The Soul of French New Wave
Bernadette Lafont and Jeanne Moreau were the faces of the French nouvelle vague, but while Moreau was the heart of the movement, Lafont was its soul. It could be said that what Brigitte Bardot did for blondes, the sensual ebullience of Lafont did for brunettes.
She was born October 28, 1938, in Nimes, in Southern France, and died there as well on July 25, at the University Hospital Center in Nimes from complications caused by a heart condition. She was 74.
She was as vivacious off screen as on; there was no pretense about her. Once, when we were enjoying coffee at an outdoor café, I happened to notice a woman towing behind her child, dressed in a sailor outfit. Looking closer I could see it was a young girl and pointed her out to Bernadette. She smiled and told me that she was an only child. Her mother had always wanted a boy and would refer to her as “Bernard.”
Nevertheless, it was a happy childhood. She studied ballet, and as a teenager, appeared in performances at the Nimes Opera House. In 1957, she married actor Gerard Blain (“A youthful indiscretion,” she said.) and the two appeared in the first film effort of Francois Truffaut, a 1957 short entitled Les Mistons (“The Mischief-Makers”).
“We hung around the offices of Les Cahiers du Cinema a lot in those days, and one day Truffaut asked if we’d like to be in a film he was going to make. There was no producer, and, in fact, no money, but we didn’t care. We had no idea we were breaking new ground, we just wanted to make movies.”
She often said that her training as a dancer helped her when it came to facing a camera and mentioned her luck in breaking in with Truffaut and Claude Chabrol.
“Here I was, with no training whatsoever, thrown in front of a camera,” she told me. “Fortunately, I had directors willing to take the time to help me shape my persona and learn things I could use in later films.”
For his part, Truffaut admitted that he had never seen anyone so natural for the camera. For her part, she called Truffaut “the little corporal,” because of his confidence behind the camera. Her next director, Chabrol, she called “the Pope,” because of the authority with which he spoke. But both Truffaut and Chabrol encouraged her – and their other stars – to talk over a scene amongst themselves before shooting, and to improvise or talk over each other’s lines, as would naturally occur in real life.
Her first film with Chabrol was Le Beau Serge (1959), regarded as the first film of the nouvelle vague. Husband Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy were top-billed as two old friends who meet again after a period of years. Bernadette played the vamp of the village. It was the sort of role she would return to time and again. “Yeah, that’s me,” she giggled, “I sleep around lot. Who cares?”
By 1959, her marriage to Blain had hit the skids and the couple divorced. The next year. she married sculptor and experimental filmmaker Diourka Medveczky. This marriage stuck and produced three children: Pauline, David, and Elisabeth. (Pauline was following in the family tradition, acting in stage plays and in films, when she died suddenly in a climbing accident not far from Nimes. Bernadette was devastated. In her 1997 memoir, Le Roman de Ma Vie: Souvenirs, she said that it was only her work that stopped her from a breakdown. Her work became “my opium, my Prozac.”)
Chabrol later starred her in a film that has come to be regarded as one of his early masterpieces, The Good Time Girls (1960). The film follows the exploits of four shop girls in Paris as they spend a weekend trying to escape the monotony of their lives. The girls themselves display a mixture of savvy and naiveté that ultimately leads to tragedy for one. Though it wasn’t a hit, her next film, also directed by Chabrol, the revenge drama Wise Guys (1961), was, and her offbeat performance in a supporting role cemented her reputation as an up-and-coming young actress.
She would win acclaim as the talkative murderer in Truffaut’s A Gorgeous Kid Like Me (1972), an unhappy wife in Jean Eustache’s talky The Mother and the Whore (1973), the Queen in Just Jaecklin’s campy sexploitation film, The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak (1984), and as Helene Mons, the widow of the victim and the ex-lover of the investigating officer in Chabrol’s Inspecteur Lavardin (1986).
Lafont never cared if she was cast as the star or in a supporting role, for her the film itself was the thing. Besides, she said, she never wanted to be typecast, for most of all she liked unusual and unexpected roles. In fact, she received her first Cesar Award (France’s equivalent of the Oscar) as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her role in Claude Miller’s An Impudent Girl (1985) as the perceptive housekeeper to the teenaged Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Following the old maxim that an actor acts, she remained active until shortly before her death. She received plaudits for her role in Paulette (2012) as a pensioner in a housing project who can no longer make ends meet and begins selling marijuana and hashish. Her last feature film was a comedy, Attila Marcel, which was featured in the Toronto International Film Festival in September and released in France this month.
Bernadette Lafont was, like many of the characters she played, one of a kind, and she will certainly be missed by myself and her many other fans, both in France and around the world.
From the Editors: The Essential Lafont:
1957 – Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers); 1958 – Le Beau Serge (Bitter Reunion); 1960 – La belle femmes (The Good Time Girls); 1961 – Wise Guys, Me faire ca a moi (It Means That Much to Me); Compartiment tueurs (The Sleeping Car Murder); 1967 – Le voleur (The Thief of Paris); 1968 – The Lost Generation; 1969 – Paul; Le fiancée du pirate (A Very Curious Girl); 1970 – Elise, ou la vraie vie (Elise, or Real Life), Sex-Power; 1971 – Les Stances a Sophie (Sophie’s Ways), L’amour c’est gai, l’amour c’est triste (Love is Gay, Love is Sad), Out 1, noli me tangere (Out 1); 1972 – Une belle fille comme moi (A Gorgeous Girl Like Me); 1973 – La maman et le putain (The Mother and the Whore); 1974 – Out 1: Spectre; 1976 – Noroit (Nor’west); 1978 – Violette; 1985 – L’effrontee (An Impudent Girl); 1986 – Inspecteur Lavardin; 1994 – Personne ne m’aime(Nobody Loves Me); 1997 – Nous sommes tous encore ici (We’re Still Here), Genealogies d’un crime (Genealogies of a Crime); 2006 – Les petites vacances (Stolen Holidays),Prete-moi ta main (I Do); 2010 – Une vie de chat (A Cat in Paris – animated); 2011 – Le Skylab (Skylab); 2012 – Paulette; 2013 – Attila Marcel.