France is known for its croissants, the Eiffel Tower, the Marseillaise and the palace of Versailles. But who are the people who have formed our view of France, the celebrity ambassadors of the tricolore? Who are the actors, actresses, the singers and fashionistas who make everyone want to visit France? Here are ten of the most famous French men and women.
1. Brigitte Bardot
Born in Paris in 1934, Brigitte Anne-Marie Bardot was a charming little brunette girl. In 1947, she was enrolled in the Conservatoire de Paris as a ballet dancer, where she earned the sobriquet “Bichette” (little doe).
In 1949, at the age of 14, she made first forays as a model. Director and filmmaker Roger Vadim noticed her on the cover of Elle and showed her to his friend Marc Allégret.
Her first film was called Le Trou Normand (the English title was Crazy for Love) in 1952, but her breakthrough year was 1956 with several French films, two of which involved Roger Vadim, whom she had married four years previously: En effeuillant la marguerite (Stripping the Daisy), which he wrote, and Et dieu… créa la femme (And God created woman), which he directed. They divorced a year later.
Her first Hollywood hit was Viva Maria! directed by Louis Malle in 1965, for which she was nominated for a BAFTA award as Best Foreign actress.
Her face was used for representations of Marianne, an anthropomorphic representation of French liberty, on official documents, including stamps, from 1969 to 1978 - the first time Marianne’s face was based on a real person.
She decided to retire from acting in 1973. Her penultimate film was produced by her ex-husband Roger Vadim - Don Juan 73, ou si Don Juan était une femme. And so the man who helped her start her career also helped her end it. She has starred in more than 60 films.
Today, she is an animal activist. She has been married to her fourth husband Bernard d’Ormale, former advisor to right-wing politician Jean-Marie LePen, since 1992.
Brigitte Bardot was a truly iconic figure of French cinema, influencing pop culture (Andy Warhol painted her) and even feminism and philosophy, being featured in French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s essay “The Lolita Syndrome” in 1959.
2. Catherine Deneuve
Another icon of French cinema is Catherine Deneuve. Born Catherine Fabienne Dorléac in 1943, she chose her mother’s maiden name of Deneuve as her stage name so as not to be confused with her sisters, who also acted. Her first film was alongside her sisters in 1957. She made some films with Roger Vadim (including Vice and Virtue in 1963), with whom she had a son, but it was Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) that propelled her to stardom. She went on to star in Roman Polanski’s thriller Repulsion in 1965 and Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour in 1967, where she perfected the “ice maiden” persona.
Catherine would go on to star in more than a hundred films; including:
- The young girls of Rochefort in 1967 further cemented her career
- Tristana (1970)
- Donkey Skin in 1970
- The April Fools starring alongside Jack Lemmon in 1969, an American film
- The Slightly Pregnant Man, another American film with Marcello Mastroianni, the father of her second child, daughter Chiara Mastroianni
Deneuve won the César for Best Actress for her role in François Truffaut’s The Last Metro in 1980 and was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of plantation owner Éliane Devries in the 1992 film Indochine. More recently, she has starred in Dancer in the Dark, which was nominated in Cannes for a Palme d’Or in 2000, Potiche in 2010 and Bonne Pomme in 2017.
She, too, was the face of the Marianne for a time.
3. Gérard Depardieu
After two female sex symbol actresses, a French actor who, though perhaps not a heartthrob, has made the headlines more than once, whether with his name on a marquee or, in defiance of French etiquette (or indeed etiquette anywhere) his bare buttocks on a plane.
Gérard Xavier Marcel Depardieu was born in 1948 in Châteauroux. He left school at thirteen to work in a printworks, but after some run-ins with the law for petty crime went to Paris at sixteen, where he landed a job as an actor in the Café de la Gare, a comedy theatre.
His first film was Betrand Blié’s les Valseuses in 1947 (Going Places). He became known on the French film circuit and won a César for Best Actor for his work in Truffaut’s The Last Metro in 1980 where he starred alongside Catherine Deneuve.
He became known internationally for the title role in Jean de Fleurette in 1986, where he played a hunchback who found love. His portrayal of another physically deformed man in Cyrano de Bergerac, an adaptation of the play by famous French writer Edmond Rostand, won him international acclaim in 1990, earning him a second César, an award at the Cannes Film Festival and a nomination for the Oscars.
Most recently, he is best known for his roles as Porthos in The Man in the Iron Mask and as Obelix in the live-action Asterix films.
