Nouvelle Cuisine May Be Passé, but the French Have a Hot New Dish, Arielle Dombasle
When director Eric Rohmer wrote the script for Pauline at the Beach, he envisioned Brigitte Bardot as the central character—a vain sexy blonde who dreams of "burning with love" and winds up only getting burned. But that was 23 years ago. When the cameras finally started rolling, it was time to pass the torch to an incendiary blonde of a new generation, Arielle Dombasle, 28. Arielle's sensational performance—and her equally sensational, scantily clad body—have helped make Pauline at the Beach this year's success story on the subtitles circuit.
To stereotype Dombasle as the latest French sex goddess would be misleading. She has written and directed her own arty film. She is a talented draftsman, as well as a trained soprano who can shift from opera to rock 'n' roll. She's just as happy reading the German philosopher Heidegger as she is shopping for high-heeled shoes. "I am more complicated than the image I have," Arielle protests.
Indeed, she is a welter of contradictions. For starters, this quintessentially French actress was born in Norwich, Conn. "I am so happy and proud to have been born there," she says. "I feel that big, strong America is going to protect me." When Arielle was only a month old, her family moved to Mexico City, where her maternal grandfather, Garreau Dombasle, was serving as the French ambassador, and her father, Jean-Louis Sonnery, owned a velvet factory. "Mexico is a country of harsh contrasts," Arielle says. "You see so much suffering. We lived in a palace with seven servants. I remember that even as a child I was shocked by that." Her favorite playmate was her older brother, Gilbert, who is now 30 and still in Mexico, running the family velvet business. "I played cowboys and Indians, not with dolls," she recalls.
When Arielle was 12, her mother died and her childhood idyll ended. "The years between 12 and 17 were a black period for me," she says. "They're supposed to be the best years of your life, but I felt like a chrysalis who wanted to be a butterfly and couldn't." Unhappy and lonely, she found solace in a theater that she created in an abandoned chapel, fabricating a stage from two Ping-Pong tables and a set of bedroom curtains. She staged plays sent from France by her grandmother and acted in them with her friends. "I always wanted to be an actress," Arielle says. "I can't live except through other people's eyes."
Wanting to pursue studies in dance, theater and music rather than attend college, Arielle moved to Paris when she was 17. Other than her beloved grandmother, now 82, she knew no one in the capital. "The French are so closed," she says. "People won't talk to you unless they know you. I had to bang on doors to meet the people I was interested in." It didn't take long for the doors to open: Arielle stands out in a crowd. Early on, while doing a play in the city of Montpellier, she was spotted on the street by Salvador Dali, who asked for her autograph, told her she was the incarnation of virginity and spent the rest of the day walking with her. With such je ne sais quoi, Arielle was soon a welcome part of Parisian artistic circles.
Despite her social success, Arielle didn't get her film break until she met Eric Rohmer in 1977 at an audition for his medieval movie, Perceval. She won a small part in that and a bigger one in Le Beau Mariage before Pauline at the Beach. "When you work with Rohmer, it's really like a little family," she says. "I love it, but I want to do other things as well."
That means following up on her directorial debut, Chassé Croisé (Criss Cross), a dreamlike, black-and-white film chock-full of symbolism. She directed it on a shoestring, persuading her friends, including Rohmer and Roman Polanski, to act in it for free. "If a famous director had asked me to be an extra, I wouldn't even have considered it," says Polanski, who had directed Arielle in a small role in Tess. Although her movie flopped commercially, it won good notices, and Arielle is eager to do a second feature. But first the actress is trying out a new medium: American television. She has agreed to play Maxine, the character who becomes a countess, in the upcoming ABC miniseries Lace, which started filming last month.
Surprisingly for a symbol of amour, Arielle talks eagerly about almost anything but her romantic life. Arielle denies any romantic interest in the married Rohmer. She characterizes their relationship as "amicable." While there is a man in her life, she will not name names. "It would cause a great deal of harm to talk about him now," she says. "But it's a relationship I've been in for a long time. Someday I'll be able to talk about it. For now, all that I can say is that I'm in love. I love and I am loved." A Rohmer heroine couldn't have said it better.
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