A Parisian cabaret singer in New York.
Arielle Dombasle's walk to breakfast the other morning began in the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel, where she flipped her hair while the bellmen flashed shy smiles and then continued into the restaurant, where she flipped her hair some more while a valiantly professional waiter offered her a table in the corner. Getting an early-morning view of Dombasle, a French actress and cabaret singer, is like having your face sprayed with a fire extinguisher. She stands about 5 feet 10 inches in heels; she has curly auburn hair and soft, creamy skin; her waist has been described by Parisian society magazines as the smallest on the Left Bank. In the restaurant, Dombasle had begun to attack a bowl of yogurt in the most unusual way. She would flip a scoopful upside-down, push it into her mouth, and then withdraw the spoon with excruciating slowness.
Dombasle was in town to discuss her new CD, Amor Amor, and the idea of love more generally. First, I asked about the album. Amor Amor consists of Dombasle's take on old standards, with a particular concentration on Spanish music. She was born in Connecticut to French diplomats, raised in Mexico City, and then moved to Paris at 18. For years Dombasle says she didn't think much about her Mexican interlude, and Amor Amor is a kind of musical reckoning with her past. She purrs through "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" with Julio Iglesias and sings a lusty version of "Rhum and Coca-Cola," savoring lines like "Workin' for the Yankee dollar." Another favorite is "As Time Goes By," from the movie Casablanca, the mention of which prompts Dombasle to sigh heavily and fold her hands over her heart.
Perhaps Casablanca—the story of a woman caught between two loves—hits particularly close to home.As an ingénue studying acting in Paris, Dombasle was married to a man 30 years her senior. One day, she walked into a bookstore and picked up a volume by Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher. Lévy's eyes stared back at her from the book jacket. "I was 18 and, you know, it was like a revelation," she says. "It shocked me. It was like, this is the person for me." Dombasle laughed and continued to describe the revelatory author photo, which was sufficient to persuade her to meet Lévy, begin an affair, and marry him seven years later. "Something extremely profound," she says. "Something very modest. Something very vulnerable. And at the same time, something quite severe. Something moral. Something painful." The book was called Barbarism With a Human Face.
Over here, the union of an intellectual and an actress-muse has rarely been seen since Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe. To put Lévy and Dombasle's celebrity in American terms, one would be forced to imagine that Angelina Jolie had fallen for Francis Fukuyama. While Lévy has been busy channeling Tocqueville, Dombasle, too, has been attempting to divine the particulars of the American character. She went to see The Producers on Broadway the other day. "I was thinking, Let's go to a Broadway show everyone likes, and I will see if I'm the average American girl. So I was queuing with a bunch of people that look like the ones you can find in Disneyland. Well, it was really crowded. And I was feeling, uh-uh, I'm sure this is something I won't like." The Broadway hordes were new to Dombasle, who while vacationing in the south of France tends to move in more fragrant circles. But as the curtain fell and applause rippled through the auditorium, Dombasle felt caught up in, well, the popularity of it all. "It's not snobbish at all," she says. "It's not intellectuel or whatever. And that's what I liked."
Beginning Sept. 19, Dombasle will go before l'average American for a three-day run at New York's Supper Club, on West 47th Street. French audiences have been known, she says, to burst into tears at her appearance, but she is fearful that a New York audience, more in sync with the hi-jinks of The Producers, will not be quite so easily overwhelmed. "You know what I discovered in France, during all my concerts, is that I have a very popular audience. Basic people love me."
Will basic Americans? If they get a good look at her, perhaps so. Dombasle is one of those rare creatures who manages to infuse every gesture—even yogurt-eating—with romance. Or sex. Or sexe. Or something. In any case, breakfast with Arielle is bound to be grandiose, peppered with quotations, and exceedingly French. For instance: "Stendhal used to say, 'C'est la grande affaire de la vie.' I think it's true. It's the bigthing of life. The big center."
She turned to her breakfast companion and said, "But tell me about you. Are you in love?" Her breakfast companion, who up to that moment had been the face of steely professionalism, stared into his yogurt and tried to remember if Stendhal had ever said anything about avoidance.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Arielle Dombasle courtesy Matthieu Tarot.