Farewell, Anouk Aimée

Anouk Aimée in Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961)

Seductively aloof in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960) and (1963), convivial yet longing in Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961) and Model Shop (1969), Anouk Aimée, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of ninety-two, was catapulted to international stardom when Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman won the top award in Cannes and became a global box-office hit in 1966. Aimée plays a widow who befriends and eventually falls in love with a race car driver played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. “Their long, long-awaited kiss, enhanced by a circling camera and Francis Lai’s hit theme, became one of the era’s most revered and recognizable movie images,” writes Anita Gates in the New York Times.

Lelouch’s “extravagant directorial style fused New Wave speed and Hollywood schmaltz intoxicatingly,” writes Glenn Kenny in the NYT. “But without the chemistry” between Aimée and Trintignant, “the rocket would not have achieved nearly so powerful an ignition as it did.” Nominated for four Oscars, including one for Aimée, A Man and a Woman won two (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Screenplay), and Aimée won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. In 1986, Lelouch and his two stars reunited for a sequel, A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later, and they revisited the characters once again in The Best Years of a Life (2019), for which both Aimée and Trintignant came out of retirement to give their final on-screen performances.

The daughter of actors Henry Dreyfus (who performed as Henri Murray) and Geneviève Sorya, Nicole Françoise Florence Dreyfus was young—some say thirteen, some say fourteen—when director Henri Calef spotted her walking through Paris with her mother. Calef approached them immediately, offering a supporting role, Anouk, in his 1947 film, La maison sous la mer. Aimée kept the name and added the second—French for “loved”—when it was suggested to her by the poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert.

The young actress’s ascent was swift. She’d appeared in more than a dozen films—including Ronald Neame’s Golden Salamander (1950), Julien Duvivier’s Lovers of Paris (1957), Jacques Becker’s Montparnasse 19 (1958), and Georges Franju’s Head Against the Wall (1959)—when Fellini saw her picture in a magazine and declared, “I want to see her.” As “the wealthy, liberated Maddalena who picks up reporter Marcello Mastroianni in a nightclub,” writes the Guardian’s Andrew Pulver, Aimée in La dolce vita “appeared to incarnate a bohemian sexuality at the start of the new decade.”

“Before I met Fellini,” Aimée told Susan King in the Los Angeles Times in 2002, “I didn’t realize what acting was.” She had little patience for actors who took their jobs too seriously. “That bored me. But with Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni, it was a big festival, a beautiful party.” In 8½, Mastroianni stands in for Fellini as Guido, a director at his wits’ end, and Aimée “plays Guido’s estranged wife, Luisa, the good thing he can’t hang onto,” writes Glenn Kenny. “And while her place in his life is such that she doesn’t even show up until an hour into the movie, she’s the most luminous star in his cosmos.”

Demy called his first feature, Lola, a “musical without music,” and for Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing in 2002, it remained “among the most neglected major works of the French New Wave.” Taking note of Demy’s nod to Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice in 2009 that “Aimee’s character may be named for Marlene Dietrich’s femme fatale, but basically she’s playing Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop—at once brazen and vulnerable, full of breathy chatter and giggly innocence.”

A cabaret chanteuse, Lola fends off suitors as she awaits the return of Michel, the love of her life and the father of her child. Working with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who shot Lola in widescreen black and white, Demy set the story in his hometown, Nantes. The tight budget “meant that all of the sound was postsynchronized, adding to Aimée’s slightly offbeat delivery,” writes Ginette Vincendeau. “But there were strong aesthetic reasons as well for wishing the performers to appear less professional and thus more authentic, and Aimée succeeds in making such a fantastic creature believable.”

Demy didn’t intend to make a film when he and Agnès Varda went to Los Angeles in the late 1960s, but the city inspired him to have Aimée’s Lola become the obsession of George, a down-on-his-luck wanderer played by Gary Lockwood (2001: A Space Odyssey). The set-up “doesn’t immediately hint at a work of minor genius,” wrote Caroline Golum for Screen Slate in 2017. “As their doomed romance waxes and wanes, Model Shop’s trance-like hour and change drifts by like a nap on the beach, gently holding you in a dreamy purgatory of ambient soundscapes, soft boys, and softer palettes.”

While in Hollywood, Aimée worked with Sidney Lumet (The Appointment) and George Cukor (Justine), and when she returned to Europe, she won a Best Actress award in Cannes for her performance as the suicidal sister of Michel Piccoli’s judge in Marco Bellocchio’s A Leap in the Dark (1980). She took roles in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981), Jerzy Skolimowski’s Success Is the Best Revenge (1984), Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter (1994), and Varda’s One Hundred and One Nights (1995).

Around this time, the Academy threw a party in Beverly Hills to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival. Henry Jaglom went with Candice Bergen, who spotted Aimée. “My heart stopped,” Jaglom later told Susan King, “because A Man and a Woman was this movie that had meant more to me romantically and emotionally. And the most important movie in my mind creatively was 8½. I was sort of star-struck. Candice took me over and introduced me, and this is what I heard myself saying: ‘I have been looking all over for you. I have a movie I want you to make.’”

He didn’t, but scrambling for an idea, he remembered an old one he’d had in the 1970s about an aging actor at Cannes torn between taking a cameo in a blockbuster or a meatier role in a low-budget independent film. Jaglom had had Gene Kelly in mind, but he eagerly rewrote the story for Aimée. When Festival in Cannes (2001) was first screened in Los Angeles, the audience “went crazy for her,” Jaglom told King. Aimée “kept saying, ‘Why are they coming up and telling me [they love me]?’ I said, ‘You are magnificent. Do you think every single person is making it up?’ And she said, ‘No, no, no. I don’t even know what I’m doing.’ She is so genuinely modest. No vanity. No ego.”

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