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The Many Lives of Arielle Dombasle

Paris’ most enigmatic aesthete will welcome the Olympic torch to the city

by
Ani Wilcenski
June 02, 2024

Igor Shabalin

Igor Shabalin

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This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
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Arielle Dombasle seems capable of almost anything. She is a singer, actress, director, model, and burlesque dancer widely considered a gay icon and a creative muse. She has inspired the work of legendary film directors like Eric Rohmer and Alain Robbe-Grillet, inspired some of the world’s great fashion designers including Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, and Thierry Mugler, released 10 albums and 21 singles, and directed four movies herself. She sings bel cantos in Italian, speaks Spanish as a first language, loves reading Moliére but dislikes the sound of French in song, and professes a fondness for America after spending her earliest years in Connecticut. She is one half of what is commonly referred to as the “most famous couple in France,” she created a signature perfume containing white musk and “molecule of attraction.” She is also said to have the smallest waist in Paris.

Amid the many descriptors of her talents, Dombasle was first explained to me as an “incredible aesthete,” and, wearing her signature platform boots as we sit in her Parisian apartment, surrounded by ancient Mayan artifacts and flowers, she speaks of a foundational appreciation for beautiful people, places, and things. She credits her eye for striking details to her maternal grandmother, Man’ha Garreau-Dombasle, a “contemplative poetess” who lived all over the world while Dombasle’s grandfather served as the French consul to India in the 1920s. Rather than simply being the “plain woman of the ambassador,” Garreau-Dombasle decided to immerse herself in the places she traveled and lived, taking a vivid interest in ancient art and the natural world, learning Bengali, and translating the works of the polymath magical poet Rabindranath Tagore into French. She encouraged her young granddaughter to do the same, teaching Arielle the Latin names of plants and bringing her to Rome to see Botticelli’s marbles. “It is an enormous present to have curiosity about the places where you are stepping,” said Dombasle.

Dombasle’s maternal grandparents also shaped her unique cultural perspective. Her grandfather Maurice, a close friend of Charles de Gaulle, resigned from his diplomatic post in the 1940s, declaring that he would “never work under German control.” At de Gaulle’s request, he founded a chapter of the general’s France Libre party in the United States, supporting the battle against Nazi occupation, and was later named the French ambassador to Mexico. Maurice and Man’ha raised Arielle, whose mother passed away when she was 11, in Mexico during her grandfather’s diplomatic tenure. She still feels a connection to the country and relishes the opportunity to speak Spanish, which she did recently while working on a production in Barcelona: “I always have three cultures and three ways of looking at things,” she says.

Dombasle during filming for the video for the song she will perform during the Olympic torch relay
Dombasle during filming for the video for the song she will perform during the Olympic torch relay

Igor Shabalin

Perhaps because of her far-reaching cultural background, Dombasle is a believer in the ever-malleable nature of one’s identity. She believes that the creation of the self is a process of conscious and continuous evolution, which requires both open-mindedness and the drive to take your life into your own hands. She attributes her iconic status in the gay community to a shared belief in the value of fluidity. “I like people who are fragile—fragile as in they are not entirely set, not entirely comfortable in their way of being. The gay community is much more sensitive, much more open to address those delicate questions of identity,” she said. “I have the attitude that you make your world the way that you want it. Nothing needs to be imposed upon you. Your identity is not given, it is created,” she continues.

Dombasle especially believes this to be true for women. She quotes Simone de Beauvoir, one of her favorite writers: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” She sees womanhood as a matter of intentional choices, which make up not only your identity but also the fabric and framework of your life. Growing up, even as a very young child, she yearned to be 32 years old. “I was suffering so much not being 32,” she smiled. “It seemed like there was something magical about that age. What was the magic? Even to me it’s a mystery.” She doesn’t remember much about what was going on in her life when she finally hit that birthday, but to her it doesn’t matter, because she chose to keep being 32.

Her conceptualization of age is “complicated,” she explains, by her decision not to have children, a choice she felt sure of when she was a girl, though the reasons for her sureness at a young age retain an element of mystery. She prefers to be an “électron libre,” waving her hands in zig-zags in the air to signify her freeness of motion.

“My feeling was that I wanted to have the best life that one could imagine, and I always imaged myself having a very brilliant, inventive life that was intense, romantic, strong, full of surprises. And I knew that if I had a child, I would completely devote my life to the child and I would be someone else entirely. And I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be a mother. I wanted to be a child,” she says.

