Edwige Feuillere was during the 1940s the First Lady of the French cinema

Charming and elegant Edwige Feuillère (1907-1998) was during the 1940’s the ‘First Lady’ of the French cinema. She was known for the ease in which she could switch from playing sophisticated sexy ladies and cruel, self-centered seductresses. For more than sixty years she stayed a beloved ‘vedette’ of the French stage and cinema.

Edwige Feuillère was born Edwige Louise Caroline Cunati in 1907 in Vesoul, in the Haute-Saône in eastern France. Her father was Italian and, because he was drafted by the Italian army in World War I, Edwige spent much of her childhood in Italy. After the war, the family moved to Dijon in France . Edwige attended the lyceum in Dijon where she acted in plays including Racine's Esther and Athalie. At the Dijon Conservatoire she studied diction, interpretation of character and singing, and easily passed the entrance exam for the Paris Conservatoire in 1928. Two years later, she won the first prize for comedy, and married an older fellow student, Pierre Feuillere, a suicidal drug addict who used to play suicidal games with her. She made her theatrical debut under the stage name Cora Lynn, playing small roles in 1930. In 1931 she became a member of the Comédie Française, and made her debut in Le Mariage de Figaro. She left both the troupe and her husband in 1933, but kept his surname. During the 1930’s and 1940’s the stunningly beautiful actress became one of the leading ladies of the French stage. A success was her role in Edouard Bourdet's La Prisonniere in 1935 at the Theatre Heberthot. The play had a long run and was frequently revived. Among her most popular roles was Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux camélias (Camille) by Alexandre Dumas fils (1939-1942). For the next two decades she often appeared in revivals of La Dame aux camélias in France and Britain. Another triumph was Sodome et Gomorrhe (Sodom and Gomorrah) by modern author Jean Giraudoux (1943), for which she helped to discover Gerard Philip(p)e.

Edwige Feuillères first film appearance was in the short La Fine combine (1931, André Chotin) opposite Fernandel; and her feature debut was in Le Cordon bleu/The Champion Cook (1931, Alberto Cavalcanti, Karl Anton). For both films she still used the name Cora Lynn. Louis Gasnier cast her in the first film version of the farce Topaze (1933), based on the play by Marcel Pagnol. Her charm and elegance opposite Louis Jouvet were widely appreciated. In the strait-laced Europe of 1935 she scandalised the public with a brief nude scene in the historical drama Lucrèce Borgia/Lucrezia Borgia (1935, Abel Gance). This historical drama in which she played her first leading role, solidified her popularity. That year she also appeared in the epic Golgotha/Behold the Man (1935, Julien Duvivier) starring Harry Baur and Jean Gabin, and in the Ufa production Barcarolle (1935, Gerhard Lamprecht and Roger Le Bon), the French-language version of Lamprecht's Barcarole (1935). Her roles as elegant and often heartless women were displayed in Mister Flow/Compliments of Mr. Flow (1936, Robert Siodmak), Marthe Richard au service de la France/Marthe Richard (1937, Raymond Bernard) as a charming spy opposite Erich von Stroheim, La Dame de Malacca/Woman of Malacca (1937, Marc Allégret) and J'étais une aventurière/I Was an Adventuress (1938, Raymond Bernard). She went on work with famous director Max Ophüls in the melodrama Sans lendemain/Without Tomorrow (1939) in which she gives a wonderful performance as a jaded woman abandoned by a shady husband with a lot of debts, who is sacrified, and De Mayerling à Sarajévo/Mayerling to Sarajevo (1940) about the liaison between Archduke Franz Ferdinand - unwilling heir to the Habsburg throne - and his morganatic wife, Countess Sophie Chotek. The film ends with the couple's assassination by a Serb terrorist in 1914, thus starting WW 1. Work on this film began in 1939 and was interrupted by the war. It was finished in the spring of 1940, only to be banned by the Germans. The first ‘official’ premiere was 18 May 1945. Feuillères next film, Mam'zelle Bonaparte (1941, Maurice Tourneur) became a popular success, although the IMDb calls the film a ‘dud’. Another popular success was her role as a coquette caught by a great love for Pierre Richard-Willm in La Duchesse de Langeais/Wicked Duchess (1941, Jacques de Baroncelli) based on a novel by Honoré de Balzac with dialogues by Jean Giraudoux. Worth watching is also the romantic screwball comedy L'Honorable Catherine/The Honorable Catherine (1943, Marcel L’Herbier) with Feuillère as a high society blackmailer whose latest blackmail attempt is interrupted, and she then has to pose as her victim’s lover.

