Friday, June 9, 1995

The uncertainties of Béatrice Dalle

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet meets the refreshingly frank Bad Girl of French cinema.

There is something irredeemably rebellious about Béatrice Dalle that has kept her firmly outside any kind of Parisian establishment, even the movie crowd, not known here for being usually that exclusive. And so last week it was shocking, but not especially surprising, to see the police arrest and hold for an outrageous 72 hours of questioning, without a lawyer, in the garde-à-vue procedure usually reserved for dangerous terrorists, the actress who smouldered her way into international stardom with her first movie, Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue, back in 1986, for owning 0.7 gram of cocain and 0.2 gram of heroin.

Before she was released, a judge charged Dalle with drug use and being an accessory in drug dealing. As it turned out, police had raided and ransacked her Paris apartment on a tip-off from two homeless small dealers whom she had sheltered for a couple of days.

The entire scene was exactly the sort of thing that never happened to, say, Françoise Sagan, when she was accused of regular cocaine use and dealing five years ago. (Sagan, who happens to be an extremely nice person, readily admitted that she used the stuff and denied dealing, exactly like Béatrice Dalle). France's most famous novelist, who made a writing career of loving fast cars and difficult men, never saw the inside of a police station cell: she was politely notified of the charges, and was fined by a lenient judge a year later. Sagan had played at being bad and only managed naughty. Ever since the amazing success of Betty Blue, Béatrice Dalle has assumed the uneasy part of France's "bad girl", the one France's usually tame journos feel they can snigger at.

There was the radio columnist Philippe Aubert, who alway made nasty jokes about her sensuous mouth and deep cleavage. There was the film critic at L'Express who disparaged her looks and her acting. Three years ago, when she had her first brush with the police for shoplifting in a cheap jewellery store, the newsweekly Le Point called her a liar and a thief; and a few months later, TF1's star anchor Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, who'd invited her to speak about her latest movie, reneged on a deal with her publicity people to ask her live about the jewellery incident: the sort of thing he'd never, ever do to either Isabelle Adjani or Catherine Deneuve.

Such hatchet jobs are almost unheard of here: producers and actors are known to be capable of retaliating by withholding access to sets, rights to reproduce stills, invitations to gala nights or chummy dinner-parties at Le Fouquet's and, in some cases, advertising from offending newspapers. It's as if Béatrice Dalle's enemies had sensed she's not part of that little game, and therefore won't defend herself in the usual way. (She may slap someone's face, but she's unlikely to sue.) Those who dislike her, her independence, her wild streak, are usually men. There's something in her that taunts them. "I'm an outsider, and always was, even as a child," she has said. "I don't plan my career, I chose movies on a hunch, I've made mistakes and I'll make more."

Although she's acted in a lot of duds, Dalle has a presence on-screen that is truly powerful and makes her smallest parts stand out. With a good director (Beineix, Jim Jarmusch for Night on Earth, or Truffaut's former apprentice Jacques Doillon for La Vengeance d'une Femme) she gives the kind of performances that have made Quentin Tarantino, John Turturro, Neil Jordan, Spike Lee and Madonna seek her out and offer her parts, which she hasn't taken "because I don't speak good English, and I can't imagine being coached until I say my parts by rote; acting for me is saying something I mean."

In real life she is mesmerizing, devastatingly direct, a charmed sprite. I first met her on a magazine assignment, immediately after Betty Blue, on the set of her forgettable second movie, with and by the moody stage star, Francis Huster. She was 22 and knew the film would be terrible. "They've rewritten the screenplay after I signed, and now I get to undress on page 2," she moaned, dragging on a cigarette cadged from one of the technicians.

We had shooed off the film's publicist, something experienced actors know never to do when meeting an unknown interviewer, and Béatrice happily started to tell me about her childhood in a council block in Le Mans, her nosy neighbours who called her and her mother "sluts" because they wore make up, her dropping out of school at 16 to come to Paris, staying in and out of friends' flats or the odd squat, doing odd sales assistant jobs, living on fruit and milk, going out clubbing at night, and being "discovered" by a model agency scout on the Champs-Elysées. (The Betty Blue offer materialised after her first published pictures, a fairytale by filmland standards.) I felt I'd known her for years, so much that when she mentioned smoking joints, I put down my pen and notebook and made her promise never, ever to tell it to a journalist again.

