WASHINGTON — Marie Laforêt, an actress and singer who became one of the most captivating French performers of the 1960s and ’70s and who was known for her piercing eyes, melancholy voice, and freewheeling approach to fame, died Nov. 2 in Genolier, Switzerland, 20 miles north of Geneva. She was 80.
Her family announced the death but did not give a cause. In a tweet, the French culture minister, Franck Riester wrote that Ms. Laforêt ‘‘embodied a form of total freedom. Freedom in her artistic choices, freedom in her life, with love and passion as her only guides.’’
The daughter of a wealthy industrialist, Ms. Laforêt won a radio talent contest as a teenager and made her film debut at age 20, starring opposite Alain Delon in the seductive 1960 thriller ‘‘Purple Noon’’ (“Plein Soleil”). Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel ‘‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’’ — later turned into a 1999 Hollywood film of the same name — ‘‘Purple Noon’’ became an art-house success in the US while launching Ms. Laforêt to European stardom.
She went on to appear in 37 feature films, including the 1961 dramas ‘‘Saint-Tropez Blues,’’ for which her performance of the title song with rock vocalist Jacques Higelin effectively launched her singing career, and ‘‘The Girl With the Golden Eyes,’’ a Balzac adaptation with a title that endured for decades as her nickname.
Ms. Laforêt married the director of ‘‘Golden Eyes,’’ Jean-Gabriel Albicocco, and was rapturously received on a publicity tour in the US, where Washington Post critic Richard L. Coe predicted she was ‘‘going to be a major star of French and international films’’: ‘‘Her eyes seem purple, her hair is black, she is slight and small, and she rather smolders . . . She is 20 years old but wise as the sphinx.’’
In France, however, she had more lasting success as a singer, with hits including ‘‘Les Vendanges de l’Amour,’’ ‘‘Que Calor la Vida,’’ ‘‘Viens Viens’’ and covers of Bob Dylan’s ‘‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’’ Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘‘The Sound of Silence,’’ and the Rolling Stones’s ‘‘Paint It Black,’’ retitled ‘‘Marie Douceur, Marie Colère.’’
Ms. Laforêt sold more than 35 million records and helped broaden the sound of 1960s French pop, at a time when the bubble gum rock of young ‘‘yé-yé’’ singers ruled the charts. She recorded versions of ‘‘House of the Rising Sun’’ and ‘‘Go Tell It on the Mountain”; sang about the breakup of the Beatles in ‘‘Il a Neigé sur Yesterday”; and introduced many of her legions of fans to folk music from Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Yet even as she played to sold-out crowds at the Olympia and Bobino concert halls in Paris, she was unsatisfied with her musical success. ‘‘I don’t have a voice, I have a timbre,’’ she once declared. ‘‘I’m ashamed of doing what I do: interpreting pop songs in a superficial way.’’
She stopped touring and in 1978, moved to Switzerland, where she lived for much of the next four decades, jumping from writing books to running an art gallery to performing on the stage and screen, notably portraying another larger-than-life figure, opera singer Maria Callas, in productions of Terrence McNally’s Tony-winning play ‘‘Master Class.’’
Ms. Laforêt was born Maïtena Doumenach in the seaside town of Soulac-sur-Mer, France, on Oct. 5, 1939. At age 38, she revealed that she had been raped by a neighbor when she was 3.
‘‘For decades, it was impossible to talk about it,’’ she said, according to French radio broadcaster RFI. ‘‘Had I not been raped, I would never have exposed myself in that way to the public. It went against my natural shyness. I chose a career that would provide an outlet for my feelings.’’
Her family settled in Paris after World War II, and Ms. Laforêt took acting lessons from filmmaker Raymond Rouleau before being cast in a new project by noted director Louis Malle. His film was abandoned, however, and instead she appeared in ‘‘Purple Noon,’’ directed by René Clément and filmed on the Italian island of Ischia.
Ms. Laforêt played Marge, a charming young woman — later portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow in ‘‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’’ — who becomes an obsession of Tom Ripley (Delon), who plots to kill her wealthy boyfriend (Maurice Ronet).
She later worked with directors including Claude Chabrol and Fernando Solanas, and was featured several times alongside Jean-Paul Belmondo, notably in Georges Lautner’s crime film ‘‘Cop or Hood’’ (1979). Ms. Laforêt was also nominated for a César Award, the French equivalent of an Oscar, for her supporting role in a 1987 war comedy with a ribald, unprintable title.
She was married five times, including to Judas Azuelos, with whom she had two children, and to Alain Kahn-Sriber, with whom she had a daughter. Another daughter, Lisa Azuelos, is a filmmaker.
‘‘My career has been made up of odds and ends,’’ Ms. Laforêt once said, ‘‘but my life has been full from beginning to end.’’