Elegant, poised, with beautiful green eyes and a singular, sensual voice, Marie-France Pisier was one of France's best loved actresses, admired as much for her feminist and political beliefs as for a career that spanned 50 years and as many films. She worked with some of her country's most celebrated auteurs, including Jacques Rivette, the novelist and film-maker Alain Robbe-Grillet, and most famously with François Truffaut, who cast her as Colette Tazzi, the first love of Antoine Doinel, his filmic alter-ego, portrayed by Jean-Pierre Léaud. She made her debut as the haughty Colette in Antoine Et Colette, a 30-minute segment included in the 1962 omnibus film L'Amour à 20 Ans (Love At Twenty), the second instalment of Doinel's progress from childhood to middle age, had a cameo in the third, Baisers Volés (Stolen Kisses), in 1968, and returned 11 years later in the last of the five Doinel pictures, L'Amour En Fuite (Love On The Run), which she co-wrote with Truffaut.
"In L'Amour A 20 Ans, Colette was mean to Antoine, thought of him only as a kind of surrogate brother, while he was clearly head over heels in love with her," said Pisier. "So François thought of reuniting the characters to see whether they had learned anything from what had been a platonic, one-sided relationship." She suggested switching Colette's adult job from psychoanalyst to lawyer, a knowing reference to the fact that, during the 1960s the actress had honoured a promise to her mother and completed a law degree in parallel with her film career.
Pisier was also a favourite of the director André Téchiné, who cast her in four films, including Barocco, a political thriller starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu, for which she won the Best Actress – Supporting Role César in 1977. The previous year, she had won the same award for her "Second Rôle" as the jealous wife of Victor Lanoux, who seems to only have eyes for his distant cousin Marie-Christine Barrault in Cousin, Cousine, Jean-Charles Tacchella's engaging comedy. That film's international success brought an offer from 20th Century Fox to star in the revenge drama The Other Side Of Midnight but the movie was eclipsed by the studio's 1977 release, Star Wars.
Considered an intellectual, Pisier was a supporter of the left and an advocate of women's rights. During "Les Evénements" of May 1968, she helped smuggle her then-boyfriend Daniel Cohn-Bendit from Germany back to France. "I dyed his red hair in the bath," she recalled. "The colour was awful. When he showed up for the next protest meeting at La Sorbonne, people were horrified." In April 1971 she was one of the celebrities who admitted to an illegal abortion and signed Simone de Beauvoir's pro-abortion Manifeste Des 343 Salopes published in the weekly news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.
However, she always tried to avoid being pigeonholed. "It didn't help my career because people, including film directors, are more comfortable when they can put a label on you. And that can help you become a star but it also gets in the way," she explained. She featured on the covers of Lui – holding a machine gun and wearing black leather boots – in 1966, and the French edition of Playboy in June 1979, "to prove that a face can be sexier than a body" as she put it, and she was nicknamed "Miss Cinémathèque" by Jean-Paul Belmondo, with whom she starred in the 1976 thriller Le Corps De Mon Ennemi, and L'as Des As, the 1982 Second World War comedy which attracted over five million cinema-goers in France.
She was born in 1944 in Dalat in what was then French Indochina, and is now Vietnam, where her father was governor, but she had a far from charmed childhood in New Caledonia and then the south of France. "My parents divorced when I was very young and the sentimental fall-out lasted for years," she said. "I saw my mother struggle to bring up three children. She had abandoned her studies to marry my father, so when she insisted I pass my baccalauréat and continue with my law degree alongside my film career, I understood where she was coming from. Women need qualifications to assert their independence."
By the mid-1950s, Pisier was living in Nice, and taking part in amateur dramatics. In 1961, Mario Brun, a local photographer, showed her picture to Truffaut, who was looking for "a real teenage girl, not a Lolita, not a biker type, nor a little woman. Must be fresh and cheerful. Not too sexy," to cast opposite Léaud. Her screen test unearthed a "very modern, very frank, very direct girl," according to Truffaut, who made a habit of falling for his leading ladies. "He wouldn't really look at me. He seemed only interested in my voice. He said it was my best asset but also a handicap," she recalled, alluding to her occasionally staccato delivery.
After Love At Twenty, she made several genre films with the actor-director Robert Hossein, most notably as a German cabaret singer in Le Vampire de Düsseldorf in 1964. Two years later, the Nouveau Roman author Robbe-Grillet cast her in Trans-Europ-Express, a picture vaguely reminiscent of Last Year In Marienbad, the film he had written for Alain Resnais at the start of the '60s. In 1974, she appeared in Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom Of Liberty), the penultimate picture by Luis Buñuel, and Rivette's bewitching fantasy Céline Et Julie Vont En Bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating), another film she co-wrote.
A versatile actress, Pisier became a fixture on television screens in continental Europe with Les Gens De Mogador, a period drama series that began airing at the end of 1972, and periodically returned to television and the theatre throughout her career.
Souvenirs D'En France (French Provincial, 1975), her second film with Téchiné, was another family saga, while in Les Sœurs Brontë (1979) by the same director, she played Charlotte to Adjani's Emily and Isabelle Huppert's Anne. Apart from Chanel Solitaire, a 1981 British-French coproduction in which she portrayed Coco Chanel, few of her '80s and '90s pictures gained a UK release, though Pourquoi Pas Moi? (Why Not Me? 1999) won plaudits at lesbian and gay film festivals, and Le Temps Retrouvé (Time Regained), adapted from the Proust by director Raúl Ruiz, and starring Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuelle Béart, was nominated for the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 1999. In her last film she was cast against type, as a slightly racist bourgeoise, in Anne Depetrini's Il Reste Du Jambon? (Any Ham Left?) in 2010.
Pisier directed two autobiographical pictures, Le Bal Du Gouverneur (The Governor's Party, 1990) from her best-selling novel, with Kristin Scott Thomas in the lead, and Comme Un Avion (Like An Airplane, 2002), which dealt with the suicides of her parents. She was found dead by her husband in her swimming pool at their second home, in Saint-Cyr-Sur-Mer. The cause of death is being investigated but foul play is not suspected. She was looking forward to participating in a tribute to Belmondo at the Cannes Film Festival next month.
Marie-France Claire Pisier, actress, writer, director: born Dalat, French Indochina (Vietnam) 10 May 1944; married firstly Georges Kiejman (marriage dissolved; one son), secondly Thierry Funck-Brentano (one son, one daughter); died Saint-Cyr-Sur-Mer, France 24 April 2011.