Belle de nos jours
Catherine Deneuve, the icon of French sexual cool, has grown up and thawed out. Here she talks openly about Truffaut, Buñuel and the sister she lost in a car crash 32 years ago
By Gaby Wood
Sunday 2 January 2000 19.37 GMT
he is, the director Claude Chabrol once said, 'the only Hitchcockian heroine in France'. Catherine Deneuve never worked with Hitchcock, but for a time, in the Sixties, and under the direction of others - Polanski, Buñuel, Jacques Demy - she epitomised the cool, enigmatic blonde. In an essay which might easily be applied to Deneuve, Hitchcock explained the rationale behind his casting: 'It is important to distinguish between the big, bosomy blonde and the ladylike blonde with the touch of elegance, whose sex must be discovered,' he wrote. 'On the screen, for example, if an actress wants to convey a sexy quality, she ought to maintain a slightly mysterious air. When a man approaches her, the audience should be led to wonder whether she intends to shrink from him or tear off his clothes.'
Deneuve had a Hitchcockian pedigree: she was more Grace Kelly, more Kim Novak or Eva Marie Saint than Brigitte Bardot. But Deneuve moved the coolness up a notch: in Repulsion she plays a hysteric disgusted by sex, in Belle de Jour she is a frigid wife who finds an outlet in prostitution - it was as if all that blonde mystery finally came together in her immovable, mask-like face. Truffaut spoke about her 'dream element': in these roles she was blank, pure, sexually unfinished; she became a screen on to which any fantasy could be projected.
Deneuve has moved on since then. She is now in her late fifties, and has aged with a grace that would doubtless be unimaginable to the beribboned young girl she played in the Umbrellas of Cherbourg . When I meet her in the bar of a hotel near her home in Paris, she is dressed casually and behaves calmly. She wears tinted glasses, smokes slim white cigarettes, which she takes from a silver case, and speaks in a low, rippling voice - so fast that, as she once admitted, she has even had trouble dubbing herself.
This week, Deneuve can be seen in British cinemas in Time Regained , Raoul Ruiz's adaptation of Proust. She plays Odette, the coquettish, charming mother of the girl Marcel loves. Her role is brief, but she carries it with intelligence and grace. When I mention this, Deneuve looks worried, and doesn't take grace as a compliment ('Really? You think it wasn't frivolous enough?'), but it's a mark of how far she's come, and of the kind of roles she has eased into maturely. Though she has worked more or less constantly (this year alone, we can also expect to see her in Léos Carax's Pola X , Régis Wargnier's East-West, and Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark ), the Seventies were not a smooth ride, and by the early Eighties French critics were damning her clunky passage from doll-like fantasy-figure to who knew what?
You could say that she had trouble, on screen, becoming a woman. But by the time she starred in Wargnier's Indochine (1991), for which she was nominated for an Oscar, the coolness was gone. She played a mother, and a lover, driven both by sexual desire and overwhelming motherly love. The two emotions clash, tragically, and Deneuve retains her elegance and strength while revealing a crumbling vulnerability and a raw warmth. How did this change come about?
'The first person who offered me a mature role was Truffaut, with The Last Metro [in 1980]. He said he was going to give me the role of a woman who was not unattractive, but who had a responsible part in a film, with more to do than just fall in love. So it was in the Eighties that it started.' Andre Téchiné also helped her 'to evolve - not in myself, I mean, but in relation to the audience - by offering me roles of women who were more complex than what you generally find in the cinema'. Deneuve has made three films with Téchiné - Scene of the Crime (1986), My Favourite Season (1993), and Les Voleurs (1996). They introduced her to a naturalism, a kind of rough-edged emotion, which she hadn't previously encountered. She wasn't afraid of the change: 'I was perceived as this sophisticated actress, and Téchiné really unveiled me, if you like, with the parts he wrote for me, in the way he directed me, the way he filmed me - I became someone more vulnerable, closer to a modern woman than to a mythical figure'. She could not have made the shift on her own, she explains, because 'in France, all directors are auteurs so you can't propose projects to them, because they work on their own subjects'.
I suggest that if you watch Belle de Jour or Repulsion now, they come across as Catherine Deneuve films. They are united by her, and it's tempting to say that, over time, she has become the auteur of those movies. 'It's true that that happens, though not always, after a very, very long time.' But she explains that when she first worked with Buñuel she had no idea what he wanted from her. ' Belle de Jour was very difficult, because it's a film about fantasies, so everything is very masked - more is unsaid than is said. I was very resistant to it initially. I thought he wanted to do something cruder, more naked. It wasn't a lack of confidence in him that made me resistant, but my own prudishness and anxiety. His relationships with his actresses were - well, he could never be really intimate with women, he was a very tormented man, and he didn't speak to his actors much. But it finished up well enough for us to work together again less than two years later.'