We met again a few times. There was an interview in the wood-panelled bar of Hôtel Raphaël, which she had annexed as her second home for a while, and where all the waiters grinned at her in a slobbering trance. I remember we talked about diets and lipsticks and the expensiveness of Hermès Kelly handbags. Béatrice Dalle still believes to this day that she's ugly; and at the time she also thought she was fat. (She is now proudly waif-thin to the point of anorexia, beautiful in an almost tragic way, after a series of crazy diets that I immediately and unknowingly ascribed to cocaine when I first heard of her arrest last week.)

Another time I asked her to take part in a Clive James's Paris Special for BBC Two, and they got along like a dream, even though Béatrice swears she doesn't like reading books. (Well, not quite. For instance she read all of the Marquis de Sade after she saw Barry Lyndon and Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract.) After they'd finished shooting, we walked up the Champs-Elysées to Le Fouquet's, the movie crowd legendary bar brasserie, where she'd never set foot before, and she told me about being madly in love with Rupert Everett, who'd just starred as Guy Burgess in Marek Kaniewski's Another Country. "He's soooo much more handsome and more intelligent than I am," she wailed. "Béatrice, he may be more educated, but you're more intelligent," I replied, meaning it. She didn't look as if she believed me.

She has been married once, to the painter Jean-François Dalle. She's still sorry it ended. They met in a club before Béatrice ever thought of standing in front of a camera. She was 19. He was 25. They hoped it would be forever. Then Béatrice started flying from location to location, being interviewed and photographed. "I'd go someplace with him, nobody even looked at him, they all rushed at me. I was the cause of the breakup," she says. Since then there were romances, always sincere, not always happy. "I am ab-so-lute-ly faithful to the man I'm in love with," she says. "I can't imagine cheating. What would be the point?"

She doesn't cheat and hates it in others. When suave father-of-four Poivre d'Arvor, whose wife appeared with him on many lovey-dovey TV magazine pictures, suddenly asked her about her shoplifting live on prime-time news, she hit back: "You said you'd not talk about it. Well then, I'll talk about the [love] letters you sent me. Aren't you sorry you wrote them now?"

But then Béatrice always preferred difficult men like the rap singer Joey Starr or the actor Christopher Lambert. Difficult neighbourhoods: her Paris apartment is on working-class Place de la République, not trendy Bastille. Difficult friends: she remembers when she relied on others' hospitality for a roof, and opens her door readily to people like the junkies who shopped her last week. Now she's holed up at a friend's house in leafy Yvelines, with instructions to visit a doctor once a month. It won't quite tame her.

© Copyright The European & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1995

Monday, January 30, 1995

"Life of the Party": Blowing the Whistle on Pamela Harriman

A new, tell-all biography of the American Ambassador won't faze the French, predicts Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

If the whistle indeed had to be blown on Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman's notorious lovelife and career, then the best place by far for her to reside when that bomb exploded was where she is right now: in Paris, once the theatre of some of her exploits, and where she currently officiates as Bill Clinton's competent and respected Ambassador.

Mrs Harriman is reported to be hopping mad about her indiscreet (and riveting) unauthorized biography written by the former Time Magazine chief diplomatic correspondent, Christopher Ogden, Life of the Party. Worse, she has chiefly herself to blame: she's the one who initially approached Ogden in June 1991 as a suitable co-writer when asked by a publishing house to write her autobiography. She had been, Ogden explains, favourably impressed by a biography of Margaret Thatcher he had recently penned.

A contract was duly drawn up, and Harriman sat for over 40 hours of taped interviews with Ogden before she started getting uncharacteristically cold feet. The publishers, Ogden reports, had offered a generous 1,625,000-dollar advance, and Pam realised she would have to produce a fairly complete memoir for that kind of money. Mercifully, at 73 and after three rewarding marriages, the multimillionnaire Harriman didn't need it. As is often the wont of the rich, she forgot that Ogden was not similarly circumstanced, and left him high and dry, having given up his Time job to write her book for her. Hence his decision to forge ahead.

The resulting book is a wonderful read, and Mrs Harriman shouldn't worry about the effect it has on her Parisian socialite friends (as opposed to the depressingly conformist inside-the- Beltway Washington crowd, or even her former British compatriots). The Pamela Harriman Tips On How To Seduce Rich And Powerful Men have been the guiding principles of Frenchwomen over the centuries. "When with a man, socially or professionally, not merely sexually, [Harriman] concentrated on him with laserlike intensity," Ogden writes.

