Obituary: Arletty

Leonie Bethiat (Arletty), actress, born Paris 15 May 1898, died Paris 24 July 1992.

IN HER native France the statuesquely tall, dark and minxish Arletty was known and cherished above all for her gouaille - a colloquialism defying any too precise translation but corresponding more or less to 'backtalk', lip or 'sauce'. This gouaille was her fortune, and one would not have been too astonished to discover that, like Betty Grable's legs, it had been insured by Lloyd's at some colossal premium. For even if British moviegoers continue to associate her almost exclusively with the role of Garance, the elegant, worldly courtesan of Marcel Carne's classic melodrama of 1945, Les Enfants du Paradis (where she is pursued by Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand and Jean-Louis Barrault before being engulfed by a carnivalesque crowd of boulevardiers at the film's climax), she projected a rather less diaphanous image to her own countrymen, who found her both ethereal and earthy, inaccessibly lovely and eminently beddable.

Arletty was no sissy (women too, after all, can be sissies, as witness such genteel and insipid actresses as Greer Garson and Norma Shearer). She more than held her own amid satirical male banter and tended to play the kind of heroine who would succeed in keeping her feet on the ground throughout a film until either teased or forced on to tiptoe for a climactic embrace. Sex came naturally to her - or rather, she met it halfway. Her sexuality, which was healthy, extrovert and ineradicable, she wore so lightly that both she and her public appeared to take it for granted. In 1941 she played the title-role in the best of the umpteen film versions of Sardou's play Madame Sans-Gene, as the Marseillais laundress whom Napoleon takes as his mistress, and Madame Sans-Gene (or 'devil-may-care') she would remain throughout her long life.

Her birth, as Leonie Bathiat, in Courbevoie, a working-class suburb of Paris, preceded by two years that of the century. At the age of 16 she had left school and gone to work in a local factory. If by nothing else, however, her ultimate vocation would seem to have been predetermined by her already exceptional beauty, and she soon gravitated to the cinema via modelling and music-hall experience. (It was for the latter that she adopted her bizarre stage-name.) Though her film career started in 1931, in a forgettable potboiler entitled Un chien qui rapporte, her first notable appearance would be in Jacques Feyder's Pension Mimosas (1935, starring the director's wife, Francoise Rosay); and she can also be glimpsed in a pair of feathery entertainments by Sacha Guitry: Faisons un reve ('Let's Dream Together', 1936), a lovingly chiselled soap-bubble of a comedy, and the exact French equivalent of Coward's Private Lives, Les Perles de la couronne (The Pearls of the Crown, 1937), a trilingual toast to the Entente Cordiale in which she was deliciously improbable as a dusky Abyssinian snake-charmer.

Since, unfortunately, both Feyder and Guitry had already made Galateas out of the women they married (respectively, Rosay and Jacqueline Delubac), it was not until Arletty met Carne that she was able to claim a Pygmalion of her very own. The five films on which they collaborated between 1938 and 1954 - Hotel du Nord (1938, with Annabella, Louis Jouvet and Jean-Pierre Aumont), Le Jour se leve (1939, with Jean Gabin as a sympathetic killer holed up in an attic while the police implacably close in on him), Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942, a stilted cod-medieval fantasy with Jules Berry as a Mephistophelian Devil), Les Enfants du Paradis and the belated, relatively minor, and now forgotten L'Air de Paris (1954) - have retained most of their capacity to enchant precisely because of Arletty's sexy nonchalance.

Like a breath of air, the air, indeed, of Paris, she contrived to dispel much of the cobwebby filigree of pessimism and despair peculiar to what was then called 'poetic realism'. And even though it was pronounced at the very height of their critical and public popularity, her unforgettably husky disgusted cri de coeur, 'Atmosphere, atmosphere . . .', addressed to Jouvet on the meticulously studio-reconstructed Canal St Martin bridge in Hotel du Nord, may with hindsight have sounded the joyful if premature death-knell of those often sententiously doomy melodramas in which Carne and his regular scenarist, the poet Jacques Prevert, were for so long to specialise.

A very different highlight of her pre-war period was Claude Autant-Lara's extremely funny Fric-Frac (1930, based on the popular Boulevard comedy by Edouard Bourdet), a film whose impenetrably slangy dialogue is such that, since it cannot be translated into English, the English spectator must somehow endeavour to translate himself into French. By contrast with the icon of idealised femininity that Carne had made of her in Les Enfants du Paradis, the Arletty of Fric-Frac is an impudent, bawdy street-urchin, her gouaille very much to the fore.

Aside from a curious performance as the Lesbian in Jacqueline Audry's sombre, self- consciously 'existentialist' adaptation of Sartre's Huis Clos (No Exit, 1954) and a brief cameo in The Longest Day (1962) - her sole venture into English-language cinema - Arletty achieved little of note after the war. If she continued to be newsworthy, it was primarily by virtue of her eventful private life. An indiscreet liaison with a high-ranking officer of the Wehrmacht had tarnished her reputation during the Occupation and resulted in her serving a two-month prison sentence in the early days of the Liberation. Later, a serious accident gradually caused her to go blind.

Writing the obituary of a great film-star is ultimately as foolish and futile an exercise as writing the obituary of Lazarus. The cinema remains, and absolutely nothing in the celluloid image of Arletty, the only one most of us have ever known of her, will have been altered by her death. She is still, as she always was, one of the medium's most ravishing, most vital, most human ghosts.

(Photograph omitted)