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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Arielle Dombasle

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-24

Arielle Dombasle, star of the French cinema and a celebrated Parisian singer, likes to come to her native America - the country of her citizenship - from her home in France to do benefits for underprivileged children.

"That, perhaps more than anything else, gives me great satisfaction," she said the other day during a quick visit to New York. "I like touching the heart with a language of its own - music."

The latest of her music is captured in an album titled "Amor Amor," released by Wrasse Records. A collection of Mexican boleros and Latin-edged classics, it has just hit stores in America, and is reported to be selling well. In a recent review, The Times of London characterized Ms. Dombasle's work as "a quirkily romantic, self-consciously retro set of Latin tunes and lounge ballads - the sort of thing Dean Martin might have served up on a visit to Batista-era Havana."

The nostalgia in "Amor Amor" conveys Ms. Dombasle's powerful sense of her own past, which has been played out in several countries, starting with America.

She was born in the Connecticut community of Norwich to a prosperous silk manufacturer, Jean Louis Sonnery de Fromental, and his wife Francion Garreau Dombasle. The parents took Arielle and her brother Gilberto to Mexico, not the least because their maternal grandfather, Maurice Garreau Dombasle, was France's ambassador to that country. Dombasle was a confidante of Charles de Gaulle.

Ms. Dombasle's mother died when Arielle was only 11.

"It took me nearly 15 years to get past my mother's death, to be reborn," Ms. Dombasle said. "To this day, I realize how vulnerable we all are - but especially little children who lose a parent."

It was her grandmother, Manha Dombasle - a Bohemian figure who translated the literary works of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore of India into French from English - who raised Arielle. To honor her mother, Arielle later decided to adopt "Dombasle" as her last name, and not the conventional paternal family name of "Sonnery de Fromental."

"I feel that my mother has been reincarnated through her name - I want her to live through me," Ms. Dombasle said.

While she keenly felt the absence of her mother, young Arielle immersed herself in Mexico's culture. Her father had accumulated a large collection of pre-Columbian art, and he also encouraged his daughter to visit museums and historical institutions.

"I was raised by criadas - servants who were intensively lovable," Ms. Dombasle said. "I absorbed Mexican songs and street Spanish from the criadas. I experienced for myself the pain and anguish of the working poor."

Their melancholy was to eventually find space in Ms. Dombasle's creative work on stage in France. She said that she became enamored of the artistic life while still a child.

"I knew in my mind that I was going to perform on stage." Ms. Dombasle said.

She got opportunities to perform in shows put on at her school.

"Being on stage was the most important thing of the year for me - it gave me an early sense of how dramatic my life was going to be," Ms. Dombasle said.

She went to Paris when she turned 18 to enroll at the prestigious Conservatoire de Musique de Paris. She trained in opera, but also in theater. Soon Ms. Dombasle was performing on stage, and also cutting best-selling records.

She gained movie stardom in Eric Rohmer's 1983 film, "Pauline at The Beach." Later, she played the lead in "The Blue Villa," a psycho-sexual drama made by iconoclastic film-maker Alain Robbe-Grillet - a role that won her much acclaim and many awards. To date, Ms. Dombasle has starred in scores of films, plays and TV features, including such Hollywood-made shows as "Miami Vice."

She has also made a mark behind the camera as a director and script writer. Two of her noteworthy films in these capacities were "Les Pyramides Bleues," and "Chasse-croisse."

When Ms. Dombasle talks about her life in films and as a singer, she inevitably refers to an artiste's inner life.

"You are always chasing an ideal as an artiste," she said. "You are trying to be above yourself. Perhaps that's why artistes are tormented in their personal lives - it is because of what they do for a living. And yet, it is exciting. It's the only life they can lead - exciting, but dangerous, daring and most destructive."

If there's a philosophical note that threads through her conversation, that is because Ms. Dombasle is indeed a dialectician. In that she complements her equally famous spouse, the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. Their Left Bank apartment in Paris is probably the city's best known literary and political salon.

Her fame has left her surprisingly unaffected. When she showed up late for a lunch interview, Ms. Dombasle was apologetic to the point of making a reporter embarrassed. And even though hers was one of the most recognizable faces in a room filled with ueber-egos, she chatted with people like Henry Kissinger as well as waiters with modesty and ease.

When a reporter asked her about this, Ms. Dombasle said:

"I was raised among very brilliant people, some of whom intimidated me with their brilliance. I eventually learned to hold my own - but as an artiste I'm always learning through observation. Yes, the subconscious plays a big part in all this, but an artiste has to have a fundamental modesty in order to keep learning."

The reporter asked her which, of all the praise that's been heaped on her, she found most gratifying.

Ms. Dombasle's response was instantaneous.

"When I was very young, a teacher said to me, 'You have gold in your voice,'" Ms. Dombasle said.

Then she was off to a performance that she was giving at a benefit in Harlem. The next day, there would be another appearance at a charity event.

And after that, it was off to the Cannes Film Festival, where her new film, "Nouvelle Chance," is being screened.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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