Cinematically speaking, there are fewer spectacles less inspiring than physical beauty unaccompanied by any semblance of distinct humanity, character or spontaneous emotion. Unfortunately, we see way too much of this "Stepford" syndrome in our popular media -- whether they're washed-out looking models or those fit, corn-fed, camera-ready young Americans whom you sense don't have much to say beyond what's on the teleprompter.
By contrast, from her first starring role in Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964) to her recent tour-de-force as a mortally ill matriarch in A Christmas Tale (2008), lurking beneath Catherine Deneuve's exquisite features we can sense a keen intuition and depth of character, though most often it's not fully revealed. You may glimpse it in an expression, a glance, a gesture; it almost feels as if this enigmatic actress withholds the full breadth of her intelligence so that we mere mortals are not too threatened by such an imposing double-threat. Or maybe it's just that she's innately shy, and doesn't want to make too much of a fuss. Either way, for us in the audience Deneuve is always incredibly interesting to watch.
And who could doubt her fearless talent after seeing her gradually lose her mind in Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965), the follow-up to Umbrellas, seemingly calculated to let the world know that she was so much more than the ingénue of the moment.
She was born in Paris, the daughter of actors. Her older sister, the equally striking, auburn-maned Francoise D'Orleac preceded her as a film actress, but died tragically young shortly after appearing with her sister in Demy's The Young Girls Of Rochefort (1967). By this point, the blonde Catherine was already the bigger star.
Over the course of roughly fifteen years, Deneuve would bear a son with director Roger Vadim (who'd given her an early break in films), marry and split from writer/director David Bailey, give birth to a daughter with actor Marcello Mastroianni, and become involved with legendary director Francois Truffaut, who would be devastated when she broke off the relationship. Though by nature a private individual, her life would be every bit as dramatic as her on-screen portrayals.
Early on, she carried her films, but over time, she would also appear to strong effect in fine ensemble pieces like Regis Warnier's under-exposed East/West (1992), about a young French woman desperate to escape post war Soviet Russia (Deneuve plays the stage actress who helps her); or Manoel de Oliveira's A Talking Picture (2003), where Catherine basically plays herself, a fading but still glamorous film star on a troubled sea voyage.
What this shrewd and gifted performer has cared about all along is picking movies worthy of her talent and persona, and in this goal, beyond just a few inevitable misfires, she has admirably succeeded.
Now a vigorous 66, Catherine Deneuve remains as busy as ever. While awaiting her next release, why not re-visit some of the seminal titles that made her France's "grande dame" of film- and indeed, one of the world's most venerable movie stars:
The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964)- In this kaleidoscopic musical romance, Genevieve (Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) are young Parisian lovers forced to separate when Guy gets drafted for military service in Algeria. Though they promise to stay true to each other, as time passes life complications intervene, specifically in the form of one Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a well-off jeweler who can help Genevieve just when she needs it most. Director Jacques Demy's visually sumptuous masterpiece is unique in that it's all-sung, with no spoken dialogue. Thanks to a magical score by Michel Legrand, the bold, risky conceit works. Deneuve is a vision as Genevieve, a role that made her an international star overnight, and Anne Vernon also shines as Genevieve's practical yet fretting mother. Lead billing also goes to Demy's vibrant color palette, a tribute to the '50s Hollywood musicals he so loved. An ideal date movie, "Umbrellas" is a feast for eyes, ears and heart.
Repulsion (1965)- One weekend, Helene Le Doux (Yvonne Furneaux) and boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) leave Helene's withdrawn sister Carole (Deneuve) in the London apartment they share, and we witness Carole's mental disintegration, rooted in a visceral contempt for men. Pretty as she is, it's difficult for the opposite sex to leave Carole alone, including ardent admirer Colin (John Fraser). Colin has definitely picked the wrong girl. Still, we're not totally sure whether Carole's deadly acts are real, or whether they exist only in her own twisted mind. Roman Polanski's first English-language film makes for a potent shocker, as we watch a human psyche unravel, with violent implications. The young Deneuve, only a year after premiering as the picture of innocence in Umbrellas, mesmerizes as the demented Carole, a tragic but terrifying creature well past the point of no return. If you crave unsettling, first-rate psychological horror, here's your movie.