The later film, Tristana, is the one Deneuve prefers of the two. She plays the title role, a young woman who develops a sexual relationship with her legal guardian and later wreaks her revenge on him - though not before having a leg amputated. (The only time Hitchcock met Buñuel, he patted him on the back and said, admiringly, 'Buñuel. That wooden leg'.) At one point in Tristana , Deneuve's character stands on a balcony and opens her dressing gown, revealing her body to a boy below. The audience sees only her face. Slowly, strangely, she smiles. 'Yes, I like that scene a lot,' Deneuve remembers. 'I decided to smile, because when I knew how it was framed I wanted to show what you couldn't see. She knows the boy can see her breasts, but also her amputated leg, so it's a way of saying, I know what you're looking at, and I know how I am - a way of having the upper hand despite everything. I always like things that have a double edge.'
Deneuve has long been, in her phrase, a 'mythical figure', and not just on screen. When she made Belle de Jour in 1967, Yves Saint Laurent designed the costumes. From then on she became his friend and muse. In 1965 she married David Bailey, who took some wonderful photographs of her - she became an icon, a still. In the Seventies she was the face of Chanel, and in 1985 she was chosen as the face of Marianne, the symbol of the French republic, to be sculpted for exhibition in town halls and to be silhouetted on stamps. But while she was, externally, the image of perfection, the turbulence of her private life always spilt out into the public domain. At 17 she met Roger Vadim - the man who 'discovered' Bardot - and had a child with him. In 1972 she had a daughter with Marcello Mastroianni (Chiara Mastroianni now has a blooming acting career of her own, and also figures in Time Regained ). Deneuve has always tried to keep her privacy. 'We all have a right to our secret garden,' she says. But there is one very personal subject I wanted to ask her about.
In 1967, Deneuve and her sister, Françoise Dorléac, played twins in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort , a musical by Jacques Demy. That year, on her way back from a holiday in the south of France, Dorléac died in a car crash. Truffaut, who had directed her in La Peau Douce , wrote in Cahiers du Cinéma : 'It is unacceptable that on 26 June last year, that great cascading laughter was cut short.' She was a year older than Deneuve, and began her acting career earlier. She was serious about it, and had acted on stage. It was only when she was in a film for which an actress had to be found to play her sister that she persuaded Deneuve to audition. From then on, their careers moved in tandem: Deneuve made Repulsion with Polanski, Dorléac starred in his Cul de Sac the following year; both worked with Truffaut, both worked with Demy.
But the two couldn't have been more different. Deneuve's reserve was more than matched by Dorléac's joie de vivre. Deneuve envied the mobility of her sister's face; Dorléac, less physically perfect, had a complex about being 'asymmetrical'. They grew up in a liberal family with two younger sisters. Their father was head of dubbing at Paramount, and their mother, whose maiden name Deneuve later adopted, had been a child actor. Until Deneuve left home to live with Vadim, the two girls shared a bunk bed. They were very, very close.
In 1996 Deneuve put together a documentary about her sister and a book was published to accompany the film. It was the first time she had been able to speak about her sister since her death, and, she said then, she didn't know if there would be a second time. But now, when I ask, tentatively, about Dorléac, she tells me she is constantly surprised by how vividly Françoise is remembered and by how many admirers she has amongst those who weren't even born when she died - people of my generation. I ask her what she makes of the comment published in an issue of Positif from the Eighties, which offered her this career advice: 'Deneuve lacks an energy, a spikiness, an acidity which she might have borrowed from her sister Françoise Dorléac.'
'That's an extremely curious thing to say,' she replies, 'I think it's incredibly incongruous, and incredibly tactless. I think it's totally out of place, and I don't think it means anything. It's like blaming a blonde for being blonde.' Though clearly shocked, Deneuve keeps talking. 'Every time someone says something like that it hurts me because it awakens something - we were so complementary, and I feel something is missing from me. You know, when you're with happy people you feel happy. So it's true that I lack something which to some extent she helped me to be. But, as Giscard d'Estaing said about Mitterrand, he's him and I'm me. That's right. It's difficult enough to be oneself, without having to be thrown back to someone else.' She pauses. 'But now I can accept that kind of comment a bit better, because I've gone back over everything that links me to her. It's less painful than it was. Because it was painful for a very, very, very long time.'
I want to know more about Dorléac, but I feel sorry for broaching so intimate a subject. Throughout our conversation, Deneuve has been cordial, then congenial, at times almost motherly, and now vulnerable. She said at one point that she thought some articles about actors would be better written without speaking to the actor in question, but there is much more to admire in Deneuve on meeting her. There is just little point in trying to sum her up.
I remember something she said when we were talking about her latest character, Odette: 'I don't feel what you see. I feel a woman who seems to be in control, seems to speak that way of her life and yet she is a frivolous, fragile woman. Or at least she is to me.'