Sexy, stylish and sparky, full of joie de vivre, Françoise Dorléac was, in the words of Vogue magazine, a “gamine fatale.” Add to that cocktail her distinctive husky voice and ability to come across totally naturally on screen and it’s no surprise that she didn’t have to wait around for her career as a movie star to achieve lift-off.
During that short career, she made 21 films as well as working as a catwalk model for Dior in her teens:
A photographer asked if I would model for some fashion pictures and I said fine. A producer saw my pictures in the press and hired me for a small role for a film during the school holidays.
Perhaps it was her brush with the fashion world that led her to obsessively cultivate her image, aiming to “keep a certain class, but look erotic”:
I want to dress so that everybody tries to dress like me, and nobody can. I love it when you are completely dressed and you look naked. I wear chain belts to look fragile, like a slave. Every time I go out, even if it’s six o’clock in the morning, when nobody can see, it’s still important.
But she was always going to be an actress. Her parents, Maurice Dorléac and Renée Simonot, were both actors themselves (Renée was born Deneuve but adopted Simonot as her stage name). The latter was one of the first to enter the field of dubbing American films for the French market, becoming the voice of, among others, Olivia de Havilland, Sylvia Sidney, Judy Garland, Donna Reed and Esther Williams.
Françoise first appeared on screen in the movie short Mensonges (1957) but her career proper began in 1960. It took off in 1964 with François Truffaut’s romantic drama La peau douce (The Soft Skin) and Philippe de Broca’s spy spoof That Man from Rio. Those two movies showcase both her range and her potential as an actress and make her premature death all the more poignant.
Françoise Dorléac – from dead end to dead
I first came across Françoise Dorléac many years ago starring opposite Donald Pleasance in Roman Polanski’s weird and wonderful black comedy, Cul-de-sac (1966). In case English is not your first language and you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, a cul-de-sac is a no-through road or dead end.
In her third appearance in a non-French film, Françoise is cast as Teresa, a bored and hedonistic wife with little time for or interest in her weak and pathetic husband George, played by Donald Pleasance. As the film opens, a couple of sinister crooks with overtones of Laurel and Hardy arrive on Lindisfarne, the remote island on which George and Teresa have made their home. He is simultaneously indignant and cringing, she is self-obsessed and capricious. The subsequent action plays out through a series of grotesque twists and turns, the product of director Roman Polanski’s fertile and lurid imagination, seemingly inspired in part by the plays of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
According to Françoise:
Polanski is completely preoccupied with film; he doesn’t think about the actors as human beings at all. But I do not mind it; he is a brilliant director.
She’s right. It’s quite a movie and deservedly wins the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
A year later, she jumps into the Renault 10 she’s been renting during her fortnight’s break in Saint-Tropez. She needs to be back in London for the English-dubbed premiere of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (more on that later). It’s 60 miles to Nice Airport, from which she’ll catch a plane to Paris Orly and then a connecting flight to London. But she’s left it late, she’s in a rush and as she heads for the airport a light drizzle begins to fall.
Less than ten miles to go and after a long dry spell the road surface is slippery. Françoise pulls out to overtake the car in front of her and as she pulls back across the road she loses control of the car, it goes into a spin and crashes into a signpost at the side of the road. By the time the driver of the car she’s overtaken has pulled over to help, it’s too late. The Renault is already on fire and the heat too intense for him to get near. He sees Françoise beating her fists against the driver’s window in a desperate attempt to escape before the car explodes. She was just 25 years old.
When the police arrive, they find among the wreckage the bodies of a young woman and a small dog, and in a charred handbag among the luggage in the boot the burnt remnants of a driver’s license and a chequebook.
Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve and François Truffaut
Arguably the two most important people in Françoise Dorléac’s life are her sister Catherine Deneuve and director François Truffaut.
It is largely thanks to Françoise’s initiative that Catherine becomes an actress. In her second feature film, Les portes claquent (1960) the producers need to find someone to play Françoise’s character’s younger sister. Who could be better than her younger sister in real life, she suggests. So Catherine makes her screen debut. But why does she have a different surname?
It was impossible for me to have the same name as my sister Françoise. Or at least, that’s what my family said at the time… If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t make that decision! I love my mother dearly but I don’t like her maiden name. It’s hard to pronounce. I prefer my real name.
Françoise and Catherine make an intriguing pair and you can judge for yourself by watching Jacques Demy’s 1967 tribute to the Hollywood musical, Les demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort) in which they co-star as twin sisters.
For all their similarities, according to Catherine, “[Françoise] used to say that the two of us together would make one complete woman because we were so different.” To put it another way, they’re like two sides of the same coin.
