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David Thomson on Films: Remembering Marie-France Pisier

An immense beauty’s greatest gift to film.

She drowned in her own swimming pool in the south of France, aged 66. Marie-France Pisier had an immense, composed beauty, with a marble air of absolute assurance. In her brow and her gaze, serenity seemed on the point of becoming a mask. But she was made for drama, and even melodrama.

Though she had the look of a Parisian socialite, so much about her was unexpected: She was born in Dalat, in Indo-China, the daughter of a French colonial governor. In fact, she only came to live in France at the age of twelve. Five years later, she was a young actress who answered this advertisement in the film magazine Cinemonde: “Francois Truffaut seeks fiancée for Jean-Pierre Leaud and for Love at Twenty. Jean-Pierre’s partner must be a real girl, not a Lolita, not a leather-jacket type, not a little young woman. She must be simple and cheerful, and a have a good average culture. If too ‘sexy’ please abstain.”

Pisier was recommended, and she got the part in “Antoine and Colette,” one of five separate episodes. She got her director, too. Truffaut (29) left his wife and two daughters for her—he told a friend that Marie-France was “modern, very feminist, left-wing … very frank, direct, very strong and at the same time very childlike.” The director suspected that she meant grief for him and for his family—directors don’t always take as much credit as they deserve. The affair didn’t last too long, but the friendship was enough to keep Pisier in two sequels with Truffaut and Leaud—Stolen Kisses (1968) and Love on the Run (1979).

By then, Marie-France Pisier was close to being an international figure, with a run of unusual films: The novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet had cast her opposite Jean-Louis Trintignant in his erotic thriller, Trans-Europ Express (1966); she had made her first film for Andre Techine, Pauline is Leaving (1969); and she was in Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberte (1974)—she was one of the dinner-party group sitting on toilets instead of chairs. She did three other films for Techine—French Provincial (1975); Barocco (1976) and The Bronte Sisters (1979), where she played Charlotte, Isabelle Adjani was Emily and Isabelle Huppert was Anne—with Patrick Magee as their father! In addition, she had won a supporting actress Cesar in Jean-Charles Tacchella’s hit, Cousin-Cousine (1975).

This career had taken her to Hollywood where she starred in what was a considerable but notorious hit, The Other Side of Midnight (1977), taken from the Sidney Sheldon novel, made as a flagrant piece of trash and defying the barrage of bad reviews. The fatuity of the film was coolly observed by Pisier’s unflappable beauty—as if she was a wedding cake floating on a stream of detritus. The “success” led to the equally awful TV mini-series, Scruples, adapted from Judith Krantz, and a smaller part in French Postcards. In 1981, she had another severe disappointment, as the lead in George Kaczender’s Chanel Solitaire, playing Coco—with Timothy Dalton as her male lead. After that, she moved increasingly toward the graveyard of French television, though she did appear in Jacques Demy’s Parking (1985), and she was still astonishingly beautiful in Raul Ruiz’s excellent version of Proust, Time Regained (1999).

But I have left until last her great gift to us, a work that would have justified her career if it had been her only film. On a summer’s day, in a small park where cats watch birds, two young women meet, a librarian and a cabaret artiste. They make an odd friendship and discover a grand, secluded yet mysterious house—7 bis rue de Nadir aux Pommes—to which they can gain entrance by sucking on a candy. Within the house there is what may be a faintly sinister family situation, or a melodrama that plays continually (ask yourself which label best fits your domestic life). Three adults live with a little girl, and our two heroines begin to suspect that they mean no good to the child. But is it life the pair behold, or a movie that is always playing? What can they do to intervene? Can the child be rescued?

The film is Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), directed by Jacques Rivette. The two pals are played by Dominique Labourier and Juliet Berto, and the adults in the house are Barbet Schroeder, Bulle Ogier, and Marie-France Pisier (Nathalie Asnar is the little girl). It is said that the cast collaborated on the screenplay, and that is no stretch of the imagination with Pisier, for she later wrote a novel, Le Bal du Gouverneur, and directed a film of it with Kristin Scott Thomas in the lead role.

Celine and Julie Go Boating is not yet on DVD (write to your senator)—it runs 193 minutes (and its fans would only have it longer). It is not just a beguiling picture; it is one of the wittiest movies ever made about the nature of fiction and the foolish enchantment of movie-going—for Celine and Julie (who are not seen by the inhabitants of the house) often sit, gape, and laugh at the rising comedy of the action as the posturing inmates look increasingly desperate or more like figures from an RKO picture of the 1940s. In all of this, Marie-France Pisier retains her elegance but yields graciously to the farce of the process. The film is a sophisticated comedy done in the guise of a suspense story. Rivette’s gentle eyes seem to understand the daft poise of Pisier’s beauty better than most of her directors. It’s rare that a movie beauty is permitted to be so foolish on screen—though some accomplish it in life.

I’m sure the actress’s death was the result of natural causes, and I hope it was swift and painless. Still, I cannot forget how its closeness to water seems to coincide with the rapture of Celine and Julie Go Boating, the final scenes of which take place on a fluent and magical river.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder

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