An impossibly glamorous icon since she achieved international fame with Jacques Demy’s Cannes-winning The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Catherine Deneuve has always had a sanguine attitude about her flawless onscreen image. When asked how she maintains her ageless beauty, she often responds, “I breathe.”
She was born Catherine Dorléac (she took her mother’s maiden name when she got into acting) and as a young woman was painfully shy, so much so that her parents asked her sister Françoise, who had grand ambitions as an actress, to get Catherine involved in acting to help get her out of the house. The two women both became stars throughout the sixties, but Deneuve was left to hold the mantle alone when Françoise died in a horrific car accident in 1967. While Cherbourg made Deneuve a household name, it was her role in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour that established her persona as a figure of mystery who is frequently misunderstood as being glacial or out of touch. Watch her closely in her most famous roles and you have someone who practices incredible control but isn’t holding back. Deneuve may not be overly demonstrative, but she is incredibly present.
Her immense career still goes strong as she has not lost the desire to take chances with artistically adventurous directors. Keeping up with her filmography is no easy task (I’ve been trying for years) but the Criterion Channel’s Starring Catherine Deneuve collection, despite not including her one Oscar-nominated performance (Indochine), covers her most notable work and is the best summation yet of a classic star. Here are the films in preferential order:
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo were the very image of romance in this gorgeous Palme d’Or winner by Jacques Demy, who affectionately subverts the musical genre by presenting a fully-sung piece that has no actual musical numbers. The bright, colourful wallpaper is ironically set against a tale of young lovers separated by circumstances, and despite neither of them doing their own singing, there is such a sincerity to their performances that the tragedy is genuinely touching.
Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
Deneuve is letter-perfect as a bored bourgeoisie who takes up prostitution in the afternoons to deal with the ennui of herliving the picture-perfect life with an antiseptically handsome husband. The explorations of her increasingly masochistic fantasies (English viewers know by the italicized subtitles) are treated with the kind of vicious humour that Buñuel serves freezing cold. He trusts Deneuve’s still but determined face to bring the only heat that the proceedings require.
The Last Metro (François Truffaut, 1980)
Catherine Deneuve won a César award for her masterful performance as the leading actress of a theatre company who is running the show during Nazi occupation while her Jewish husband is in exile. What no one but her knows is that he is actually hiding under the theatre and is relying on her for survival, which she manages while placating German overseers and dealing with all manner of show-related messes (including an incorrigible Gerard Depardieu). That’s a lot of weight to put on one actor’s shoulders, but Deneuve carries it off without a trace of sweat. A rich array of characters and a powerful sense for the period, this one is not to be missed.
Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
Polanski’s stepping stones between his Polish arthouse hit Knife in the Water and Hollywood stardom were a few British films including this terrific thriller about a woman forced to confront her own inner demons in isolation. (Sound familiar?) Deneuve plays a survivor of trauma who begs her sister not to leave her to go on vacation. While left alone, begins to see the walls closing in on her. It’s a risky project considering the spare premise and cast, but between Deneuve’s star quality and Polanski’s masterful ability to create an otherworldly atmosphere, it’s fascinating.
Donkey Skin (Jacques Demy, 1970)
The best of Demy’s fairy-tale films, this curiously ironic twist on the Charles Perrault story, something of an alternate telling of Cinderella, stars Deneuve as a princess trying to distract her father (Jean Marais) from trying to marry her after her mother dies. With the help of her fairy godmother, she disguises herself in a donkey’s hide and goes to live as a scullery maid in another kingdom until love comes to conquer all. Delphine Seyrig is the glamorous godmother who rides in helicopters, and frequent Demy collaborator Michel Legrand writes the delightful tunes.
The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967)
Demy’s follow-up to his biggest hit is a traditional musical, the songs are numbers amid the drama unlike the fully-sung Umbrellas. While it bombed in the States (mostly thanks to a bad English version, now apparently lost, shot simultaneously with the French one), it remains more popular in France. Deneuve and her late sister Francoise Dorleac play the Demoiselles looking for love in sunny Rochefort, while their mother (Danielle Darrieux, one of the many times she and Deneuve played mother and daughter) runs a café in the middle of the town square. It’s frothy and unimportant and extremely good at it–every colour bright and beautiful, and the music is a delight.
