LONDON, England / The Guardian / Culture / Film / April 25, 2011
Marie-France Pisier obituary
French actor, novelist and director who starred in films by Truffaut and Buñuel
By Ronald Bergan
Marie-France Pisier in 1979. Photograph: Ralph Gatti/AFP/Getty Images
Those who followed the adventures of Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) in a series of lyrical and semi-autobiographical films directed by François Truffaut – incorporating adolescence, marriage, fatherhood and divorce – will know that Doinel's first and (perhaps) last love, Colette Tazzi, was played by the stunningly beautiful Marie-France Pisier, who has been found dead aged 66 in the swimming pool of her house near Toulon, in southern France.
Doinel and audiences first caught sight of Pisier in Antoine et Colette, Truffaut's enchanting 32-minute contribution to the omnibus film L'Amour à Vingt Ans (Love at Twenty, 1962), during a concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. She is conscious of Antoine's stares, and pulls down her skirt. We soon realise that Colette is going to break Antoine's heart.
Léaud and Pisier were born in the same month and were both 18 when they appeared in the film. Pisier was discovered by a casting director, who had been instructed by Truffaut that: "Jean-Pierre Léaud's partner must be a real young girl, not a Lolita, not a biker type, nor a little woman. She must be fresh and cheerful. Not too sexy."
Colette, who treats Antoine like a "buddy", much to his frustration, runs into him again briefly in Baisers Volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968) and, finally, in the last film of the series, L'Amour en Fuite (Love On the Run, 1979), which she co-wrote. By then Colette was a lawyer, divorced like Antoine, but far more emotionally mature. The film contained what Truffaut called "real flashbacks", when we see the differences between Pisier in her screen debut and Pisier 17 years and more than 20 films later, when she was midway through a prestigious career. She worked with such auteurs as Luis Buñuel, Jacques Rivette and Raúl Ruiz, appearing in quality French mainstream movies, with a short and unhappy detour to Hollywood.
Pisier was born in French Indochina, now Vietnam, where her father served as colonial governor. She moved to Paris with her family when she was 12. While starting out in films, she completed degrees in jurisprudence and political science at Paris University.
After she had appeared in several mediocre genre films, including thrillers directed by the actor Robert Hossein, Pisier's career took a more interesting turn. In 1974, she appeared in the most outrageous and amusing sequence in Buñuel's penultimate film, Le Fantôme de la Liberté (The Phantom of Liberty), where she is among the elegant guests seated on individual lavatories around a table from which they excuse themselves to go and eat in a little room behind a locked door. In the same year, in Céline et Julie Vont en Bateau (Céline and Julie Go Boating), Rivette's brilliantly allusive comic meditation on the nature of fiction, she and Bulle Ogier act out, in a stylised and exquisite manner, a creaky melodrama in a mysterious house.
Pisier was cast by the director André Téchiné in several of his early films, including Barocco (1976), for which she won a César award for her supporting role as a prostitute with a baby in tow. She later played Charlotte Brontë, alongside Isabelle Adjani (as Emily) and Isabelle Huppert (as Anne) in Téchiné's Les Soeurs Brontë (1979).
Her performance as a frivolous, neurotic wife in Jean-Charles Tacchella's Cousin Cousine (1975), a hit in the US, led to her starring role in The Other Side of Midnight (1977), a Hollywood soap opera in which she almost overcame the cliches as a naive French girl who, betrayed by an American pilot, begins to use men for their money and power.
But subsequently, apart from French Postcards (1979), in which, according to the critic Roger Ebert, "Marie-France Pisier, her jet-black hair framing her startling red lipstick, is the kind of dark Gallic woman-of-a-certain-age who knocks your socks off", she was little seen in English-language movies. Among the rare exceptions was Chanel Solitaire (1981), in which she portrayed the designer Coco Chanel with her usual elegance. She made a splendid Madame Verdurin in Ruiz's Proust adaptation, Le Temps Retrouvé (Time Regained, 1999), and was ethereal in the same director's magical Combat d'Amour en Songe (2000). More recently, she was an iconic presence in Christophe Honoré's homage to the French new wave, Dans Paris (2006). Pisier also directed two films, Le Bal du Gouverneur (The Governor's Party, 1990), starring Kristin Scott Thomas and adapted from Pisier's own novel about some of her childhood spent in New Caledonia in the Pacific, and Comme un Avion (Like an Airplane, 2002), a family drama based on the death of her own parents.
Pisier was an outspoken defender of women's rights and legal abortion. She overcame breast cancer in the 1990s. Her first husband was the lawyer Georges Kiejman, with whom she had a son. She is survived by her second husband, Thierry Funck-Brentano, a businessman; her brother, Gilles; and her sister, Evelyne.
• Marie-France Pisier, actor, writer, director, born 10 May 1944; died 24 April 2011
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