The doyenne of French cinema, the centenarian Paulette Dubost, never played a grande dame but she excelled in a succession of servant girls and working-class women roles that made her hugely popular in her native country. During the course of a career that spanned over eight decades and over 200 films, television films and stage plays, she worked with such fameddirectors as Jacques Tourneur, Marcel Carné, Julien Duvivier and Louis Malle and most famously portrayed Lisette, the chambermaid in Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game).
An upstairs-downstairs dramatic comedy with a twist, as well as a foreboding sense of the impending doom awaiting Europe, La Règle du Jeu remains a favourite of film students and directors the world over and was even part of the baccalauréat curriculum a decade ago. Dubost excelled as the "camériste", the chambermaid whose flirting with a poacher in front of her jealous gamekeeper husband mirrors the complicated love lives of her hauts bourgeois employers and triggers a chain of events whose unfolding has lost none of its potency 70 years on.
François Truffaut remembered Dubost's film-stealing performance when he cast her as the dresser Germaine Fabre in Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, 1980), the drama starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, set in a Paris theatre during the German occupation. She may have played characters with everyday names like Lisette, Germaine or Joséphine – the house maid in Lola Montès (1955), the Max Ophüls film featuring Martine Carol in the title role of a dancer and courtesan romanced by Anton Walbrook and Peter Ustinov – but she infused them with a Parisian cheek and charm that lifted them out of the ordinary.
In 1940, the fresh-faced Dubost seemed ideally cast as the Breton housemaid Bécassine but the film adaptation of the popular French comic series failed to lift the mood of a defeated nation. It would remain her only lead and one of the few disappointments she tackled in her 1992 memoir entitled C'est Court La Vie [Life Is Short].
Born Paulette Deplanque in 1910, she was the 11th child of a gas engineer and an operetta singer whose maiden name she took when she became a "petit rat", a young ballet student, at the Paris Opera at the end of the First World War. However, her mother soon decreed that her "bum was too big to be a ballerina" and sent her off to study singing and acting at the Paris Conservatory. In 1929 she began a two-year run in the Arthur Honegger operetta Les Aventures Du Roi Pausole at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens and started getting minor film parts. By the mid-1930s she had appeared with Buster Keaton in Le Roi Des Champs-Elysées (The King of the Champs-Elysées) and turned down an offer from 20th Century-Fox.
After the Second World War she consolidated her reputation as one of France's leading character actresses. Ophüls asked her to play Madame Fernande, one of a group of prostitutes holidaying en masse in the delightful Le Plaisir (1952), and she portrayed a butcher's wife in Maigret tend un piège (Maigret Sets a Trap, 1958) and a hotel manageress in Maigret Voit Rouge (Maigret Sees Red, 1963) two eminently watchable films starring Jean Gabin as the detective. Indeed, Dubost worked with every major French movie star of the last century including such monstres sacrés as Raimu, Louis Jouvet, Michel Simon, Fernandel, Jean Marais and Bourvil as well as Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot.
Last year, Dubost appeared on the Sunday afternoon TV programmeVivement Dimanche alongside theoctogenarian Charles Aznavour as a guest of Danielle Darrieux, who celebrated her 94th birthday this May. French entertainers do seem to drink the elixir of life.
Paulette Marie Emma Deplanque (Paulette Dubost), actress: born Paris 8 October 1910; married 1936 AndréOstertag (divorced 1944, one daughter); died Longjumeau, France 21 September 2011.