"She would take a man who interested her out of a group the way a cowbow and fine horse could cut a steer from a herd for branding. She would approach the man, bring him out of the traffic pattern to a sofa, sit down and talk to him for five to ten minutes. She focused on his strengths: what he was doing, what had happened since they last met, his plans, all in a low, throaty, conspiratorial whisper, and in the process learned his weaknesses or what troubled him. She was glad to answer his questions if he had any, but she was extremely careful never to babble and never to burden the fellow with anything that might be troubling her. She wanted him to shine even as she learned what was on his mind.

"Careful never to keep anyone long, especially if his wife was with him, she would then return the man to the group, pick out another and repeat the process, perhaps half a dozen times or more. Rarely did she attempt to talk to a man in a group, rarely did she talk to women, although she tried not to alienate them unnecessarily. For those moments, those men sensed that no-one else in the world existed for Pamela. As her reputation grew, receiving the full frontal Pamela treatment, being Pamelized, was a heady experience for most men."

The time is 1947, the place is Paris, and Pamela Digby, 27, had been divorced for two years from Randolph Churchill. The "fast" debutante who'd married after a two-week courtship the son of the legendary British PM, then, neglected by him, had enjoyed a string of passionate affairs with some of the most interesting men to be found in London in the war years, from Jock Whitney to CBS broadcaster Ed Murrow and (déjà) US envoy Averell Harriman, had moved to to Paris to properly enjoy her divorcee status.

Paris was made for Pamela and Pamela was made for Paris. She met Aly Khan, son of the Aga, at the annual ball he threw each June at the Pre Catelan after the Grand Prix de Paris race, and to which she'd been invited in 1947 with her friend Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, daughter of Joe's and sister of Jack's. Aly Khan's 33 to 1 longshot horse, Avenger, had just won. It was lust at first grope. The two danced cheek to cheek as if welded. When Kick warned Pam against Aly Khan as a known womanizer, she made the mistake of hinting at his dark skin as well. It was enough to decide the headstrong Pamela.

Other playboys of the Parisian nights would follow: the young Gianni Agnelli, whom she eventually found too hard to pin down to the serious business of marriage, and even more tantalising, Baron Elie de Rothschild, whom she simply snatched away from his less beautiful, less devoted wife Liliane in 1953. An intellectual who was a voracious reader and an expert on eighteenth-century art, "Liliane certainly wasn't going to worry about bringing Elie his slippers," her own brother-in-law once explained. "Pam was. She's so good about paying attention to all the small things."

Although the new couple were trying to keep their affair discreet, all of Paris knew. Where an English or an American wife would have confronted her husband with recriminations and tears, Liliane de Rothschild was wiser. The Duke of Windsor once asked her which of the Rothschilds was involved with Pamela. "My husband", she replied. And yet she suffered so much that forty years later, she still can't bring herself to say Pamela Harriman's name, calling her "that woman". Elie didn't divorce.

But the beauty of Paris was that Pamela Digby Churchill could lead her own life as freely as she wished, and still be received by everyone without difficult explanations. She was a regular at Louise de Vilmorin's salon, where she could meet the poetess's lover, André Malraux, and the future Academicien Francais Maurice Druon, with whom she had a fling. The American brigade - the Irwin Shaws, the Art Buchwalds, Theodore White, the 24-year-old Ben Bradlee, then press attache at the American Embassy she was one day to command - introduced her to the brilliant photographer, Robert Capa, whom she fell for. Later she'd complain to a Parisian friend: "Everyone always talks about the rich men I have slept with, no one ever talks about the poor men I have slept with."

When she left Paris for New York and marriage to the Broadway producer, Leland Hayward, in 1958, Pamela had made a host of French friends, from Ysabel de Faucigny-Lucinge (later Marquise de Ravenel) to viscountess Jacqueline de Ribes, Versailles curator Gerald Van Der Kemp, billionaire industrialist Paul-Louis Weiller, or Princess Irene Galitzine, connections which would serve her crucially upon her return.

Never fazed by her style even at its wildest, Parisians these days find her positively low-key. And no-one, but positively no-one, would ever dream of not attending one of her dinner parties at the Ambassador's residence on 41, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore - fittingly, a former Rothschild residence, in which her move with her own Impressionists and furniture was duly recorded by Karl Lagerfeld's camera for "Vogue". There are rumours that she plans to settle in Paris even after the end of her tenure as Ambassador. It could be her wisest move yet, especially since another unauthorized biography, this time by the experienced writer Sally Bedell Smith, is in the works in Washington. Whatever new comes out, it will only add to Pam Harriman's prestige here.

"Life of the Party: the biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman," by Christopher Ogden, Little, Brown and Company, £ 18.99.

© Copyright The European & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1996