Today — just because I felt like it — a tribute to the great actress Maria Casarès, born this day in 1922. While hardly the strangest flower in the garden, she had extraordinary presence as a performer and collaborated with some of the foremost writers and directors of the 20th century.
Casarès’s outstanding career in France is all the more remarkable given that she only learnt French as a teenager. Her father had been Prime Minister of Spain during the Republic, and with the outbreak of the Civil War, the 14-year-old Casarès volunteered as a nurse, but in 1936 the family were forced to flee as Franco’s forces advanced.
Casarès’s film career began, auspiciously enough, with what the French Film Academy voted the country’s best film of all time, Les Enfants du Paradis, made under the Nazi occupation and released in 1945.
In the same year she appeared in Robert Bresson’s brilliant Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne as a scorned woman working her way through a whole rack of Schiaparelli frocks while wreaking revenge on her lover. Her portrayal of jealous rage is all the more effective for its elegant restraint, and her performance never spills over into camp histrionics.
In 1950 Jean Cocteau, who had scripted Les Dames…, gave Casarès her most memorable screen role, as the Princess in the cinematic poem Orphée. The woman who could communicate gradations of icy contempt unknown to most performers was perfect as the embodiment of death.
Ten years later Casarès reprised her role in the daft “sequel”, Testament d’Orphée, but by this time most of her appearances were reserved for the theatre. I’m fairly certain Casarès appeared in black and white on stage as well as screen; she’s one of those people you can’t imagine existing in colour. She played a range of iconic heroines, as well as modern characters from the likes of Sartre, Genet and Camus, her one-time lover, and was proclaimed as the greatest tragedienne of her generation before meeting her own death in 1996.