October 04, 1976 12:00 PM

By his cheerful admission, French director Claude Chabrol “would love to sleep with all my leading ladies.” Yet Chabrol’s robustly Gallic libido is not the least threatening to his wife, Stéphane Audran. It’s not that Stéphane, long one of Europe’s most coolly elegant film stars, would ever tolerate a male chauvinist cochon of a husband. The answer is that, fortuitously, Stéphane is Claude’s leading lady.

In 16 years and 16 films together, Chabrol and Audran have successfully preserved a rare director-actress union that appears to be genuinely enduring. Chabrol, one of France’s founding New Wave auteurs, is one of the few foreign filmmakers holding his own on what’s left of the U.S. subtitle circuit. His wittily ironic and precisely constructed Hitchcockian thrillers (La Femme Infidèle, Le Boucher) are, in turn, perfect settings for the enigmatic Audran’s haute-chic-boned beauty. “I love seeing blood in films,” the owlish Chabrol once said; “I detest petty criminals, but I love razors cutting throats in an atmosphere extrêmement distinguée.”

Once they’re out of the studio, Claude and Stéphane celebrate the same bourgeois life—if less murderous—that he dissects in his movies. “Working together is a nightmare,” Chabrol, 46, snorts. “It’s most difficult when we get home. She keeps asking why I let her play a part the way I did, and all I want to do is rest. Each time I say I’ll never work with her again.” Stéphane, 43, adds reassuringly, “We yell at each other a lot, but we don’t take it too seriously.”

The scenes from Chabrol and Audran’s mercurial marriage unfold in their three-story townhouse in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly. There Claude plays the galloping gourmand, luxuriating in wines and Sunday lunches lovingly prepared by a live-in chef they’ve personally trained. “But I’m the queen of the salad dressing,” Stéphane boasts. “If I could only act the way I make salad dressing.” The rotund Claude disdains her slimming nouvelle cuisine and is so “horrified by bad cooking” that on his movie sets he daily arranges four-course luncheons, swimming in buttery sauces, for his cast and crew.

Yet film, not food, is Chabrol’s sustaining passion. The son and grandson of Parisian pharmacists, Claude would sit through films like Snow White all day long as a boy. (“The death of the witch is the best thing Disney ever did,” he insists.) Chabrol flunked his first year of pharmacy school four times before his father finally gave up and let him try movies. Starting out as the French publicist for 20th Century-Fox, Claude composed handouts on stars like Jayne Mansfield before “they told me I was the worst press agent they’d ever seen.” More substantively, he helped found Cahiers du Cinéma, the filmgoers’ bible.

With a $60,000 inheritance from his first wife Agnes’ grandmother, Chabrol put together his landmark film, Le Beau Serge, in 1958. It made Chabrol, along with others like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, among the first of the iconoclastic New Wave directors of the early 1960s.

Stéphane’s entry into films was less dramatic. The only daughter of a Versailles schoolteacher, she drifted after high school into acting classes in Paris. There she met and married suave French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, Z). But their marriage collapsed and Trintignant soon took his turn as Brigitte Bardot’s lover.

Stéphane passed into Chabrol’s viewfinder when he was casting for The Cousins, his first commercial success. “It was like having an audience with the Pope,” she remembers. Claude granted her a small part in the film and, as his own marriage failed, moved in with her two years later. “Chabrol likes to seduce his actresses,” she shrugs. Their son, Thomas, was born in 1963. and a year later Claude and Stéphane yielded to convention and married. (He also has two sons by his first wife.)

“I was completely taken care of, and I adored it,” Audran says of their early years when other directors considered her Chabrol’s property. “Claude was always right, and that’s what I wanted to believe.” But as Stéphane’s reputation grew with movies like 1968’s Les Biches (in which Chabrol drolly cast her opposite Trintignant), she began attracting other directors. Audran won best actress awards in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and just last year she went Hollywood with George Segal in The Black Bird.

“I think Stéphane is better than most actors,” judges Chabrol, “but she doesn’t know when she is good.” Such dispassionate appraisals—even of his wife—no longer surprise Stéphane. “Chabrol bathes in cinema,” she says. “It’s his physiological serum.” Chabrol himself admits to being “completely obsessed.” While Stéphane was spending her usual vacation at their summer home in St. Tropez this year, Claude worked through August, an unheard-of excess in France. Because the preoccupied Claude is so helpless with family finances, Stéphane had to hire an agent and full-time secretary to sort out the mess. Even now Claude groans about compulsive organizer Stéphane: “I await Sundays with anguish. I never know where she is going to put my things.”

Chabrol has nearly finished his 30th movie, Alice, with Sylvia (Emmanuelle) Kristel, who reports that, for all of Claude’s manly posturings, “Chabrol is one of the few directors who has not tried to seduce me.” Claude has another property booked with Julie Christie and is talking of coming to the U.S. because that’s “where the money is,” claiming that Americans understand him best. Stéphane is set to work for other directors opposite Marcello Mastroianni and Michael Caine. Still, Chabrol and Audran are counting on reuniting this winter to make another movie together. “I’m a dope addict who keeps coming back to his drug,” Chabrol says about working with his wife. “After all these years, Stéphane still surprises me. We have our liberty together,” he concludes, “so we don’t need to seek it elsewhere.”

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