Tristana (Luis Buñuel, 1970)
Many of Luis Buñuel’s films raise alarm bells today, he treats dirty old men with a humour that is so subtle that it’s not often read for the ridicule that it is. Similarly, his game of putting innocent young women into the dirty old men’s clutches isn’t seen for the parody of Catholic sexual guilt that the maestro always had on his mind. Deneuve is dubbed in Spanish but still makes an impression as an orphaned woman who goes to live with her guardian (Fernando Rey), who announces that he is educating her in the name of her freedom but then finds increasingly sadistic ways to keep her trapped.
Mississippi Mermaid (François Truffaut, 1969)
Truffaut skillfully adapts a Cornell Woolrich novel in this film starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a plantation owner on an African island who sends away for a mail-order bride and marries her when she arrives. (Of course, in the movies, you get Catherine Deneuve when you send away for a mail-order bride.) Their rapport is instant and their romance blooms quickly, but as he gets closer to his wife, he begins to suspect that she might not be the person she claimed she was…but it’s Catherine Deneuve, so does he mind? Later remade (badly) as Original Sin with Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie.
Un flic (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972)
Melville only made movies for men and it shows when he hires someone as lustrous as Catherine Deneuve and can’t find much for her to do. Un flix stars Alain Delon as a police officer investigating a failed bank robbery that turns out to be the cover for a much bigger caper, with Deneuve as the femme fatale who works at a nightclub and has connections to the main players. Melville’s last completed work doesn’t have the polish of Le Samourai, but the gun-metal blue imagery is gorgeous and the long, terrific sequences without dialogue are snappy.
The Young Girls Turn 25 (Agnès Varda, 1993)
A must-see for anyone not aware of The Young Girls of Rochefort’s cultural importance in France. The town of Rochefort is very proud of having been the setting for Demy’s 1967 hit, and in 1993 held a city-wide celebration that Demy’s widow Agnès Varda captured with great affection. Among its many treasures are a touching moment when Deneuve very subtly touches a street sign bearing her late sister’s name.
Vice and Virtue (Roger Vadim, 1963)
Made just on the cusp of her stardom (you can tell because of how thick her eyebrows are), Deneuve gives a passionate performance as the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, who in this version is about to marry her Resistance-member lover when he is arrested by the occupying Germans. She appeals to her collaborationist sister Annie Girardot before being sent to country castle where she and other pretty girls are dressed as ancient Roman women and made part of a harem. Vadim’s elegant direction makes for a smart and sexy drama, though the first half is much better and the plotting gets murky towards the end.
The Girl on The Train (André Téchiné, 2009)
André Téchiné adapts Jean-Marie Besset’s play La fille du RER, starring Emilie Dequenne as a misguided young woman who follows her boyfriend’s troubles with the law by falsely claiming to have been the target of an anti-Semitic hate crime. Deneuve plays her exasperated mother who has a past with the lawyer (Michel Blanc) who gets involved in her case, while another rather incongruous strand involves Blanc’s son, played by Mathieu Demy, and the late, great Ronit Elkabetz as an estranged couple. You get the impression that the play’s cerebral themes have been slimmed down to move the plot along, but it’s not boring, and Deneuve excels in a role that requires a sense of moral consistency.
A Slightly Pregnant Man (Jacques Demy, 1973)
A humorous satire on male fears in the era of feminism, in which Marcello Mastroianni plays a driving instructor whose doctor informs him that his stomach pains are not an illness but an impending blessed event. Deneuve plays his coiffeuse wife who is upset when she suspects he may have cheated on her until, then gets on board and supports him as he becomes a national spokesperson for neonatal products. It takes place in Demy’s familiar world of warm, working-class camaraderie, but the plotting loses its way by the end and the overall effect is weak.
The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983)
Deneuve has made very few forays into Hollywood filmmaking and none of her efforts have had the impact of her work at home. That said, a film as bad as The Hunger is now old enough to be appreciated for its painful 1980s’ aesthetics and to be forgiven for its dunderheaded premise. The film tells a tale of a vampire couple (Deneuve and David Bowie) who troll funky clubs in search of victims. When she becomes enamored of Susan Sarandon she decides to upgrade her partner, but getting rid of Bowie isn’t going to be that easy…but it is going to involve a lot of slow-motion photography.
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