Françoise is effervescent, spirited and adventurous, while Catherine is cool, reserved and cautious. Their mother remembers Françoise throwing herself at everything “with passion” while describing Catherine as a “tender, fragile little girl who loved candy.” Their clothes reflect their personalities. Françoise is into the metallics and prints so fashionable around the mid-1960s, Catherine goes for a more sophisticated, classic look. In a 1966 interview Catherine declares:
She claims she always looks like she has nothing in the closet and I look like I have six closets. She wears casual things but she has 100 casual things and I have three subtle things.”
But appearances can be deceptive. Underneath her extrovert character, Françoise has her insecurities: “I find that with each picture, I become less confident about my ability to do good work.” It’s only at the insistence of her mother that in 1965 she finally moves out of the family home. Even then, it’s only to an apartment across the street, which her mother finds for her.
François Truffaut collaborates with Françoise on just one film, La peau douce, but that belies his significance to her. Initially, things look far from promising:
I met Truffaut and realised how good it would be to make a film with him. The trouble was I disliked him on sight and it wasn’t long before he told me the same. In fact, he found me unbearable. We had a few tense months together before we realised our first impressions were wrong and found the beginnings of mutual discovery.
In fact they become lovers for a while and subsequently remain close friends.
Truffaut draws from Françoise a truly wonderful performance as Nicole, an air hostess who has an affair with Pierre (Jean Desailly), a publisher and literary celebrity. To achieve that, he encourages her to relax (he reckons her movements are too jerky) and slow down, not least in terms of the way she talks. The film is a perceptive and tender depiction of its characters’ dreams, insecurities and vulnerabilities. The story is of deep personal significance to Truffaut, whose marriage is breaking up and who has himself embarked on an affair with Françoise. Afterwards, the pair remain close friends. On its release, La peau douce appeals more to critics than to audiences but its reputation has grown over time and it is definitely worth looking out.
Françoise Dorléac – a tribute
It is Truffaut who should have the last word about Françoise Dorléac. She clearly made a huge impression on him and, following her death, he wrote movingly of her in Cahiers de Cinéma. I’ve done my best to translate his words into English, but there are subtleties, plays on words here that pretty much defy translation. So in one particular case, I’ve added the original French should you wish to see it.
Her name was Françoise
I ask for permission to post one or two photos of Françoise Dorléac who died on 26 June last year in a car accident en route to Nice Airport. For the public, it was just a news item, all the more cruel because it involved a very beautiful 25-year-old girl, an actress who had not yet had time to become a star. For everyone who knew her, Françoise Dorléac represented more, the kind of person one meets only rarely in one’s life, an exceptional young woman whose charm, femininity, intelligence, grace and incredible moral force made her unforgettable to anyone who spoke for an hour with her.
Her strong, even bossy, personality, was in contrast to her fragile and lithe physique, which had the quality of seaweed or a greyhound. Françoise Dorléac was, in my opinion, an actress insufficiently appreciated. In her thirties she would have won the hearts of the general public – they would then have adored her in the same way as did all those who had the chance to work with her.
The challenge for a young actress is to transition smoothly from girl to woman, from juvenile to adult roles; I believe that Françoise Dorléac, a precocious woman, mature beyond her years, her face and figure already blossoming and her looks, as we say in the trade, made to last [son visage et son corps déjà construits et, comme on dit dans les studios, construits en dur et pour durer], was the only young actress one might have expected to get better and better.
Ever since she was a teenager, she took two cold showers a day, asserting that “You prepare for your forties in your twenties.” When she was impatient to find roles and make films, I tried to convince her that she had nothing to fear from the passage of the years and that time was on her side. I told her that we would make a film every six years and I booked her appointments for 1970, 1976, 1982.
Every time I wrote to her, I put on the envelope “Mademoiselle Framboise* (Raspberry) Dorléac”* to make sure she would read my letter with a smile. Françoise Dorléac was resolute, bordering on obstinate, she was principled, her interviews were rich in aphorisms, and she was demanding in matters of life and love. She could suddenly cast a very severe look in the direction of someone who raised her suspicions.
Until then, only smiles, laughs and giggles and that’s what makes June 26 last year unacceptable, those great cascades of laughter cut short.
* Probably inspired by Bob Lapointe’s 1960 song Avanie et framboise, whose opening lines are:
Elle s’appelait Françoise
Mais on l’appelait Framboise
Want to know more about Françoise Dorléac?
The most compelling account of Françoise Dorléac’s life and death is in The New European. For online facts and figures head over to Wikipedia. Other sources include IMDb, Cinema Scholars, Vogue, Pure France and The Famous People.
If you can understand French, you could take a look at a 50-minute documentary about Françoise Dorléac and listen to François Truffaut talking about her.
In print there are:
- Elle S’Appelait Françoise by Catherine Deneuve and Patrick Modiano
- a chapter on Françoise in The Continental Actress
- an article, Françoise Dorléac A shooting star of Sixties French cinema, by M Anderson in Film comment, Volume 41 number 4 (2005).