By Georgina Oliver
November 27, 1989 12:00 PM

That’s my daughter!” a woman once screeched at Anne Mitrani, seeing one of her dolls in her Paris studio. “You’re tearing her away from me! You can’t do that!” Mitrani, 43, is used to strangers reacting to her incredibly lifelike dolls that way. In the nearly 10 years the Parisian has been making dolls, people have often been awestruck at the resemblance between her works and their own little tykes or the kids of friends. In reality, the children are just eerie cases of life imitating Mitrani’s art. “Everything I do is inspired from real life,” says Anne, who works in a dimly lit cubbyhole in her Paris store, “but I never use models or photographs of real children.”

Mitrani clearly has an enviable way with verisimilitude. “If you saw [the dolls] from a distance, you’d think they were real,” says Walt Disney World merchandising manager Pete Reid, who commissioned Mitrani to make nine new dolls for display Nov. 29 to Dec. 3 at the Teddy Bear and Doll Convention in Florida’s Epcot Center. “I saw them in Paris in January and immediately knew they were exceptional.” The Epcot display will mark Mitrani’s American debut, and her Disney dolls will sell for $5,000 to $15,000. In France, her creations are available only by special, private order in Le Nain Bleu (the Blue Dwarf), Paris’s most chic toy store.

Over the years, Mitrani, whose husband, Kim, 46, is a teacher, has gotten lots of her raw material from their daughters, Clementine, 15, and Mirabelle, 12. She also spends as much time as she can watching children in the streets and parks near her workshop in the busy, bustling 15th Arrondissement. “I become greedy for certain facial expressions,” she says. “I seek them out in real life when I’ve noticed them once, to see what they’re about exactly. I have to re-create the expressions I’m obsessed with. It’s an intensely creative activity, like giving birth.” What sets her apart from other realistic dollmakers, says Barbara Spadaccini, assistant curator of Paris’s Musée des Arts Decoratifs, are her “highly personal renderings of inner feelings expressing a particular instant of genuine emotion.”

Ironically, Mitrani never much liked dolls as a child. Growing up in a gritty, blue-collar outskirt of Paris, she was a fragile, painfully sensitive girl whose happiest memories are of escaping to her grandparents’ attic and rummaging through their treasures. “It saved me from all my childhood apprehensions,” she says. Those anxieties have followed her into adulthood. “I get quite desperate sometimes,” she admits. “I have moments of self-doubt.” She works alone, surrounded by treasures of her own: simple tools, ribbons, fabric, miniature toys, remnants of children’s clothes, glass eyes, metal for frames, fibers for stuffing, the resin with which she sculpts the dolls’ skin and faces, and paint. “This place is like an egg, a cocoon to me,” she says. “I’m always working.”

Mitrani began making dolls in 1981 while recovering from a miscarriage. A friend, Israeli dollmaker Avigail Brahms, Mitrani says, “gave me a major gift, which was a turning point for me professionally and privately. She gave me the secret of her skills and materials. Dollmakers just do not discuss the intricacies of their technique.”

Her first dolls were a far cry from the raffish sprouts of today. “They were very old ladies, quite decrepit, loaded with intense feelings, which were mine at the time.” Next came a series of newlyweds, who grew fatter and fatter until the bride was positively obese. “I don’t know why I was doing this,” Mitrani says. Then the newlyweds had kids—sad ones, “like me at the time.” Older—and happier—children gradually followed. The toughest, she says, are those throwing their heads back in laughter, “a nightmare to make.”

When a doll is finished, Mitrani sometimes rejects it and starts all over. But when a doll is good, she knows it is very, very good. “I look at the doll for a brief instant,” she says, “and think that if there is a Great Creator, then I know what He meant.”

—Georgina Oliver in Paris