In her estimation, though we have certain decisions and freedoms, in the grand expanse universe we control very little about our lives. Accordingly, for women, making choices about our own bodies—especially about children—is the biggest force on earth that we do control. Dombasle describes getting pregnant earlier in life as a “calamity” that felt like the “end of the world” and credits the brave women who fought for her right for her “body to be her own.” She points to the natural world, to the many species of female animals whose sole purpose is to give birth, nurture children, then die shortly thereafter, and to Greek mythology, to Cronus, who devours all his children except Zeus out of fear of the prophecy that his children are destined to overcome him. “I know that I was not put on this earth to reproduce and then be destroyed,” she says.

Dombasle has been married to the superstar French philosopher (and Tablet contributor) Bernard-Henri Lévy since 1993, after a whirlwind love affair that started after she saw his photograph on the back of his book La Barbarie à Visage Humain. “It was the most moving face I’d ever seen—full of pain, femininity, gravity,” she told Vanity Fair. They met when she donned tight white jeans and attended one of his book signings. “I was thunderstruck by her beauty, her gaze, her voice, her oddness,” Lévy said of the meeting. He was 33 at the time—a year beyond the most magical age, but still “the age of Christ,” points out Dombasle.

She describes their love—and all great loves—as a “revelation” and a “different way of being in the earth.” She sees such a love as another process of choices—for one, you must believe in love in order to find it, which means surrendering yourself to all the fragileness and vulnerability that entails. “Love is dangerous, it is risky, it can break you, it can destroy you, sometimes forever. You must know all that. But it is the biggest adventure. At the end, everyone is looking for a revelation.”

Within relationships, Dombasle believes in the interplay between oneness and separation, and between mystery and discovery. She is fascinated with the idea of altérité—the unknowable otherness of another—and points to the term le jardin secret—a secret garden that all of us have, which is important to nurture yet equally important to hide from the world. “One might adore us for our secret garden, yet to them it will remain a mystery.” She cherishes time spent alone, especially walking. “You don’t have to share everything,” she says, scoffing at the idea.

Igor Shabalin

At the same time, she loves watching Lévy write (“it soothes me”) and describes herself as “his first reader.” He supports her music, her movies, and her productions, and she says that in all her projects she always “in one way or another wonders if Bernard-Henri will like that.” The couple knows each other’s gaze instantly—he can tell from one glance what she thinks and what she likes—and rejects the notion that there is something anti-feminist about the idea of living for the gaze of another. To her, rejecting this bond under the guise of “independence” is an act of deeper selfishness and isolation. “Love is dependence. It is being possessed. It is being under a spell. But there is pleasure in that.”

She scoffs at the notion that true love should entail presenting yourself to someone with no artifice or effort whatsoever. “I am who I am?” she asks incredulously. “Who are you then? What are you? You are a person in movement all the time. We are moving, civilized creatures.”

Dombasle herself is always in motion. Her projects over the past year alone have included Iconics, a dreamy album paying tribute to some of her female inspirations, accompanied by surreal, brightly colored music videos, and Les Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan, a film based on the Balzac short story by the same name, which she both directs and plays the starring role—a princess forced into an arranged marriage who takes revenge against her circumstances after realizing as she ages that she has never known true love.

This summer, when Paris hosts the Olympic Games, Dombasle will unveil another project—a new song and video, an operatic tribute loosely inspired by Beethoven’s “Ninth,” which melds iconic images from French history with her trademark colorful, whimsical style. She will perform the song during the Olympic torch relay, when the “flame comes to Paris.”

Her list of future aspirations includes creating more videos for her album, holding more concerts, and starting the yearslong process of making a new movie. She feels especially strongly about the idea that “it is never too late,” especially for women, who often bear the force of a social pressure telling them that once they can’t bear children anymore, they are “nonexistent.” For her, there is no greater tragedy than the loss of one’s inner child—for noticing beautiful things, for living freely, for diving into new pursuits without fear or limitation. Keeping that spirit alive requires conscious effort, and sometimes bravery too: “There are some people who would adore to draw, who would adore to dance, or to make theater, and then they become adults, and they don’t dare to draw or dance or act anymore.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. “You can have different lives inside your life,” she says. “You just need to choose it.”

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This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
See the full collection →︎

Ani Wilcenski is Tablet’s audience editor.

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