Anouk Aimée was an entrancing 60s movie icon with an air of glamorous unknowability

Estimated read time 6 min read

The superbly aquiline beauty and patrician style of Anouk Aimée made her a 60s movie icon in France, Italy and everywhere else with a presence at once alluring and forbidding. She had something of the young Joan Crawford, or Marlene Dietrich, or her contemporary, the French model and actress Capucine. Aimée radiated an enigmatic sexual aura flavoured with melancholy, sophistication and worldly reserve. Hers was not a face that could simper or pout: it was the entranced men around her who were more likely to be doing that. Hirokazu Kore-eda once wrote an amusing line that all the great French movie actresses have surnames that begin with the same letter as their first names: Danielle Darrieux, Simone Signoret, Brigitte Bardot … and of course Anouk Aimée is absolutely in that brand-identity tradition – although this is a stage name (she was born Nicole Dreyfus) derived from the name of her first movie character and the resonant word “beloved”.

In Jacques Demy’s musicless musical Lola from 1961, Aimée played the title role: a cabaret singer (like Dietrich in The Blue Angel) who stuns men everywhere, but her unattainability is naturally essential to her desirability. In Demy’s later film Model Shop (1969), he revives the Lola character; she is now working at a sleazy “model shop” studio where men can take lurid photos. Other directors found in Aimée that same melodramatic “muse” quality that her air of untouchability perhaps encouraged: Jacques Becker’s 1958 film about Modigliani, Montparnasse 19 had Aimée as the painter’s lover and subject Jeanne Hébuterne.

Anouk Aimée in Montparnasse 19 (1958).View image in fullscreen

Yet the director whose films really put her in the public gaze was – atypically – Federico Fellini, whose type she probably was not, but she made a fierce impression in smallish roles in his early masterpieces La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8½ (1963). In La Dolce Vita, she is Maddalena (drolly alluding to the Biblical “fallen woman”), a wealthy and gorgeous heiress who is airily bored with fashionable Rome and, having encountered Marcello Mastroianni’s journalist in a nightclub, goes off with him and a streetwalker (the actual Magdalene, perhaps) for a decadent three-way in this woman’s chaotic apartment. Aimée’s natural hauteur made her a natural for the role and, with her airy detachment and beauty, could be said almost to have invented Italian cinema’s modish ennui which Michelangelo Antonioni later developed. In 8½, Fellini rather more ungallantly cast Aimée as the tortured film director’s estranged wife, wearing severe glasses, more disagreeably demanding and critical, and far from the maternal sensuality that tended to recur in his visions of ideal women; but Aimée fully inhabited her role.

As a romantic lead, Aimée made the breakthrough to international stardom with the director Claude Lelouch, opposite the potent and pugnacious male lead Jean-Louis Trintignant in the box office smash A Man and a Woman in 1966, for which she got a Bafta, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. It’s a bittersweet love story that unfolds against a backdrop of very male daredevilry and danger: Aimée and Trintignant play a widow and a widower who meet because their children are at the same school. Aimée’s late husband was a stunt man who died doing a dangerous scene; Trintignant is a racing driver who takes his life in his hands every time he goes out on the track. For all that mortality casts its shadow, and makes their sex all the more exciting and intense, this is a very French movie in its lack of sentimentality; a Hollywood love story it isn’t. Aimee and Trintignant revisited the roles for two wintry sequels – the second of which, The Best Years of a Life, was in fact her last screen appearance – although their relationship was probably most interesting and persuasive in the very first film.

Anouk Aimée in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960).View image in fullscreen

In George Cukor’s Justine, Aimée had a role that appeared to allude to her own Judaism (she was a convert at some unspecified point); it had Michael York as a naive young British schoolmaster abroad in 1930s Alexandria in an adaptation of Lawrence Durrell’s novel. It becomes weirdly similar to Cabaret, with Aimée in the Sally Bowles part as a bewitchingly lovely woman involved in a plot against the British mandate in Palestine.

There was in fact a recurring theme of exoticism in the way the movies treated Aimée: in one of her early films, Ronald Neame’s Golden Salamander in 1950, she was the alluring sister of a gun-runner in wartime north Africa who casts a spell over Trevor Howard. For Bernardo Bertolucci, Aimée was again the wife in his Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981), with Ugo Tognazzi as a well-off dairy owner of humble origins hit with a ransom demand when his son appears to have been kidnapped. He is married to a grandly high-born Frenchwoman – played by Aimée of course – who by outranking him socially perhaps contributes to the air of tragicomic absurdity. A decade or so later, Aimée found herself elevated to another very French role (though by an American director, Robert Altman) in Prêt-à-Porter, to which her air of breeding and beauty entitled her; she is the mistress, with a social status almost exactly equal to that of wife, of Jean-Pierre Cassel’s Fashion Council chief Olivier de la Fontaine who dies farcically choking on a sandwich at the film’s beginning.

Yet maybe the most poignant and characteristic role Aimée ever had was for French auteur Alexandre Astruc (famed for his belief that the film-maker’s camera should be like the author’s pen) in his 1953 short film The Crimson Curtain, based on a story by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly about a bored and arrogant young army officer during the Napoleonic wars, renting a room from a provincial couple in a dull town. He is astonished by the beauty and delicacy of their daughter Albertine, played by Aimée, who – amazingly – takes his hand under the dinner table, but dies after they make love. The enigma, sensuality and vulnerability of Aimee’s screen persona are all there in essence – and above all the loneliness that comes with beauty.


You May Also Like

More From Author