Bernadette Lafont: Actress and irreverent muse of the French New Wave cinema

 

For Francophiles and cinephiles Bernadette Lafont will forever be associated with the Nouvelle Vague films of François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. She made her debut as the sensual young woman riding a bicycle and attracting the attention of the pre-pubescent kids in the Truffaut short Les Mistons (1957) and played an equally memorable role as the alluring mistress of the eponymous character in Chabrol's Le Beau Serge (1958), widely acknowledged as the first New Wave film.

Both featured her first husband, the actor Gérard Blain, who gave her an entrée into the Nouvelle Vague as they hung around the Parisian offices of Les Cahiers Du Cinéma, the influential film-criticism magazine to which Truffaut and Chabrol contributed before moving into film-making. "It was a hive of activity," she recalled. "There was no producer, no money. They just picked Gérard and me and others like Jean-Claude Brialy. We didn't realise we were breaking new ground, we just wanted to make films. The Nouvelle Vague directors didn't follow the usual route, involving being an assistant director for years. And advances in technology meant we could film on location much more easily. That freed us, too."

Though she had trained as a dancer in her native Nîmes, Lafont had no acting experience when she was thrown in at the deep end: "I wanted to get into films but it seemed such an improbable goal at the time. I was lucky to meet the right people at the right time." She went on to appear in several more Chabrol films, including the thriller Web of Passion (1959), the proto-feminist ensemble piece Les bonnes femmes (1960) and the revenge dramas Wise Guys (1961) and Violette Nozière (1978). The irreverent muse of the Nouvelle Vague, she didn't care whether she played the lead, as she did when portraying the manipulative seductress of Truffaut's Une Belle Fille Comme Moi (A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, 1972) or the wanton heroine of Nelly Kaplan's controversial La Fiancée du Pirate (A Very Curious Girl, 1969), or had a smaller part, often as a sexy maid, as in Louis Malle's The Thief of Paris (1967). "I never wanted to be typecast," she said. "I'm not especially interested in seeing my name above the title. Most of all, I like unusual, unexpected roles."

Indeed, she won the César Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her part opposite the teenage Charlotte Gainsbourg in Claude Miller's An Impudent Girl (1986). Gifted with a seductive voice and a mischievous personality, she enjoyed participating in challenging projects like Marc'O's showbiz satire Les Idoles (1968), or sending herself up as she did when posing for the satirical magazine Hara-Kiri, and portraying the Queen in The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak (1984), a sexploitation movie directed by Just Jaeckin.

"Actors don't talk about going to work. They talk about play-acting, playing a part," she stressed. However, looking back on a career that included over 120 films, as well as numerous roles on television and in the theatre – including several runs in the French adaptation of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues – she could certainly back up the assertion: "There is a common thread to everything I've done."

One of her last roles was in the comedy Paulette (2012) as a grandmother who resorts to selling cannabis to supplement her pension. It was a box-office sensation in France, with over a million tickets sold. "I've often played outsiders," she remarked. "Paulette is like a character from Une Belle Fille Comme Moi or La Fiancée du Pirate 40 years on. It was obvious when I read the script. Great film roles tend to be about unusual characters, people out of the ordinary. Male parts are hoodlums or saints. It's the same for actresses – we play prostitutes, femmes fatales, spies or else Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes and Joan of Arc. It appeals to the sense of the romantic in all of us and in the audience."

Born in 1938, she was an only child, the daughter of a chemist; her mother wanted a boy and always called her Bernard. Lafont certainly displayed an independent streak and possessed a natural charm that caught the eye, not only of Blain but also of Truffaut, whom she nicknamed "the little corporal" because of the confidence he displayed behind the camera; Chabrol she called "the pope". It was he who cast her as the widow at the heart of the stylish detective film Inspecteur Lavardin (1986) and the masseuse in the comedy Masques (1987).

Lafont's own marriage to Blain – "the French James Dean" – when she was 18, lasted two years, and she subsequently married the sculptor and experimental film-maker Diourka Medveczky, who directed her in the back-to-the-land movie Paul (1969). The couple's three children were mostly brought up by Lafont's mother in the Cévennes while she continued her career, something she later regretted.

She starred with Léaud in Jacques Rivette's experimental and unwieldy Out 1 (1971) and in The Mother and the Whore (1973), the demanding, autobiographical love-triangle film written and directed by Jean Eustache. It won the Grand Prix of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival and remained one of her definitive and favourite movies. Lafont never worked with Jean-Luc Godard but revealed in interviews and in her 1997 autobiography that had Jean Seberg not committed to A Bout De Souffle (1960), Godard would have ditched Jean-Paul Belmondo and cast her and Charles Aznavour instead.

A latecomer to the theatre, she threw herself into her work after the death of her daughter Pauline in a freak accident while hiking in the Cévennes in 1988. "Acting saved me," she reflected. "Actors enjoy themselves on stage. Cinema is where directors have all the fun." One of her proudest moments in recent years was her participation in Broken English, helmed by Zoe Cassevetes in 2007. "It was partly shot in Paris and I had a great scene," she said. "And Gena Rowlands [Zoe's mother] is in the film. Even if our characters never meet, it was a thrill to be in the same movie."

Lafont was made an Officier de la Légion d'Honneur in July 2009. Her death was front-page news in France, where she was considered a sex symbol and actress comparable to Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau. Or as Truffaut once said of her, "a great comedienne and a wonderful girl".

Bernadette Lafont, actress: born Nîmes 28 October 1938; married 1957 Gérard Blain (divorced 1959), 1960 Diourka Medveczky (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Nîmes 25 July 2013.

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