Belle de Jour (1967)- Director Luis Buñuel's subtle, kinky black comedy (his first film in color) tells the bizarre story of Severine (Deneuve), a bored young woman in an arid marriage to a medical student (Jean Sorel), who seems to have repressed sadomasochistic tendencies. Her bizarre and erotic dream life begins to meld with reality as she embarks on a secret life as a high-priced call girl to feed her compulsion.And wait till you meet her clients! This unique, still fascinating film includes the director's trademark melding of conscious and unconscious imagery, as in a new and provocative context, we revisit Bunuel's signature themes: namely, the well-ordered but vacuous lives of the bourgeoisie, and the base desires lurking beneath their routinized lives and placid facades. Belle rermains a multi-layered, hypnotic work, and Deneuve is, as always, exquisite. The fabulous Michel Piccoli also registers as a licentious type who points Severine toward her stimulating new pastime.
The Last Metro (1980)- During the Nazi Occupation, German Jewish stage director Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent) goes into hiding in the basement of the Paris theater where his wife and business partner Marion (Deneuve) has taken over the production of a Norwegian play. She's then smitten with the arrival of leading man Bernard Granger (Gerard Depardieu), a womanizer and Resistance fighter new to the troupe, and soon finds her heart and her loyalty divided. Deneuve and Depardieu, both giants of French cinema, have a heady match-up in Metro, Francois Truffaut's slow, smoldering melodrama. Instead of delving into Nazi horrors, the director plays up the anguished love-triangle relationship, and examines the process of the actors as they prepare to mount a show at the famed Theatre Montmartre. Fine acting (especially Jean-Pierre Richard, as a poisonously anti-Semitic drama critic), restrained directing, and Nestor Almendros's beautifully muted color cinematography leads smoothly to a satisfying, appropriately theatrical conclusion. Don't miss this Metro!
Scene Of The Crime (1987)- In a small provincial town, disaffected teen Thomas (Nicolas Giraudi), still reeling from his parents' divorce, meets a gruff, penniless stranger while walking in the countryside. The man, Martin (Wadeck Stanczak), turns out to be an escaped convict, and demands money. Soon after, the fugitive turns up at the riverside nightclub managed by Thomas's mother, Lilli (Deneuve), who falls hard for him. Andre Techine's elegantly complex crime drama, beautifully shot in the French provinces by Pascal Marti, is a first-rate showcase for Deneuve, well-suited (as always) to playing characters with an intriguing, hidden aspect. Her scenes with old French star Danielle Darrieux, who plays Thomas' live-in grandma, are as affecting and convincing as her more tumultuous interactions with Stanczak and Maurice (Victor Lanoux), the estranged husband who wants her back. Murder and sexual frisson are on the agenda, but the film's subtle look at broken-family power dynamics is just as edgy.
A Christmas Tale (2008)- As the dysfunctional Vuillard clan gathers for Christmas, we learn that matriarch Junon (Deneuve) is seriously ill, requiring a bone marrow transplant. The only compatible family members: Junon's mentally fragile grandson Paul, and her alcoholic, ne'er do well middle son Henri (Mathieu Amalric). This situation forces an awkward reunion between Henri and older sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who after settling Henri's debts years before had refused ever to see him again. Still unresolved is whether Junon will even undergo the transplant, and if so, which relative she'll choose to save her life. Arnaud Desplechin's rich, bittersweet tapestry of one complex extended family forced to confront past conflicts resonates on multiple levels: it's at once a story about mortality, unresolved familial anger, and unconsummated romance. Though dealing with intense, often painful emotions, this ambitious film is shot through with warmth and a reassuring recognition of our shared, imperfect humanity, as if to suggest: better a screwed-up family than no family at all. (Look for Deneuve's real-life offspring Chiarra Mastroianni playing her daughter-in-law. Her resemblance to her late father is uncanny.)
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