Scholars’ Spotlight: Francoise Dorléac and Catherine Deneuve

June 26, 1967

Francoise Dorléac was on top of the world in the summer of 1967 and June 26th should have been no exception. Just a few months earlier in March her movie The Young Girls of Rochefort in which she co-starred with her sister, Catherine Deneuve, had been a hit. Catherine had another new movie in French theatres at the time, the now-classic Belle de Jour, which had been released a month earlier on May 24.

Francoise had spent the past several months filming Billion Dollar Brain, which was shot primarily in Helsinki, Finland, and in the UK. She knew the Michael Caine spy thriller had a good chance of catapulting her into becoming a major star in both the United States and Britain.

Although filming was mostly complete on Billion Dollar Brain, Francoise needed to fly to London to film a few pick-up shots at Pinewood Studios. A flight was arranged for her out of Nice, in the south of France. She rented a car to make the journey, which was about eight hours long.

The actress rented a Renault 10 for the journey, which ended both unexpectedly and tragically a mere 6 miles from Nice. Francoise lost control of the car at the Villeneuve-Loubet exit of the autoroute La Provençale. The car hit a signpost, spun wildly before flipping over and bursting into flames.

According to multiple eyewitness accounts, Francoise, who appeared to be without serious injuries, had tried in futility to open the driver’s side door of the car. Before she could be liberated from the flaming vehicle, it exploded, killing her instantly. Francoise Dorléac was just 25 years old.

Early Years and Career Beginnings

Francoise Dorléac was born in Paris, France on March 21, 1942, to French films actors Maurice Dorléac and Renée Simonot. The following year Francoise became an older sister when Catherine was born on October 22, 1943. Their sister Sylvie would be born just a few years later in 1946.

“I see myself as a girl who is always dreaming of romance, and the man she wants to marry, a girl who dances when she is happy.”

– Francoise Dorléac

At the age of 15, Francoise began to work as a fashion model. She made her cinematic debut in the short film Mensonges (1957). Over the next two years, she would model for Christian Dior and begin her studies at Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique, where she would hone her acting skills, completing her studies in 1961.

“A photographer asked if I would model for some fashion pictures and I said fine. A producer saw my pictures in the press and hired me for a small role for a film during the school holidays.”

– Francoise Dorléac

Catherine also made her film debut in 1957, at the age of 13. The movie was a comedy called Les Collégiennes and her role was extremely small. Her next movie would be 1960’s Les Petits Chats, which would feature Catherine adopting her mother’s maiden name of Deneuve, which was her mother’s maiden name to differentiate herself from Francoise.

Also that year both Francoise and Catherine appeared in a movie for the first time together, Les Portes claquent.

“It was impossible for me to have the same name as my sister Francoise. Or at least, that’s what my family said at the time…If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t make that decision! I love my mother dearly but I don’t like her maiden name. It’s hard to pronounce. I prefer my real name.”

– Catherine Deneuve

Success in the Sixties

Both Francoise and Catherine would have their first true cinematic success in 1964. Francoise would star in several movies that year including Philippe de Broca’s That Man from Rio, Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin as well as Roger Vadim’s Circle of Love. Catherine had a breakout star-making performance in the musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg directed by Jacques Demy.

Both sisters worked with Roman Polanski soon after. Catherine starred in his 1965 horror movie Repulsion and Francoise the following year in the black comedy Cul-de-Sac. While Catherine filmed Repulsion, Francoise was in Yugoslavia acting in the star-studded, Columbia Pictures epic Genghis Khan (1965), which featured Omar Sharif, James Mason, Eli Wallach, and Telly Savalas.

“We were never rivals because we were so different, she (Francoise) was much more the extrovert, the redhead. We were so complementary in our differences, the two of us together would have made the perfect woman.”

– Catherine Deneuve

The sisters would team up in 1966 to star in the 1950s Hollywood Musical inspired The Young Girls of Rochefort, portraying twin sisters. Shot on location in the city of Rochefort in Southwestern France, Jacques Demy directed movie, which also featured Gene Kelly in a small but memorable role. The film is a Technicolor feast for the eyes and a cinematic classic. It would also mark the final on-screen pairing of the sisters.

“I remember the tremendous atmosphere of filming, because we were right in the town. There was the incredible heat! And every Saturday night we would each host not a cocktail party but a party, ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ She coped better than me because she had the discipline from ballet I didn’t have. We went to London to train with a choreographer, and for French actresses to sing and dance was not the kind of habit we had. It was very challenging.”

– Catherine Deneuve

Francoise Dorléac and Catherine Deneuve

Throughout the mid-1960s the pair were fashion trendsetters in the Parisian cultural scene but polar opposites from each other regards to style. Catherine would typically wear more formal and classic designs and Francoise would gravitate towards prints. In a 1966 interview Catherine stated:

“She claims she always looks like she has nothing in the closet and I look like I have six closets. She wears casual things but she has 100 casual things and I have three subtle things.”

The Aftermath of the Accident

Catherine never got over the death of Francoise, essentially retreating from public life. It would be approximately 30 years before she would publicly speak about her lost sister.

Francoise Dorléac and Catherine Deneuve

“It was a very painful, silent thing in my family for a very long time, yes. It’s something a lot of people go through. In very close families, it is a subject that is never raised. Nobody’s going to talk about it because you think nobody understands.” – Catherine Deneuve

Francoise Dorléac and Catherine Deneuve

In 1998 Catherine told The Boston Herald:

“People who worked with her felt Francoise was very special, like a mixture of Kate Hepburn and Kay Kendall (the late British comedienne).”

Catherine would go on to write a book with Patrick Modiano as a tribute to her sister entitled: Elle s’appelait Francoise. A documentary of the same name was produced about Francoise in 1996 and featured several of the people who had worked with her over her too-short career, including Roman Polanski and Michael Caine.

Francoise Dorléac and Catherine Deneuve

Catherine said of the impact of the greatest tragedy she had ever experienced:

“I was lacking something and it was never the same. I’d say, ‘I would have liked to share this with her.’ She would have understood. Also, my friends in the film industry, some of them are directors, technicians, but I’m not close with actressess – you have no time and we’re not close to each other, to where we live, to have a relationship. But my sister was my sister. Sisters when you get along together, no matter where you are, you always talk to each other. And I will always miss that, yes.”

Francoise Dorléac and Catherine Deneuve

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