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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

She walked in beauty: The subtle seductiveness of Anouk Aimée

Anouk Aimée in a still photo from the 1969 movie “Justine.” (20th Century Fox/public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

By Glenn Kenny

These days it’s dicey to refer to a female performer as “a thinking man’s sex symbol,” but back in the ’60s and ’70s, when such phrases were dispensed profligately, French actress Anouk Aimée, who died on Tuesday in Paris at 92, fit the category most beautifully. A willowy brunette with high sculpted cheekbones and penetrating eyes that seemed capable of looking right through you, she was a screen goddess who wielded a thoughtfulness that held the world at arm’s length, or farther.

“I didn’t want to be an actress, I wanted to be a dancer,” an effusive Aimée, then 80 and looking back on a career that began when she was a teen, told interviewer Charlie Rose in 2012. Born in 1932, she studied both dance and theater in England during World War II, and by the time she met Italian director Federico Fellini in the late 1950s, she had worked with old-school French cinema luminaries like Alexandre Astruc and Julien Duvivier. At that stage in her life, she was more reconciled to acting than in love with it. It was Fellini, she told Rose, whose attitude made her understand that one could be serious in one’s work while still enjoying life.

The two characters she created for him were not infused with joie du vivre, however. In “La Dolce Vita” (1960, streaming on Plex), she plays the ennui-besieged socialite Maddalena, who makes a sexual plaything of her ostensible friend and confidant Marcello, a tabloid journalist played by Marcello Mastroianni and based on Fellini’s days as a magazine writer. Contemplating escaping Rome, she talks of buying an island; Marcello chides her: “Your problem is you have too much money.”

“And yours is you don’t have enough,” she replies flatly. Then she looks up and gives him a sly, closed-mouth smile. You can see why Marcello might swallow the insult.

Three years later, in “8 1/2” (streaming on Max, Criterion and Kanopy), Fellini once again cast Mastroianni as his stand-in, this time in director mode. In the role of Guido, Mastroianni is vexed not just by a crisis of creativity but also by the galaxy of women in his life. Sandra Milo is the indolent seductress, Claudia Cardinale is Guido’s ideal voluptuous virgin, Barbara Steele is a mod muse. Aimée plays Guido’s estranged wife, Luisa, the good thing he can’t hang onto. And while her place in his life is such that she doesn’t even show up until an hour into the movie, she’s the most luminous star in his cosmos — even if Fellini often hides her light under the bushel of what seem to be a deliberately clunky pair of black-rimmed glasses.

Her performance in the title role of 1961’s “Lola” (Criterion), the first feature by the French master of fanciful and melancholy romance, Jacques Demy, is perhaps her most extroverted. As a cabaret chanteuse in a quayside bar, she smiles when she sees a familiar face in her first scene — an American sailor who’s more than happy to give her cigarettes and vino upon their reunion — and lights up the saloon. She later attracts the attention of a beleaguered young salaryman out of her past. She’s glad to see him, too, but as is so often the case with cabaret chanteuses in quayside bars, she awaits her true love, the father of her young boy. Lola is a relative free spirit with an open heart but a sense of limits; Aimée’s performance emphasizes the essential innocence, or maybe insignificance, of her flirtations. The character is a male fantasy in her work, a devoted mother in her home and ultimately maybe a mystery even to herself.

The movie that made her an international household name was Claude Lelouch’s 1966 “A Man and a Woman” (streaming on Kanopy). The romance was an international hit with spectacular reach. (My parents, who were not predisposed to French cinema, not only saw it, they also bought the soundtrack, highlighting Francis Lai’s mega-catchy “da da da dada dada da” theme music, which was a significant factor in the picture’s success.) Lelouch’s extravagant directorial style fused New Wave speed and Hollywood schmaltz intoxicatingly. But without the chemistry between Aimée, who plays an independent woman (a widow, she works as a film script supervisor) swept up in a passionate affair with Jean-Louis Trintignant’s cool, calm and collected race-car driver (himself a widower), the rocket would not have achieved nearly so powerful an ignition as it did.

With enhanced stateside recognition came offers to work in Hollywood, which she took. Her luck with them was not great. The 1969 “Justine” (not streaming), in which she starred with frequent Godard leading lady Anna Karina, is mainly cited today as a deep cut among director George Cukor’s cultists. The Sidney Lumet-directed “The Appointment” (not streaming), a 1969 psychological drama co-starring Omar Sharif, has yet to find its cult.

The mythology of “A Man and A Woman” was strong, too, and in 1986 came a reunion with Lelouch and Trintignant for “A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later” (most major platforms). This proved a bottle in which the lightning of the first picture refused to be recaptured; what few American critics saw it, lambasted it. Aimée had made a better impression a few years earlier in “The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man” (1981, not streaming), in which director Bernardo Bertolucci, working on a smaller scale than he was accustomed to, delivered an acerbic satire centered on the leftist kidnapping craze that rocked Italy in the ’70s. Aimée played the refined, educated wife of lumpen cheese factory owner Ugo Tognazzi, both equally flummoxed by the kidnapping of their son and the collapse of their business. Before retiring, she graced American screens in Robert Altman’s fashion farce “Ready to Wear” (1994, Kanopy).

She had retired when Lelouch called again, luring Trintignant out of retirement as well, for “The Best Years of a Life” (2019, not streaming). Reviewing the film from Cannes (it never received a U.S. release), critic Guy Lodge wrote that the two stars “can still fix the camera’s gaze with a single arch of the eyebrow.” It would be the final film appearance for both.

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