Anouk Aimée in "La Dolce Vita"
Anouk Aimée in "La Dolce Vita"

What the world has lost with the death of Anouk Aimée

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Nicole Françoise Florence Dreyfus, the actress who became world famous as Anouk Aimée, died last week in Paris at the age of 92. With her death, a certain idea of France — an idea, at least, that swept away Americans of my generation — died a little more too.

Born in Paris in 1932, the young Dreyfus and her mother took the name Durand during the Nazi occupation to escape the round-up of Jews by French police. Upon leaving her school one day, the actress recalled years later, her classmates began to shout “Elle est juive!” — “She’s Jewish! — as a German officer walked past. He took the young girl by the hand and, rather than taking her to the closest police station, took her home, where left her with her terrified mother.

Scarcely had France been liberated that, in 1946, Dreyfus appeared in her first movie, “La Maison sous la mer” (“The House Under the Sea”), a forgotten film by the equally forgotten director Henri Calef. The one element that will always be remembered is that in the credits, Dreyfus was identified “Anouk,” the same name she had in the film. A few years later, she was given a last name by the poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert. On the set of a Marcel Carné film, he told the young woman, “one cannot go through life with just a first name” — Arletty seems to have thought otherwise — and because everyone who met her fell in love, baptized her “Aimée.”

As usual, Prévert found the right word. In 1966, the world fell in love with Anouk Aimée upon the release of the film whose title requires no translation, “Un homme et une femme.” Directed by the young and then-unknown Claude Lelouch, the film was a sensation that caught everyone by surprise. Made on the proverbial shoestring and in just three weeks, Lelouch hatched the idea for the film on the most fleeting of impressions. One evening, while walking alone along the beach at Deauville, he passed a young woman with her child and dog.

Marked by this image, Lelouch quickly sketched a skeletal scenario and managed to sign Aimée, who have already won fame in Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” and her costar Jean-Louis Trintignant. He unveiled what little story there was on the first day of filming, but he kept his two stars in the dark as to what the other would say in a particular scene.  Crazy, perhaps — Lelouch had already earned this reputation in some quarters — but it turned out he was crazy like a fox.

This unusual approach to dialogue, dubbed “reportage” by Lelouch, helps explains the sheer spontaneity of the actors — who are both improbably beautiful — as they dine with their young children — both are widowed and first meet at the school attended by their offspring — walk along the beach or stare into the middle distance. It is an approach that makes one feel less a viewer than a voyeur. A voyeur, moreover, who hardly minds the many long scenes of Trintignant, who plays a professional car racer who, when he is not speeding in circles in Monaco, is speeding in a straight line from Monaco to Paris — in a 1966 Mustang, no less — upon receiving a three-word telegram from Aimée: “Je vous aime.”

By the end of her life, Anouk Aimée had made more than 70 films. Among her last films was “La Petite Prairie aux bouleaux,” distributed in the United States as “The Birch-Tree Meadow.” She plays an elderly Holocaust survivor who, 60 years after her liberation from Auschwitz, returns to overcome her past. It, too, feels authentic, in part because the actors and crew spent three weeks on site. The experience deeply marked Aimée, who observed that at Auschwitz, “the soil speaks. It has a different odor.”

Yet the film for which Anouk Aimée will be remembered is neither “The Birch-Tree Meadow,” “La Dolce Vita,” nor “Lola.” Instead, for me it will be for “A Man and a Woman.” A half-century ago, when I took the bus to Port Authority in New York from my suburban home in New Jersey, I watched the film at the Bleecker Street Cinema. Then I walked back to the Port Authority and found myself back in a Rollo’s bus, not a Mustang, rumbling south on the Jersey Turnpike.

As I passed the refineries and Howard Johnson rest-stops, I believed the telegram that Aimée sent Trintignant was also addressed to me. Not that this extraordinary being sent it to me — I was dorky, but not delusional — but that it was sent from a place where people not only spoke in a different language, but who created a world so very different from my own. Certainly not a better world, but for a 17-year-old, a more beckoning world. One where life and love mixed in ways that I never found in suburban America, ways that seemed better understood and cultivated.

Of course, I have since learned that the world which created this film is terribly flawed and, like our own world, seems to be slouching towards the abyss. And yet, when I rewatched the film this morning, I again fell in love with France and, of course, Anouk Aimée. When asked in one of her last interviews what role she would next like to play, she replied, “I would like to be a ghost. A kind ghost, I hope.” Her wish, I think, has been granted.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Robert Zaretsky

Robert Zaretsky is a professor at the University of Houston and a culture columnist at the Forward.