Anouk Aimée obituary

<span>Anouk Aimée in 1957.</span><span>Photograph: Cinematic/Alamy</span>
Anouk Aimée in 1957.Photograph: Cinematic/Alamy

Show-business history records how the young Françoise Sorya was walking with her parents in Paris when they were approached by the director Henri Calef, who asked whether the teenager could play a part in his forthcoming production La Maison Sous la Mer (1947). The answer was yes and Françoise took the professional name Anouk after the character she was to play.

A short while later, she accepted a part in La Fleur de l’Age and its director, Marcel Carné, added Aimée to her chosen name. In the event the film was not completed, but its writer, Jacques Prévert, had been captivated by the beauty and natural talent of the young actor and wrote a screenplay indebted to Romeo and Juliet for her. As a result, Anouk Aimée, who has died aged 92, took the role of Juliette in The Lovers of Verona (1949).

The success of the movie launched her career, which included some 70 feature films, stage work and a handful of TV movies and miniseries. Her greatest successes were La Dolce Vita (1960), Lola (1961) and A Man and a Woman (1966), for which she won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, but she chose work erratically and happily sacrificed her career for a private life that included an absence from the screen during the first six years of her marriage to the actor Albert Finney.

Daughter of Geneviève (nee Durand), who acted under the name Geneviève Sorya, and Henri Dreyfus, also an actor, she was born in Paris. During the occupation, her parents moved her to the country for safety and she used her mother’s name rather than that of her Jewish father. He later changed his name to Henry Murray.

Aimée studied both drama and dance before her first starring role in The Lovers of Verona, as the would-be actor Juliette, who, while working as an understudy, meets and falls tragically in love with a set carpenter (Serge Reggiani). That success took her to Britain for a part opposite Trevor Howard in The Golden Salamander (1950). Although she was well received in the rather dull film, she subsequently married the Greek director Nico Papatakis and had a daughter, and did not appear on screen again until The Crimson Curtain (1953).

This was a stylishly made period romance, adapted by the writer Alexandre Astruc from a short story as his directorial debut. Despite a duration of 43 minutes and narration rather than dialogue, it proved a critical success. Aimée, cast as a young woman with heart problems who sacrifices herself for her lover, embarked on a busy international career.

She played a prostitute, Jeanne, in an adaptation of a Georges Simenon story, The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (aka The Paris Express, 1952); co-starred in a somewhat pretentious thriller, Bad Liaisons (1955), directed by Astruc; and played a small role in Lovers of Paris (1957), which starred Gérard Philipe, France’s leading romantic actor.

She was invited to play opposite him in Jacques Becker’s Montparnasse 19 (1958), a biopic of Modigliani in which she took the role of the woman who eventually married the artist. She moved straight to another prestige production for Georges Franju, The Keepers (1959), playing a woman who tries to help a young man wrongly committed to a psychiatric hospital by his father. In Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, starring Marcello Mastroianni, she had the powerful role of a jaded socialite and found in the director a new freedom and vitality that kept her working in Italy for much of the next six years.

However, her best role was in Lola, Jacques Demy’s enchanting debut, dedicated to Max Ophuls and romantic cinema, which it affectionately satirised. Aimée as the not very talented singer waiting for her sailor lover to return made the character, in top hat and feather boa, vivacious yet vulnerable. Sadly, most of the other films in this period were less distinguished, and only Fellini’s 8½ (1963) placed her in a quality movie, as Mastroianni’s girlfriend.

She received the greatest popular acclaim of her long career in Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman. It took the Oscar as best foreign film, and the Cannes festival award as best film, with an Oscar nomination for Aimée as best actress. She did not win, but there was compensation in receiving the equivalent award from Bafta, a Golden Globe and starring in a huge box office hit. Its success led to a sequel, A Man and a Woman – Twenty Years Later (1986).

After starring in the elegant and mysterious Un Soir, Un Train (1968) for the Belgian director André Delvaux, she again played Lola, in Model Shop (1969), which marked Demy’s American debut. The film flopped, not least because Aimée seemed uninterested and unengaged by her role.

The same could be said of The Appointment and Justine (both 1969). The former was a misguided project by the New Yorker Sidney Lumet and suffered from an arty pseudo-European “sophistication” that alienated audiences. Justine was taken over by George Cukor early in the shooting. The director, famous for his rapport with female actors, later remarked that it was his only experience working with “somebody who didn’t try”. It was a commercial failure.

She returned to the screen in 1976 with Second Chance. There was an upturn when she received the best actress award at the 1980 Cannes festival for A Leap in the Dark, an atmospheric work by Marco Bellochio. Aimée took the character role of a spinster sister of a judge (Michel Piccoli), also unmarried, each enduring lives of quiet desperation. This was one of eight films she made with Piccoli, a friend since their days as drama students.

She worked for another distinguished director, Bernardo Bertolucci, in Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981), but her cool talent was swamped by the ebullience of her co-star, Ugo Tognazzi. The political thriller enjoyed little success either critically or commercially. Aimée subsequently worked mainly in France, with occasional sorties into international movies, including a small role in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Success Is the Best Revenge (1984), and a larger one in Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990), a co-production celebrating the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, portrayed by Donald Sutherland.

She was among the prestige cast in Robert Altman’s stargazer’s delight, Prêt-à-Porter (1994), which had fun at the expense of the fashion trade. In 2002 she received a lifetime achievement Golden Bear award at the Berlin International film festival.

She continued to work during the following decade, and defended criticisms of her occasional misfires, saying that while some of her choices had been poor, she was still proud of her “not unimpressive” career. She added that actors, too, need to work for money.

She had a pivotal role in The Birch-Tree Meadow (2003), co-written by Jeanne Moreau and directed by Marceline Loridon-Ivens. This sturdy work cast her as a Holocaust survivor returning to the scenes of the atrocities and encountering the photographer grandson of an SS officer.

In lighter mood in the comedy Happily Ever After (2004), she played the mother to the central character Vincent, a role taken by the director Yvan Attal. In 2006, she was attracted to another supporting role as the mother to the lead actor in the intriguing Hotel Harabati.

The amiable The One I Love (2009) was followed by a return to the director who had given her international fame in 1966. Lelouch’s Ces Amours-là was a sad disappointment, however, and Aimée’s following film, Paris Connections (financed by Tesco and sold through their retail outlets), based on a Jackie Collins novel, seems to have fared little better.

She then worked with the novelist and film-maker Philippe Claudel in his second feature, Tous les Soleils (2011), in which she took the role of a dying woman. After Mince Alors! (2012), her 90th screen credit, in which she had a small role, as Maman, she effectively retired, living in Montparnasse, Paris, with her daughter, Manuela.

However, in 2019 she was tempted to return for a final film with Lelouch and the chance to work again with Jean-Louis Trintignant, her co-star from A Man and a Woman. The film The Best Years of a Life was the second follow-up to that famous original and dealt with love and memory in old age. It was celebrated for showing the enduring magnetism of its stars.

Aimée was married and divorced four times. She is survived by Manuela.

Anouk Aimée (Nicole Françoise Florence Dreyfus), actor, born 27 April 1932; died 18 June 2024