When you watch the eponymous Yves Saint Laurent biopic, all eyes are surely be on leading man Gaspard Ulliel in the role of Yves. But keep an eye on the supporting cast and you will no doubt be greeted by a familiar face — one, perhaps, that you can’t quite place. The face in question is 63 years old now, its porcelain hue flecked by time and line. Yet, it is still unquestionably Dominique Sanda (born Dominique Varaigne), variously known as ‘The French Garbo’ or just ‘La Sanda’.
Like so many before her, Sanda took the catwalk from pretty suburban girl to fully fledged movie star, a journey that all began at the Moorish Casino in the French seaside resort of Arcachon in 1966. A holiday dare saw the 15-year-old Parisian enter the Miss Arachon pageant, where the judges caught a glimpse of what would beguile cinema goers for decades to come.
Yes, she was a year too young to legally enter such a contest, but there was so much undeniable potential about Mademoiselle Varaigne that it was agreed that she would be listed as aged 16 in the interests of natural justice. She was a Modiglianian portrait, by way of Cybill Shepherd, Juliette Lewis and Vladimir Nabokov’s most sinister dreams. It was almost inevitable that her decorative-arts studies would come to naught — she was the ornament and the substance, the form and the function. Sure, shoots for Glamour, Elle and Vogue helped pay the bills, but it was when director Robert Bresson cast her in 1969’s Une Femme Douce (A Gentle Woman) that worlds began to turn.
"It was agreed that she would be listed as aged 16 in the interests of natural justice."
Playing a woman who takes her own life in response to a stifling marriage to a remote husband (whom she briefly considers murdering), her performance is one of volcanic intensity for a debut. Still in her teens then, Sanda drew on a tormented fragility that most would count themselves lucky not to face over a lifetime. It was shortly after the release of Une Femme Douce that she went from being Dominique Varaigne to Dominique Sanda. In a 1987 interview with a French publication, she explained, “Only a few things can give you as much pleasure as choosing your own name.”
Bresson was not the only director to realise that global filmgoers would be compelled by their brains, hearts and nether regions to go and watch her. Swiss actor and director Maximilian Schell cast her in the 1970 German romance drama Erste Liebe (First Love), about a multi-generational love triangle. In the same year, she played Anna Quadri, the young wife of a professor, in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il Conformista (The Conformist). Also released in 1970 was Vittorio de Sica’s Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), in which her turn as the precociously promiscuous Micol introduced Sanda to a wider global audience. Set against a backdrop of Fascist Italy in the late 1930s, the film took the Best Foreign Film Oscar.