Micheline Presle, a subtle and elegant actress who was a last link to the first golden age of French cinema, died on Feb. 21 in Nogent-sur-Marne, a suburb of Paris. She was 101.

Her death, at the Maison des Artistes, a retirement home for artists partly funded by the government, was confirmed by her son-in-law, Olivier Bomsel.

Ms. Presle (pronounced prell) was the final survivor of a trio of actresses — Danièlle Darrieux and Michèle Morgan were the other two — who were already stars in France by the outbreak of World War II, and who defined a certain style of French femininity, both at home and abroad. Ms. Presle’s subtle facial expressions conjured a wide range of human emotions, particularly in two films that, by critical consent, she never surpassed, “Le Diable au Corps,” or “Devil in the Flesh” (1947), and “Boule de Suif” (1945).

Both of those films were based on masterpieces of French literature: The first was adapted from a novel by the brilliant but short-lived author Raymond Radiguet; the second from two short stories by Guy de Maupassant. These subtle and complex tales drew on Ms. Presle’s versatility.

“Le Diable au Corps” depicted the passionate affair between a young woman, played by Ms. Presle, whose husband was away fighting in the trenches in World War I, and a teenage schoolboy, played by the very young Gérard Philipe, who during his brief career was both France’s leading heartthrob and its greatest actor.

The film created a scandal in France and elsewhere — at the Brussels film festival in 1947, the French ambassador left the theater in protest — and it was banned by British censors for six years before it was released there with an X rating.

Still, it was “the major work of her career,” Bertrand Guyard, a film critic for Le Figaro, said after her death, and it was all the more remarkable that Ms. Presle was only 25.

When the film was released in the United States in 1949 as “Devil in the Flesh,” Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, after praising Mr. Philipe, called Ms. Presle “a beautiful and sensitive performer, too — a youthful, full-bodied little creature with remarkably tender mouth and eyes.” He also praised “our assorted censors” for allowing the film, which he called “perhaps the finest, most mature from postwar France” to be shown in the U.S.

Ms. Presle’s lines are trivial, but she makes up for it with a range of facial expressions, from despair to passion, that take in the film’s entire narrative. Directed by Claude Autant-Lara, who later became a far-right politician and Holocaust denier, it was a huge box-office success.

In a statement after her death, the French presidency praised Ms. Presle’s “limpid gaze” and “ingenuous pout,” as well as her ability to “incarnate a thousand faces of humanity.”

In a phone interview, Mr. Bomsel, her son-in-law, who was married to Ms. Presle’s daughter, the actress and director Tonie Marshall, called her “completely instinctive,” adding, “Right away, she would enter into the role.”

By the time “Le Diable au Corps” was released, Ms. Presle’s charm had already brought her notice in the United States. Early reviews, anticipating the criticism to come, particularly in America, characterized her as a stylish actress often trapped in a mediocre film.

The New York Times’s reviewer of “Four Flights to Love,” or “Paradis Perdu,” directed by Abel Gance, found Ms. Presle “so piquantly beautiful as to make the whole account almost convincing.” The film, in which she played the wife of a soldier, launched her to stardom in France in 1940, as the country was newly reeling under the German Occupation.

Unlike her contemporary Ms. Darrieux, who died in 2017 at 100, Ms. Presle did not compromise herself during the Occupation: She did not make films for the German-funded Continental film company, nor did she take part in the infamous “Trip to Berlin,” a 1942 train journey by film stars that the Nazis used for propaganda.

Still, she flourished during those four dark years, making 12 films.

Over the course of a career extraordinary for its longevity and productivity — more than 120 films in eight decades — Ms. Presle made her share of also-rans. In 1950, at the height of her stardom, she moved to Hollywood for small roles in films that are little remembered today. She was also following her husband, the American actor-director William Marshall. But she later remarked to an interviewer, with characteristic asperity: “I never pulled anything worthwhile from love. It was my fault. I wanted love to be the biggest deal of my life; it wound up being the worst.”

After her separation from Mr. Marshall, she returned to France in 1951 with her daughter, Tonie — but, she later said in an interview, “nobody wanted me.” Yet she resurrected herself in the mid-1960s as a star in one of France’s early television sitcoms, “Les Saintes Cheries,” about the daily life of a well-off Paris couple. It perfectly captured that era’s bourgeois ethos before the protests of May 1968, and it became a hit.

From there, it was a succession of resurrections for Ms. Presle, with numerous appearances on the Parisian stage in the 1970s and in films, some that never crossed the Atlantic and some by important directors like Jacques Rivette (“La Religieuse,” 1966), Claude Chabrol (“Le Sang des Autres,” 1984) and others. She also appeared in her daughter’s productions.

“Micheline was someone who was capable of reinventing herself,” Mr. Bomsel said.

Micheline Nicole Julia Émilienne Chassagne was born on Aug. 22, 1922, in Paris, the daughter of Robert Chassagne, a stockbroker who was later forced to flee France to avoid trial in a financial scandal, and Yvonne (Bachelier) Chassagne, a painter.

With Mr. Chassagne hiding in New York, Ms. Presle — she adopted the last name from one of her first screen roles — was primarily raised by her mother. Her first role was in the 1937 film “La Fessee”; her first major presence was in “Jeunes Filles en Détresse,” or “Girls in Distress,” directed by G.W. Pabst, who bridged the silent and talkie eras. That role led her to Abel Gance, the director best known for the 1927 epic “Napoleon,” and major stardom.

“She had a career beginning that was absolutely spectacular,” Mr. Bomsel said. “It would have been very difficult to continue at that rhythm.”

In later years, Le Figaro wrote in 2011, “one could see her, still, walking across Paris, her head up, clad in a trench coat and the flat-soled shoes of a walker, popping in to movie theaters because a title, or an actor, pleased her.”

Ms. Presle is survived by two grandchildren. Tonie Marshall, her daughter, died in 2020.

She was “exactly as she appeared onscreen,” Mr. Bomsel said. And, he added, “Since she was instinctive, she never took it too seriously.”

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