Daily | Bernadette Lafont, 1938 – 2013

The Mother and the Whore

Bernadette Lafont in ‘The Mother and the Whore’

French actress Bernadette Lafont, who appeared in more than 120 films, died this morning. She was 74. As Nancy Tartaglione notes in her report for Deadline, Lafont worked with “such directors as François Truffaut (Les Mistons) and Claude Chabrol (Le beau Serge). One of her most famous roles was in Jean Eustache’s seminal 1973 love triangle The Mother and the Whore. She won a Best Supporting Actress César for Claude Miller’s 1986 film L’Effrontée (An Impudent Girl) and received an Honorary César in 2003. Her more recent credits included Julie Delpy’s Skylab and Sylvain Chomet’s Attila Marcel which has a berth in Toronto.”

Let’s also mention that she worked with Costa-Gavras (Compartiment tueurs, 1965), Louis Malle (The Thief of Paris, 1967), Philippe Garrel (Le Révélateur, 1968), Jacques Rivette (Out 1, 1971; Noroît, 1976), and Raúl Ruiz (Genealogies of a Crime, 1997).

Updates, 7/26: “Lafont’s fresh look and performance style crystallized the [Nouvelle Vague’s] ideological and cinematic ambitions,” writes Ronald Bergan in the Guardian. “Truffaut and his colleagues found mainstream stars inadequate to their needs, using instead unknown and non-professional actors, and in doing so creating their own stars. The acting of Lafont, [Gérard] Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Pierre Léaud was a marked departure from much that had gone before. They were encouraged to improvise or talk over each other’s lines as would happen in real life. Lafont had joie de vivre, spontaneity and a rebellious streak.”

Movie City News directs us to a piece from 1999 by Jonathan Rosenbaum: “The casting of Léaud, Lafont, and [Françoise] Lebrun in The Mother and the Whore has some bearing on how different generations are apt to read this film.” As for Lafont: “The sassy working-class woman who typically never took shit from anyone in her early films for Chabrol (Le beau Serge, Leda, Les bonnes femmes, Les godelureaux), the spitefully avenging heroine in Nelly Kaplan’s feminist comedy A Very Curious Girl, and the unrepentant murderer who hoodwinks a dim sociologist in Truffaut’s Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me finally winds up an exploited and victimized older woman in The Mother and the Whore. She’s still angry and spiteful, but Eustache places her… at the end of a long road where she seemingly has nowhere left to turn. (The film is dedicated to her real-life counterpart, who wound up killing herself.)”

Aaron Cutler links to Oliver Peyon’s portrait Bernadette Lafont (2007, ca. 1 hour): “The unsubtitled French-language documentary contains clips from several of Lafont’s best film performances, which are good enough to shock regardless of whether one can understand her words.”

Update, 7/30: In Chabrol’s Le beau Serge and Les bonnes femmes, “her pouting lips, curvaceous figure and impertinent wit established her persona as that of a defiant, blatantly sexual woman usually of modest origins,” writes Ginette Vincendeau for Sight & Sound. “She thus occupied a specific niche in the New Wave female galaxy, against Jeanne Moreau and Emmanuele Riva’s cerebral heroines on the one hand and Jean Seberg and Anna Karina’s Godardian gamines on the other…. By a nice twist of fate, one of her very last films, Paulette (2012), in which she stars as a granny growing old disgracefully, selling drugs on the side, was a major hit. Entering French cinema in some of its most revered films, she left it with a bang.”

Update, 7/31: The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody revisits The Mother and the Whore: “As Eustache saw it, the grand philosophies and political swashbuckling of the day were all dusted aside by the practical troubles of workaday life and the intimate matters of pleasure and romance—and the latter were magnified by the classic French psychological temperament to an absurd and all-encompassing sphere. That’s the frank and passionate source of the movie’s ironic power: it’s what happens in the movie and, as Lafont knew, it was happening in life, too.” And he quotes remarks she made in 2007 on the film’s making. Rattling stuff.

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