How do you comprehend the length and breadth of a career like that of Danielle Darrieux, who died last fall at the age of 100? When she made her first film, Le bal, at age fourteen, the year was 1931; her last movie was in 2010. Her filmography ran to more than 100 films, not counting television and stage work, which were also extensive. Put another way: When Darrieux made her screen debut, the talkies were less than four years old, and the first full-length three-strip Technicolor film was four years away. By the time she made her last movie, cinemas were abandoning film itself in favor of digital projection.
Part of it is pure, healthy longevity, of course. But numerous other stars live to a highly advanced age and don’t manage (or want) to maintain a career on-screen. Darrieux made some of her greatest films after age forty, and eventually moved into equally fascinating, scene-stealing old age. Two films from distant points of her career show how her fascination evolved—from fresh and unworldly in Mayerling to seasoned and wise in Une chambre en ville.
Born in Bordeaux but raised in Paris from the age of two, Darrieux lost her father when she was young. She was on her way to becoming a cellist, studying at the Conservatoire de musique, when her mother saw a newspaper ad and optimistically took Danielle to audition for the teenage lead in Le bal. Maman’s perception of her daughter’s abilities turned out to be more than a hunch. Darrieux was promptly cast as the girl who, charged with mailing her parents’ invitations to their ball, stuffs them down a drain. Historian David Shipman describes early Darrieux as “a plain little girl,” and stills from Le bal make it hard to argue with him, but over the next few years, Darrieux forged a career. She made musicals and comedies, and had at least one dramatic part, in Le domino vert, but by her own account she was still learning what it meant to be an actress.
It became clear that an extraordinary evolution had taken place, however, by the time of 1936’s Mayerling, the movie that made Darrieux an international star. She plays Baroness Marie von Vetsera, the teenager with whom the real-life Rudolf, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fell fatally in love. Marie was the daughter of a minor aristocrat, and she may have been as young as fifteen when the prince took up with her. She was seventeen when the couple died in 1889 at the imperial hunting lodge of Mayerling in the Vienna Woods, apparently in a suicide pact, the lovers thus becoming two of the first dominos to fall on the way to the First World War. Rudolf was the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Empress Elisabeth, politically liberal as the movie is at pains to point out, but also mulish, hard-drinking, and unkind to his wife, qualities Mayerling mostly brushes aside. He is thought by some historians to have had a venereal disease, which the movie also (understandably) overlooks; and of course, there was no question of including the historical possibility that lovely, besotted Marie was in fact the second woman Rudolf asked to join him in death.
“If Mayerling director Anatole Litvak was not himself in love with eighteen-year-old Darrieux, his camera absolutely was.”
That’s because while there are nearly as many conspiracy theories about Mayerling as there are for the Kennedy assassination, this film version has a headlong commitment to the idea of Marie and Rudolf as doomed lovers, a real-life Romeo and Juliet. Darrieux’s Marie is first glimpsed through a gap in the strolling crowds in a Viennese beer garden, and Crown Prince Rudolf (Charles Boyer) says to his companion, “Szeps, look at that girl . . .” This could be the real logline for the film. Look at that girl, and look at her again, from this angle, from that, close up and far away. If director Anatole Litvak was not himself in love with eighteen-year-old Darrieux, his camera absolutely was—with the grace of her movement, her delicate profile, her perfect nose and slightly sloping chin, and most of all with her eyes.
Teenage Darrieux is wholly in charge of her looks. She surely knows, when Litvak’s camera moves in, exactly how the one furrow between her eyebrows will register. Many beautiful young actresses have had the same skill. What makes her performance so arresting—and what no doubt made 1936 critics and audiences go wild for Darrieux in this movie—is the crystalline way she shows each emotion. After Rudolf introduces himself to Marie, who recognizes him (but convinces herself that it can’t be the prince), they walk and talk around the beer garden, and Darrieux makes visible each stage of Marie’s growing interest in the handsome young man. Later, when Marie and Rudolf meet in a chapel, and Rudolf whispers that he can’t stop thinking of her, pure joy alters every aspect of her expression.
Darrieux is key to the movie’s impact, for the script is heavy with foreshadowing, certain lines thudding like dirt on a grave: “Happy souls are all the nicer to torment.” “It’s better to stay young.” “It’s not pleasant to grow old.” Onrushing doom crops up in many a shot, too, such as Marie accidentally resting her hand on a skull that adorns Rudolf’s desk; here, as throughout, Darrieux nicely underplays her reaction. Yet Mayerling’s heady romance remains effective all these years later, its impact most telling in moments such as when, as Marie dances blissfully with Rudolf at a court ball, he first proposes his awful way out of their dilemma, and the realization of death seems to darken her eyes as we watch.