By the mid-1940’s Edwige Feuillère had become a distinguished, highly respected actress with a powerful well-modulated voice, expressive eyes and a magnetic presence. She was frequently acclaimed for her interpretation of classical stage roles. She turned down a seven-year Hollywood contract offered by Louis B. Mayer in 1945 and tended to make fewer films after the war, but her stage performances made her even more appreciated in films when she made them. With Gérard Philip(p)e she appeared in the Fyodor Dostoyevsky –film adaptation L’Idiot/The Idiot (1946, Georges Lampin). Her successful stage role of the widowed queen who falls in love with a political fugitive (Jean Marais) in L'Aigle à deux têtes/The Eagle with Two Heads (written for her by Cocteau) was translated to the screen: L'Aigle à deux têtes (1947, Jean Cocteau). Her role was especially written for her by Cocteau, and she appeared in 200 performances. Other great screen roles were the title character in Julie de Carneilhan (1949, Jacques Manuel) and Mme Camille Dalleray, the lady in white in Le Blé en herbe/The Game of Love (1954, Claude Autant-Lara), based on Colette's novel. Her role as the older woman introducing an adolescent to love in this film was a scandal, even though Feuillère was brilliant in the role and the writer kept out any suggestion of prurience. Other great films of this decade were Olivia/The Pit of Loneliness (1950, Jacqueline Audry) - nominated with a BAFTA Film Award, Adorables Créatures/Adorable Creatures (1952, Christian-Jaque) in which she played an eccentric bourgeoise who discovers the arcane delights of a banal sandwich, and the crime drama En cas de malheur/Love Is My Profession (1958, Claude Autant-Lara) with Jean Gabin and Brigitte Bardot. Another major stage role, which she would also perform again and again, was the femme fatale Yse opposite Jean-Louis Barrault in Paul Claudel's Partage de midi. In 1951 she made her first - and reportedly unforgettable - London stage appearance in this long and difficult role with the Renaud-Barrault company. She returned to London in 1955 for a season with La Dame aux Camélias and other plays. In 1968, when she appeared again in London in Partage de midi, the British theater critic Harold Hobson described her as the greatest actress he had ever seen.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s Edwige Feuillère appeared often on stage, such as in 1965 in La folle de Chaillot (The Madwoman of Chaillot) by Jean Giraudoux. She later reprised this role on television in La folle de Chaillot (1976, Gérard Vergez). According to IMDb her nickname was ‘Edwige 1ère’ (Edwige the 1st) for her cool and rather imposing acting style. She was equally at home playing in dramas and comedies. She also continued to be a popular film and television actress and worked with directors of the next generations like Michel Boisrond in an episode of Amours célèbres/Famous Love Affairs (1961) and Roman Polanski, who wrote the script for the dark cannibal comedy Aimez-vous les Femmes/ A Taste for Women (1963, Jean Léon). She showed little interest in a glamorous life style. Modest and humorous in private, she was also self-deprecating about her talent in her 1977 autobiography, 'Les Feux de la Memoire. 'One of the best of her later films was La chair de l'orchidée/The Flesh of the Orchid (1975, Patrice Chéreau – his film debut) starring Charlotte Rampling. In this crime drama, based on James Hadley Chase's No Orchids for Miss Blandish, Edwige Feuillère appeared disturbingly out of character. Another interesting film was the tv film Le tueur triste/The Sad Killer (1984, Nicolas Gessner), in which she appeared as the grandmother. In 1984 she was awarded a honorary César. She continued to act onstage and in the occasional film until her official retirement in 1992. Her last stage performance was Edwige Feuillère en Scène, in which she replayed scenes from her most famous roles and told about her long career. Tv broadcaster ARTE made a documentary of it, Edwige Feuillère en scène (1993, Serge Moati). In 1993 she was named Commandeur des Arts et Lettres; Grand Officier de la Légion d'Honneur. That same year she was also awarded the Molière prize for her stage work. The gracefully elegant grand dame played her last role in the tv film La Duchesse de Langeais (1995, Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe). Edwige Feuillère died of natural causes in 1998 in Boulogne-Billancourt, Île-de-France. She was 91. After her death Le Monde wrote: ''Edwige Feuillere was our Marlene Dietrich, our Irene Dunne and our Greta Garbo, all in one.''

Sources: Karel Tabery (Filmreference.com), Sandra Brennan (All Movie), Alan Riding (The New York Times), John Calder (The Independent), Wikipedia, Hollywood.com and IMDb.

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