4. Jean Reno
Born in Morocco of Spanish parents while Morocco was still a French protectorate in 1948, Juan Moreno y Herrera-Jiménez grew up trilingual, speaking Arabic, Spanish and French.
His family moved to France in 1970 and he acquired French citizenship. Upon deciding to become an actor, he adopted the French version of his name, shorter and easier to remember.
His first film was in 1978, as a character in a painting in The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting. He first truly became noticed for his role as the Drummer in Subway (1985), directed by Luc Besson who first noticed him on the set of Le Dernier Combat and who would give him his greatest successes. He cast Jean Reno again in Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue), for which he was nominated for a César as best actor. He truly became famous in France for his role as the Count Godefroy in Jean-Marie Poiré’s time-travel comedy Les Visiteurs (1993) (earning him yet another César nomination), which was remade for Hollywood in 2001 under the title Just visiting, with Reno once more in the main role.
However, it was Luc Besson’s 1994 classic Léon: the Professional starring alongside Nathalie Portman that cemented his international success (and a third César nomination), landing him roles in movies such as Godzilla (1998), Ronin (1998) and the DaVinci Code (2006).
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He is the father of six children from three different marriages. He has never forgotten his Andalusian roots.
5. Luc Besson
Luc Paul Maurice Besson was born in Paris in 1959. After a number of internships and stints as director’s assistant in France and the US, he first directed The Last Battle (Le Dernier Combat) a post-apocalyptic film he co-wrote with Pierre Jolivet, who starred in it. It was shot in black and white and contained two words of dialogue. It caught the attention of the oldest film society in the world, Gaumont, founded in 1895 but now, alas, absorbed by other companies and the name abandoned.
Gaumont signed him for Subway, a detective film which he also co-wrote. It came out in 1985 and won three Césars. This success allowed him to make The Great Blue, inspired by the life of two freedivers (Besson’s own parents were scuba-diving instructors). It was met sceptically at the International Film Festival at Cannes but became a box-office hit.
Luc Besson went on to direct or write such classics as Léon: the Professional (1994), the iconic sci-fi extravaganza The Fifth Element (1997), Taxi (1998), The Transporter 1 & 2 (2002 & 2005), District 13 (2004), and all the Taken (2008-2014) films with Liam Neeson.
6. Jacques-Yves Cousteau
A whole generation grew up with Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s underwater documentaries.
Born in 1910 in Saint-André de Cubzac. He studied at the École Navale to become a gunnery officer in the French navy. He broke both his arms in an automobile accident, cutting short his dreams of becoming a naval pilot but allowing him to indulge in his passion for underwater exploration.
He had started some underwater experiments while still serving in the navy. In 1943, he won a prize for the first ever French underwater documentary, produced with alpinist Marcel Ichac: Par dix-huit mètres de fond, made entirely without breathing apparatus. In the same year, he and Ichac tested the first prototypes of the Aqua-Lung to make another documentary, Épaves (Shipwrecks). Cousteau had first used Fernez goggles (a breathing tube with a pump to equalise pressure), then the LePrieur apparatus with a portable air supply. Unhappy with the amount of time these systems let him stay underwater, he improved the LePrieur apparatus with the help of Émile Gagnan. With the aqua-lung, he was able to fulfill numerous scientific and military missions for the French navy.
He left the navy in 1949, founding the French Oceanographic Campaigns a year later. He leased his famous research ship the Calypso from British philanthropist for a symbolic franc a year, refitting it into a mobile laboratory. One of his missions was accompanied in 1954 by filmmaker Louis Malle; The Silent World won at Cannes in 1956.
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He created and perfected various versions of deep-sea submarines, manned and automated, and in the 1960s and 1970s produced documentary series for American television.
He was a vocal advocate for environmental issues, work continued by the Cousteau Foundation. All in all, he produced more than 120 television documentaries. In 1988 he was elected to the Académie Française, which he held until his death in 1997.
Among other things, he was a Commander of the Legion of Honour, earned the Grand Cross of the National Order of Merit and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
7. Serge Gainsbourg
Serge Gainsbourg is a famous French musician. Born as Lucien Ginsburg in Paris in 1928, he changed his name to Serge in honour of his Ukrainian ancestry. He was a remarkably multitalented artist. Singer, pianist, composer, songwriter, painter, actor and director, he is best known for his music that runs the gamut of styles from chanson to disco to reggae to funk.
