacheville was born in Versailles, France, on Nov. 8, 1932. She was 6 when her father, a physician, died, and she was a sickly child whose overprotective mother was not keen to see her express acting ambitions. An early marriage to acting school classmate Jean-Louis Trintignant ended in divorce.
Ms. Audran had small roles before gaining wider attention as a seductress in a black dress in Chabrol’s “Les Cousins” (1959), a film that placed him in the New Wave pantheon alongside directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer. She soon became his muse, and in 1964 his wife, and appeared in nearly all his films over the next two decades.
Among them were “L’Oeil du malin” (“The Third Lover,” 1962), “Le Scandale” (“The Champagne Murders,” 1967), “La Rupture” (“The Breach,” 1970), “Juste avant la nuit” (“Just Before Nightfall,” 1971) and “Les Noces rouges” (“Wedding in Blood,” 1973), most of which were variations on Chabrol’s concern with middle-class pretense, with a savage twist.
She and Chabrol had a son, actor, director and screenwriter Thomas Chabrol. A complete list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed.
Ms. Audran and Chabrol divorced in 1980 — he later said that he “found myself becoming more interested in her as an actress than a wife” — and she remained an important supporting player in several of his films, notably as an alcoholic in “Betty” (1992).