The actress Micheline Presle is dead

Youngest of the trio of very young actresses who emerged in French cinema between the advent of talkies and the declaration of war in 1939, Micheline Presle, the doyenne of French cinema who died on Wednesday February 21 at the age of 101, has neither the dazzling filmography of Danielle Darrieux nor the legendary status that a few shots in Le Quai des Brumes conferred on Michèle Morgan. Becoming a star at 18 – thanks to Paradise Lost, by Abel Gance (1940) – she remained so during the Occupation and just after the Liberation, supported by films like Falbalas, by Jacques Becker (filmed in 1944 ), Boule de suif, by Christian-Jaque (1945) and, of course, Le Diable au corps (1947) in which Claude Autant-Lara directed her alongside Gérard Philipe.

What she lacked – an international career, the meeting with a director who would have made her his muse – Micheline Presle made up for it with an insatiable curiosity which led her to multiply experiences, whether acting with a stranger named Gérard Philipe or performing on stage at the age of over 50 with the Grand Magic Circus. These escapades were all the more surprising since the actress had become a very familiar figure in French homes from 1965 and the success of Les Saintes Chéries, one of the first French sitcoms broadcast by the late ORTF.

She was born Micheline Chassagne in Paris on August 22, 1922 into a lower-middle-class family. His father will soon go into exile in the United States, a departure surrounded by the scent of financial scandal. Her mother, a painter, soon sent the young girl to boarding school, where she was bored. The discipline of the establishment is flexible enough for Micheline to take acting lessons – her classmate Serge Reggiani – and try her luck when very young extras are needed.

Impressive register

From 1937, she appeared on the screen in La Fessée, by Pierre Caron, the following year in Petite peste, by Jean de Limur and Je Chante, by Christian Stengel. She was not yet 18 when Georg Wilhelm Pabst gave her an important role in Young Girls in Distress, released in 1939. She played a boarder named Jacqueline Presle, abandoned by her parents, a character whose surname she retained. The success of the film allowed her to follow up with Paradise Lost, by Abel Gance, a sentimental drama in which she plays a dual role, both wife of a poilu who kills herself at work and daughter of the first. Under the direction of the director of Napoléon, who bends more or less well thanks to the laws of French melodrama, Micheline Presle deploys an impressive register, by turns strong-willed and brainless.

The immense success of Paradise Lost, which was released after the defeat of June 1940, made the young woman a star of the first magnitude, especially since Michèle Morgan had left for the United States and Danielle Darrieux would soon be forced to quit to turn. Under the Occupation, Micheline Presle played under the direction of Marcel L’Herbier (The Comedy of Happiness in 1940, History of Laughter in 1941, La Nuit Fantastique in 1942) and Marc Allégret (Parade en sept nuits, Félicie Nanteuil, La Belle Adventure).

Unlike many of her colleagues, she does not film in the productions of Continental, the company set up by the occupier, and does not travel to Berlin. While the Allies had already landed and electricity rationing forced her to only shoot at night, she found her finest role of the period in Falbalas, by Jacques Becker. She plays a young provincial bourgeois woman who falls in love with a Parisian fashion designer (Raymond Rouleau). It’s up to the actress to represent the principle of reality in the face of her partner’s Donjuanesque madness, and she does it wonderfully, with a mixture of irony and fragility.

Falbalas was released after the Liberation, almost at the same time as Boule de suif (1945) , by Christian-Jaque, which was filmed in the patriotic atmosphere of the moment. Despite her rather slender physique, Micheline Presle plays the title role, that of a prostitute who confronts the occupier (Prussian in this case). Two years later, in 1947, he was accused of having damaged the morale of the nation for his participation in Le Diable au corps, which depicts a passion between a woman engaged to a mobilized soldier and a high school student.

The scandal

Adapted by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost from the novel by Raymond Radiguet, the film comes from the will of the actress. It was Jean Cocteau who offered her the novel and when the producer Paul Graetz, to whom she is linked by contract, looked for a subject that would suit his star, Micheline Presle campaigned in favor of Le Diable au corps and asked to have a partner Gérard Philipe whose glory is beginning to emerge.

The two actors are the same age (24 years old) and Gérard Philipe struggles to pass for a high school student. Despite the heaviness of the staging of Autant-Lara, streaked with flashes of wickedness, Micheline Presle constructs with great intelligence the character of Marthe, a young woman in revolt against the role that people want to impose on her. The scandal caused by the film equaled its success and Micheline Presle was for a time the first lady of French cinema.

But in 1950, she left for the United States, less in the hope of making a career there than out of love for her husband Bill Marshall, actor and producer who was the husband of Michèle Morgan from 1942 to 1948. In Hollywood, Micheline Presle works little, and even if she has the opportunity to be directed by Fritz Lang, it will be, according to the actress, on “her least interesting film”, in this case Guérillas in the Philippines (1950). When Joseph L. Mankiewicz offered her a role in The Cicero Affair, she was pregnant (by Tonie Marshall, future director) and had to leave it to Danielle Darrieux.

After getting divorced, Micheline Presle returns to France, where no one is expecting her anymore. In a book of interviews with Serge Toubiana, L’Arrière-mémoire (Flammarion, 1994), she says: “They didn’t want me anymore and it never went back to the way it was before. »

This is not accurate if we count the number of films in which his name appears in the credits. It’s more so if we try to measure the memory they left behind. For L’Amour d’une femme, by Jean Grémillon (1954), in which she plays a doctor who is forced to choose between her career and her love, how many forgettable productions by André Hunebelle or Pierre Gaspard-Huit?

Ignored by the New Wave

The New Wave ignored Micheline Presle (with the exception of Jacques Rivette for the role of Madame de Moni in La Religieuse, in 1966). This is not the case for Jacques Demy, who starred with her in 1962 in a sketch of the collective film Les Sept Péchés deadly but preferred to entrust the role of Madame Garnier in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort to Danielle Darrieux in 1967. Micheline Presle was ultimately The Red Queen in Donkey Skin (1970). In the meantime, she has once again become a huge star in France thanks to the success of Les Saintes Chéries. Broadcast on the first channel between 1965 and 1970, the series imagined by Nicole de Buron and directed by Jean Becker is a gentle satire of the transformation of French morals during the “thirty glorious years”.

But just as she had followed Boule de suif and Le Diable au corps, she joined forces with the post-sixty-eight band of Jérôme Savary in the wake of this Pompidolian success. With the Grand Magic Circus, she made a film, The Butcher, the Star and the Orphan (1975) and starred in a show called Goodbye Mister Freud (1974).

At the beginning of the 1980s, Micheline Presle joined forces with a group of young directors, Jacques Davila, Gérard Frot-Coutaz, Marie-Claude Treilhou. With them, she filmed Certain News and Who Too Embraces (Jacques Davila, 1980 and 1986), Beautiful weather but stormy at the end of the day and After the day after tomorrow (Gérard Frot-Coutaz, 1986 and 1990) and Le Jour des rois (Marie -Claude Treilhou, 1991). She maintained sustained activity until the start of the 2010 decade, filming for Gérard Jugnot (Casque bleu, 1994) as well as Jean-Claude Biette (Saltimbank, 2003), Francis Girod (Mauvais Genres, 2001) and Sébastien Lifshitz (Plein South, 2009).

We of course see her in the films of her daughter Tonie Marshall, Vénus Beauté Institut (1998) or France Boutique (2003), as well as in You want or you want not , which in 2014 was the occasion of her last appearance in the cinema .


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