He is known for his affair with Brigitte Bardot in 1967, to whom he dedicated an album with the titular song Initiales BB.
He worked with such influential singers and artists as Michèle Arnaud, Jacques Brel, Minouche Barelli and longtime partner Jane Birkin. He also wrote several songs for the Eurovision Song Contest, for various countries including Luxembourg and Monaco.
Gainsbourg was known for his often sexual and provocative lyrics and frequent drunkenness during public appearances.
His daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg is a singer and actress.
8. Edith Piaf
Vocally the best known French singer, Edith Piaf was born Édith Giovanna Gassion in 1915 and specialised in chanson and love ballads. When her mother walked out after she was born, she was raised in a brothel run by her paternal grandmother in Bernay.
As a teenager, Edith worked as a street singer first with her father, then with her (possibly) half-sister Simone Berteaut. She had her first daughter at 17 by a man called Louis Dupont, who died from meningitis at the age of two.
In 1935, she was discovered by Louis Leplée, owner of the club Le Gerny near the Champs Elysées. She performed under the name “La Môme Piaf”, “the urchin sparrow” in historical French slang. She first donned her signature black dress in the Le Gerny. The nightclub attracted people and artists from every walk of life, and she produced her first two records in the same year.
A year later Leplée was murdered by gangsters with ties to Piaf from her street-singing days. To rehabilitate her image, she teamed up with Raymond Asso, who gave her the stage name Édith Piaf and had Monnot write songs mentioning her life on the streets. During the German occupation she continued to flourish, writing the lyrics to many of her songs herself.
After the war, she became known internationally. Her most famous song is La Vie en Rose, written in 1945 and covered numerous times.
She struggled with alcohol addiction, exacerbated by an opiate addiction after several car accidents, and died of liver cancer in 1962.
9. Coco Chanel
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in 1883. Her father was an itinerant peddler, and after her mother’s death when she was 12 he sent her and her sisters to the convent orphanage of Aubazine, where she learned to sew.
When she left the orphanage at 18, she earned her living as a seamstress and cabaret singer in Moulins, where she earned the nickname Coco. There she met Étienne Balsan, heir to a firm that made military uniforms and became his mistress. In 1908 she became the mistress of his friend Arthur “Boy” Capel, who payed for an apartment in Paris and kept up their relationship even after his marriage and to his death in 1919. He would help her set up her first shops.
Coco had started designing hats as a hobby but became a licensed milliner in 1910. Her hats became popular after a famous French actress Gabrielle Dorziat modeled them onstage and for the magazine Les Modes. In 1913 she opened her first clothing shop in Deauville with sports and leisure attire in cheap fabrics such as jersey and tricot. Another shop in Biarritz, a popular seaside resort catering to the wealthy, became so popular that she was able to purchase an entire house in 1921 to offer the full range of Paris fashion: clothing, hats, accessories and later also jewellery and perfume, including the now-iconic Chanel N°5. Her designs freed women from the corseted silhouette, ushering the more airy, shorter styles popular after the Great War.
From 1923-1937, she designed the costumes for the prestigious Ballet Russe; in the 1930s she dressed several Hollywood stars for their on-screen roles, then for French films such as Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu. However, her design aesthetic was slowly going out of style. With the occupation of France, she closed her fashion houses, only re-opening them in 1954. Her once avant-garde designs were now conservative, but she remained in business until her death in 1971.
Coco Chanel was a known anti-semite and her role during the Second World War has been the subject of much controversy, but her legacy to the world of French fashion lives on.
Next to Louis Vuitton’s iconic bags, Coco’s Chanel N°5 (ironically now in the hands of a Jewish firm) remains the epitome of Haute Couture.
And finally, let’s not forget the French ambassador among children and the young-at-heart. The well-known Gaul, small and clever, and his large, strong friend Obélix were first created by the author-artist team René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo for the French-Belgium comic magazine Pilote in 1959. Since then, their adventures have taken them to Egypt, England, India and even the Americas. After Goscinny’s death in 1977, Uderzo continued to produce on his own before selling the rights to the publishing firm Hachette in 2009.
The series is known for its caricatures of famous politicians and personalities as the “guest villain”, its puns and hidden jokes and its sense of fun. A fine way to learn French! Search for French course London to find the most face to face tutors on Superprof, or why not search for french lessons online?
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