Francoise Dorleac is better remembered today as the ill-fated sister of French film star Catherine Deneuve.
Slamming the boot of her rented Renault 10, a smart but boxy small saloon, and opening the passenger door to let her chihuahua Jaderane hop up onto the seat, Françoise Dorléac wished she could stay longer. The two weeks she’d just spent at the St Tropez villa leased by her younger sister Catherine Deneuve and brother-in-law, the British photographer David Bailey, in the early summer of 1967 had been exactly the break she’d needed. Now work was pulling her back again and she was already running late. She’d come to St Tropez from London after filming Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain with Michael Caine, her 11th film in just over three years as part of a punishing work schedule, and was due back in the British capital for the premiere of the English-dubbed version of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.
Dorléac had only left herself about an hour to make the 60-mile journey. If she missed the plane at Nice she’d miss her connection at Paris Orly, delaying her arrival in London by a day and arriving too late for the screening. The 25-year-old climbed into the driver’s seat, revved the engine and pulled away, making for the road that skirts the Golfe de St Tropez and leads north to join the motorway. A light drizzle began to fall.
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort had cast Dorléac and her sister as twins, and filming had allowed them their most significant amount of time together in years. They’d grown up sharing a room, Catherine on the bottom bunk, Françoise on the top, and as soon as they arrived on set it was like they were teenagers again. There were only 18 months between them – Françoise was always keen to remind Catherine who was the eldest – and they could have passed as twins even though they were very different people.
Françoise had brown eyes and hair, Catherine was blonde with a pink complexion, Catherine exuded a cool sophistication and keen eye for fashion, Françoise was boisterous, exuberant and wore whatever was comfortable. Catherine, she’d laughed to herself when she’d picked up the Renault at the airport, would never have driven a car like this.
“It’s funny, the more you succeed the more you are hated. I feel so alone.”
She’d surprised herself when she’d said this to an interviewer before she left London. Maybe it was spending time with Catherine again, whose life seemed so together with her husband and her four-year-old son from a previous relationship: her little sister so grown up. Françoise had a broken engagement behind her and a relationship with Francois Truffaut that had settled into a platonic friendship. Now she’d started seeing a businessman called Alexis Chevassus, who would be in London when she arrived. Although Dorléac had the previous year finally moved out of the parental home in Paris, it was to an apartment on the other side of the street. She didn’t have a telephone so people would call her parents, who would look across the road and see if she was home. She had breakfast there every day.
Dorléac drove round the looped junction at Le Muy and joined the A8, the main road east to Nice, the Mediterranean on her right and the foothills of the Alps stretching away to the left. She pressed the accelerator and switched on the windscreen wipers, reassuring Jaderane they’d make it in time.
The last three years had been a hectic round of opportunities and success, and she seemed permanently to be catching up with herself. After a string of smaller roles Dorléac had broken through as the female lead in the 1964 caper L’homme de Rio, in which she’d played Agnes, the girlfriend of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Adrien, who was kidnapped by thieves in the Brazilian capital. Then there was La Peau Douce for Truffaut, as Nicole, an air hostess having an affair with a heavily-conflicted married man.
“I first met Francois Truffaut in 1963 and I realised how good it would be for me to make a film with this famous director,” she’d said. “The trouble was I disliked him on sight and it wasn’t long before he told me he felt the same. In fact, he found me unbearable. We had a few tense months together before we realised our first impressions were wrong and found the beginnings of mutual discovery.”
The contrast between the intense character of Nicole and the adventurously heroic Agnes were hailed as confirmation of Dorléac’s versatility. Her performance in Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac the previous year had also garnered praise, while in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort she’d more than held her own in a musical, even pulling off a memorable dance scene with Gene Kelly. Most importantly of all she’d reconnected with Catherine and banished any jealousy she’d felt that her little sister, whose first film role she had pulled strings to secure, might eclipse her own screen success. The two weeks they’d just spent together were testament to that.
The Renault barrelled along the A8 towards Nice. Dorléac glanced at her watch: she was cutting things fine. The drizzle had set in now and she kept seeing brake lights going on in front of her as cautious drivers slowed down on a surface oily after a long dry spell. She found herself repeatedly having to pull out and overtake, leaning forward in the driver’s seat as the wipers squeaked across the windscreen. In two hours she would be in Paris, where hopefully it wouldn’t be raining. It was a shame she was only passing through this time, she thought, as she hadn’t seen her parents in weeks.
Maurice Dorléac and Renée Deneuve were both noted theatre actors in France who had regular work dubbing French dialogue over English films. Renée often boasted of how she was Olivia de Havilland’s French voice. When Françoise was ten she’d been excluded from school for a while for disruptive behaviour and her father was forced to take her with him to the dubbing studio where they were working on the French soundtrack of Heidi.
He arranged for his daughter to voice the lead role, which convinced her that acting was what she would do. She studied drama at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique in Paris and had her first lead role on the stage there in 1960, starring in Gigi, adapted from the novel by Colette. Soon afterwards she came to the attention of Christian Dior, who made her his star model on the Paris catwalks for a while. But it was acting that Françoise loved best. Now she was constantly in demand and being talked of as a future Academy award winner. Her potential, they said, was incalculable, she was funny, she had depth and gravitas. A true face of the 1960s, she was destined to be one the faces of the 1970s and beyond. “Audrey and Katherine, she is both Hepburns in one,” said Truffaut.
She could see the Nice racecourse ahead which meant she was less than ten miles from the airport. If she could make it there in the next ten minutes she should still catch her flight. Early evening driving along the French Riviera, she thought, and she’d be going to bed tonight in London. This was her life now and that was just fine. All she needed was to be a little more organised and little less late. She clicked down the indicator lever and pulled out to overtake the car in front.
Forty-one-year-old Roger Guiliano was on his way home from work a few miles outside Nice when a small blue Renault 10 overtook him at speed near the turn-off for Cagnes-sur-Mer. Somebody’s in a hurry, he thought to himself. The car pulled back in, in front of him, a shower of spray spattering his windscreen. When the screen cleared he saw the back of the blue Renault start to fantail. The brake lights went on, but on the wet surface it just meant the car went further out of control, going into a spin and smashing into a signpost at the side of the road. Flames burst from beneath the bonnet.
By the time Guiliano had pulled off the road and begun running towards the blazing car it was well alight and the heat already intense. Through the shimmer and the flames he could see a woman desperately tugging at the driver’s door and beating her fist against the window, her hair flying back and forth with the effort. Guiliano ran forward to help but the heat was too much and forced him to retreat.
Police identified Françoise Dorléac when they’d removed the body of a young woman and a small dog from the wreckage and found the burnt stubs of a driver’s licence and chequebook in a charred handbag among luggage in the boot.
“I see myself as a girl who is always dreaming of romance, of the man she wants to marry,” she’d told that interviewer a few weeks before. “I see myself as a girl who dances when she is happy.”