Darrieux got the part, according to Shipman, because Boyer fought to have her cast—her persona to that point was bouncy and girlish, and “producers said she could only play comedy,” one of the larger “oops” in movie history. The chemistry they had in Mayerling had its poignant echo seventeen years later in The Earrings of Madame de . . . and the deep love that Darrieux’s heedless title character cannot perceive coming from her husband, played by Boyer.
The Mayerling reviews were rapturous, and she was offered a Hollywood contract, making the feather-light, irresistible The Rage of Paris at Universal in 1938. By then she had married director Henri Decoin, and while the rest of the world might consider American stardom the summit, Hollywood bored Darrieux. She returned to Paris and stayed, making such films as Battement de coeur, a delicious Decoin comedy that cast her as a pupil in a school for pickpockets. To her lasting regret she made a couple of films at Continentale, the studio set up by the Germans during the Occupation. She then sat out the rest of the war with husband number two, Porfirio Rubirosa. Afterward, Darrieux entered her greatest phase as an actress, as a muse to Max Ophuls in La ronde, Le plaisir, and Madame de . . . She belonged to an older tradition, but not even the iconoclasts of the New Wave could resist Darrieux’s allure, as proved by her supporting role in the magical The Young Girls of Rochefort for Jacques Demy.
By the time Darrieux was sixty-five, she had long since grown into an ineffable serenity and elegance, not just foreigners’ ideal of a Frenchwoman, but the French ideal as well. The first glimpse of her in Demy’s sung-through musical Une chambre en ville comes in black-and-white, like an echo of Darrieux’s past as well as the character’s. From the window of her spacious apartment an annoyed Madame Langlois is looking down on a worker’s demonstration. She can see her handsome young tenant, François Guilbaud (Richard Berry), in the front line facing down a vast army of police. Madame Langlois takes his presence among the strikers, as she takes many things, as a sign of terrible manners.
As the movie shifts to color we see that Madame Langlois lives alone, save for François, in a plush apartment that has seen better days. So has she, but you might not realize it at first, because Madame—who never ventures outside during the entire movie—dresses each day as though for a fashionable tea. Her hair is coiffed, her shoes are pumps, she wears stockings with her dresses.
Appearances matter deeply to Madame Langlois. Her weapon against the tear gas that leaks into the apartment is a lace handkerchief, with which she carefully daubs her eyes without disturbing her makeup. When François returns, she begins by upbraiding him, continues by confiding in him (after she’s poured herself a drink) and ends, with a hint of flirtatiousness, by asking him for a cigarette. Madame’s son is dead, and so is “my late husband, the colonel,” as she refers to him. She gave up her title, of baroness, to marry her colonel, and she evidently still regrets it. Her daughter Edith (Dominique Sanda) has dropped from sight after marrying Edmond (Michel Piccoli) in an impulsive move we already sense will be disastrous. When Edith shows up at her mother’s place, dressed only in a mink coat, Madame Langlois’s initial disapproval is reserved for the fact that her daughter isn’t wearing stockings.
Madame Langlois is, against all odds, very appealing, and it would be easy to simply attribute that to our enduring affection for Darrieux. But Madame’s foibles work because Darrieux links them all to the character’s underlying weaknesses. When she shakes her head over her children’s follies, we see loneliness. When she snobbishly refers to her lost title, we hear Madame saying there’s no place for her anymore. When she pours yet another drink, we know that she is restless.
Other characters, as sympathetic and engaging as they are, move in and out of the frame without leaving a sense of their daily existence. But Madame becomes so familiar that you wait, when someone rings the doorbell, for her to check herself in the mirror before she answers. She even does the mirror-check when her daughter’s abusive husband calls at 2 a.m. to threaten everyone with a straight razor—and then Madame jumps slightly, having perhaps forgotten that her hair is in curlers and a scarf. In one of her last scenes, as people storm in and out of her apartment, refusing to take any of her advice, Madame Langlois sits down at her piano every time someone exits, plopping a little more heavily with each advancing calamity.
Edith encounters François in the nighttime street, and after a single night of passion they fall in love. When the consequences of their romance spin out of control, as with most mothers it falls to Madame Langlois to be the voice of reason, the one saying you just met this man, your crazy husband might kill you, the police might kill your lover. But here is the genius of Darrieux. Because she’s established every facet of Madame, you know that this mother understands: her daughter and tenant are in love, love makes people reckless, and youthful principles outrank fear of the cops. No wonder Jonathan Rosenbaum calls her “the emotional center of the film.” During filming she told Demy, “I am an instrument. You must know how to play me, and either you know or not.” Demy replied, “An instrument, yes, but a Stradivarius.”