Christine Pascal: Obituary

James Kirkup
Wednesday 04 September 1996 00:02

A brilliant actress on stage, screen and television, Christine Pascal also knew fame as a film director and scriptwriter, in all of which roles she was outstanding.

It must have been difficult to sustain this juggling act, and she was often torn and distracted by their different demands on an energy and an intelligence that seemed inexhaustible. She was a Sagittarius, and she commented in a recent interview: "It's a double sign that has made me up in the air when I'm acting or writing, and very much down to earth when I want to direct a film. Three ways of life difficult to reconcile."

Indeed, her promising acting career suffered from these conflicts, if only because some directors became wary of offering her parts, being unsure of themselves and afraid that the director in Pascal might take over from the actress. On the other hand, it assured her the undivided attention of good film-makers who had complete mastery of their art.

She was born into a very conventional bourgeois family in that most bourgeois of French cities, Lyons. Her early education was at a convent school, then at the Lycee Saint- Exupery and the Faculty of Letters at the University of Lyons, where she graduated in Modern Languages and Literatures. She was interested in everything - sport, modern dance, poetry, and above all the theatre, and she had a few walk-on parts as an amateur for Roger Planchon. She took courses at the Lyons Conservatoire, where she had the good fortune to be noticed by a great director, Bernard Tavernier, who was to become one of the lodestars of her professional existence.

He cast her in his first film, L'Horloger de Saint-Paul (The Watchmaker of Saint-Paul), in 1973, adapted from Simenon's celebrated psychological thril-ler. Then in 1974 she was given the starring part of a young Jew in Michel Mitrani's Les Guichets du Louvre which is a grim depiction of the rounding-up of Jews - men, women and children - in the famous Paris landmark Le Vel' d'Hiv, a velodrome from which the Nazi occupation troops, assisted by French police and civilians, sent thousands of victims to the concentration camps and the death chambers. Pascal's success in this demanding role made her decide to devote her life to acting.

Her next part was one that fitted her like a glove, the little Regency prostitute Amelie in Tavernier's beautiful historical evocation of Philippe duc d'Orleans' Regency (1715-23) during the minority of the future Louis XV. The part was written specially for her by a great veteran scriptwriter, Jean Aurenche, and Tavernier himself, and the film was called very suitably Que la fete commence (1974) - a kind of triumphant opening to Christine Pascal's own dazzling career.

Tavernier also cast her in the 1976 psychological study Le Juge et l'assassin, an exploration of criminal madness that announced Tavernier's major themes: clinical analysis of characters totally opposed to any kind of social restraint. It was set in the 19th century and Pascal felt herself obscurely drawn to the depiction of the sort of rebellious, non- conformist behaviour that was soon to resemble her own, in both private and public life. She became in every sense the "bad girl" of the French cinema, without the loss of any of her radiantly passionate personality and her compelling charm.

She went on to make La Meilleure facon de marcher by Claude Miller in 1975, Les Indiens sont encore loin by the Swiss director Patricia Moraz (1976), and L'Imprecateur by Jean-Louis Bertuccelli in 1977, all films in which she could express perfectly her irreverent and anti-social attitude to life.

But she was a woman with a passion for literature and writing. In 1977 she wrote her first screenplay with Bernard Tavernier, Les Enfants gates ("Spoilt Children"), in which she also acted a part that was her own portrait. Her first single-handed script was Felicite (1979), a film whose outrageous self- confession and crude sexual detail was of a delightfully provocative indecency, and shocked bourgeois France and even the hard-boiled professionals of the streets and the cinema studios.

In the same year, she appeared in Andrzej Wajda's Les Demoiselles de Wilko and Paco l'infallible by Didier Haudepin. In 1982, she did the unexpected, as usual, and got married, to the Swiss producer Robert Boner, and this brought her acting jobs in Switzerland, again with Patricia Moraz as director, in the 1980 film Le Chemin perdu. In 1984, she directed her next film, La Garce ("The Slut" - a revealing title), the tale of a young woman (Isabelle Huppert) who falls in love with a policeman (Richard Berry) who had already raped her twice at an interval of seven years.

Pascal kept acting: Diane Kurys' 1982 Coup de foudre, Roger Hanin's 1984 Train d'enfer, an excellent television movie, Signe Charlotte (1984 and several popular reruns). Another Tavernier, the jazz classic Autour de minuit (Round Midnight) followed in 1985 and La Travestie by Yves Boissat in 1987.

But she began to concentrate more on directing. In 1988, she scripted and directed Zanzibar, a vitriolic attack on the French film industry that did nothing to soften her reputation as a "bad girl". But it is a witty defence of the independent auteur film-maker against the major studios shown to be dominated by hypocrisy and greed.

Her greatest success came in 1991: Le Petit prince a dit, with Richard Berry and Anemone (a delicious actress who, in many ways, resembles Pascal). It is a movie about a child with a brain tumour. Her mother is an actress, her father a scientist, and the little girl witnesses the emotional conflicts between them, conveyed in an unemotional, unsensational way by the director. It won the Prix Louis-Delluc and four nominations for Cesars (the French Oscars) including one for the best director.

Another variation on the themes of marital struggle and conflicting temperaments was Adultere, mode d'emploi ("Adultery, How To Do It") in 1995, with a screenplay written by Pascal and her husband - a titillating detail that again caused raised eyebrows. It was not well received by the general public but it is a wonderfully wry, intelligent picture of domestic urban life in the late 1980s and well worth watching.

Strangely, Christine Pascal's first film, Felicite, opened with a suicide. A woman (Pascal) finds her brother has hanged himself, and she sets out to examine her own life, its excesses, its sexual morbidity, its professional anguish and personal despair - "I'm a pessimist", the radiantly smiling Pascal would proclaim.

In an interview for the intellectual film magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema she talked about Le Petit prince a dit and said: "It's a confession at the age of 39, when I've lost the insouciance of youth and am beginning to live with the idea of disease and death . . . So many of my friends have died, of cancer, suicide, Aids . . . Aids has destroyed our relationship with sex, the freedom to be gay, het or bi, no problem, that's what our generation fought for, and now it means death."

Like the philosopher Gilles Deleuze whom she admired, she left the bright lights of the studio for the darkness of death by jumping out of a window in the psychiatric clinic where she had been having treatment since the middle of August. She had once declared: "I wish to die by my own hand" (she used the German term freiwillger Tod or "voluntary death") "when the right moment presents itself."

Christine Pascal, actress, scriptwriter and film director: born Lyons 29 November 1953; married 1982 Robert Boner; died Paris 30 August 1996.

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