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The Guardian (02/Dec/2002) - Obituary: Daniel Gélin

(c) The Guardian (02/Dec/2002)

Daniel Gélin

Actor who defined 1950s Bohemian Parisian youth

Although the actor Daniel Gélin has died aged 81, a grand old man with a grey mane, it is his handsome, sensitive young face that is most remembered. Gélin was the representative of Parisian youth in the 1950s, in the years leading up to the Nouvelle Vague.

This was especially true in three delicate social comedies directed by Jacques Becker: Rendezvous de Juillet (1949), Edouard et Caroline (1950) and Rue de L'Estrapade (1953). Becker's love for modern post-war Paris, in particular the cafes and jazz clubs of St-Germain des Prés, shone through the three films and Gélin's eyes.

In the first of the trilogy, Gélin, as the rebellious son of a stuffy gentleman, is initially seen playing a tomtom and planning to make an anthropological film in Africa.

As Edouard, probably his best role, Gélin is delightful as a struggling young pianist whose quarrel with his wife Caroline (Anne Vernon) takes place on the evening he is to play at her rich uncle's fancy soirée. Finally, in Rue de L'Estrapade, he portrays a left-bank crooner courting a disenchanted married woman (Vernon again).

Born in Angers, Gélin came to Paris to study acting at the Paris Conservatoire under Louis Jouvet. He made his screen debut aged 18 in Jean Boyer's Miquette (1939). He went on to appear in a number of films by Henri Decoin, who gave Gélin his first lead in Premiere Rendezvous (1941), and two significant ones by Max Ophuls: La Ronde (1950) and Le Plaisir (1955), in both of which he partnered the enchantingly feline Simone Simon.

In the former, Simon, a chambermaid, seduces Gélin, an innocent student, who then goes on to make a play for a married woman (Danielle Darrieux). In La Modele, the third of the three stories based on Guy de Maupassant that made up Le Plaisir, Gélin revealed gravitas as an artist who makes mistresses of his models and has to marry one (Simon) out of sympathy when she cripples herself during a suicide attempt. The last shot is of Gélin bitterly wheeling his wife along the beach.

Gélin was part of the Saint-Germain set gathered around Jean-Paul Sartre, Juliette Greco and Boris Vian. Consequently, he played the young communist (created on stage by Charles Boyer) in the film of Sartre's Les Mains Sales (1951). Gélin, dispatched to kill the boss of their faction, but unable to do the deed, was the epitome of an existential hero, bringing life to the wordy screenplay.

In 1952, it was back to lightweight fare in Christian-Jaques's Adorable Creatures, in which Gélin, as a fashion executive, remembers his past affairs. Gélin was then married to Danielle Delorme, whom he directed in Les Dentes Longues (1953). They divorced in 1954 after Gélin had admitted having had a daughter by a Romanian-born bookshop owner. The daughter became Maria Schneider, who made her name in Last Tango In Paris.

Gélin was then appearing in a variety of films, including Sacha Guitry's extravaganzas, Si Versailles M'Etait Conté (1954) and Napoleon (1955), in which he played Bonaparte. In Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Gélin had the small but important role of the mysterious Frenchman that the American couple (James Stewart, Doris Day) meet in Marrakesh and who is to whisper a few ominous final words before dying with a dagger in his back.

In 1960, Gélin appeared in Shadow of Adultery, Alexander Astruc's contribution to the Nouvelle Vague. Now in his 40th year, his boyish looks having faded, Gélin revealed maturity as a rich building contractor who treats his wife (Annie Girardot) merely as a social asset.

Other New Wave directors he worked with were Claude Chabrol (La Ligne de Demarcation, 1966) and Louis Malle (Le Souffle Au Coeur, 1971). He was chosen by Malle for the role of the bourgeois father of a boy, almost too close to his mother, partly because he resembled Malle's father.

Gélin cropped up regularly on television and films into the 1990s, but never again equalled the impact he had made in his youth. While fighting depression, drugs and alcohol, Gélin wrote several well-received books of poems, memoirs and a manual on gardening. His older son Xavier Gélin, predeceased him. Married three times, he is survived by another son and two daughters.