Catherine Deneuve


1. “It’s the time to grow up”

Deneuve doesn’t get up, just regally leans forward, smiling through large sunglasses, and gently shakes hands. Once she’s relaxed, everything she does becomes a legend, the status she will always deny and dismiss.

Deneuve is dressed in golds, creams and greens. She’s friendly, cautious, and then laughing. She asks questions – do I have Russian blood ? What is my star-sign ?
“Oh, Aries. In that case you’ll make it.”
Many of her sentences are half-finished, vague, perfectly delivered, save for a very fetching way of saying “woman” instead of “women” and a staggeringly sexy way of saying the word “serious”, seriousness being a quality she evidently values.

To shake hands with Deneuve is, of course, to shake hands with grace. Film critic John Baxter described her as “preternaturally beautiful” and many writers have struggled to capture that elusive quality she has. The combination of her cool beauty, detached poise, and remote melancholy continues to fascinate; call it mystique.

Deneuve’s is a kind of beauty, a kind of pure beauty, which even the slightest imperfection will inevitably mark, like blood on marble. So while Deneuve’s features (the chin and neck, fuller cheeks) chart the very beginnings of an age change – a change of beauties – then the eyes (huge brown pools) still drown you.

As it is, within five minutes, Deneuve puts me at my ease. Laughing, quietly relaxed, Deneuve is a person, not the goddess she once was. I suppose if you’re Deneuve, that’s something to be: a person.

2. “I haven’t changed much at all. I haven’t changed my ideas about the meaning of life, you know”

Deneuve, 45 next month, was born in Paris, the daughter of actress Renée Deneuve and Maurice Dorleac – the theatre director who later worked dubbing American films into French. (Deneuve herself has never even shown interest in the stage.)

Brought up in the chic 16th arrondissement, she was one of four sisters – one of whom, Francoise Dorleac, was a vivacious, charming actress of some success, with whom Catherine shared a fierce rivalry and eventual intimacy.

What sort of girl were you ? Recognisably Deneuve ?
“I would think so, yes. I don’t think people really change. The other day I met some girls I was at school with, which I hadn’t seen for thirty years, which is a lot. It was a sort of reunion. The idea was so depressing that I said ‘No’ at first. (She gives a girlish gush of excitement at this memory). I was curious and surprised, so I went. I looked very closely at them all – the faces, the look, the eyes never change. But they were not women. They were the girls I knew. It’s sad when people change, yes, but it’s much worse when people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t recognise you’. That happens to me, too (laughs).”

Did you have many friends or were you also reserved, remote as a child ?
“Mmm, yes. I am less now, but still am. I didn’t have many friends; we were a lot of sisters, so the family itself was a group. I talk much more but still I stay cool and more reserved rather than be completely relaxed.”

Were you happy when you were young ?
“I would say I had a very happy childhood but I was a melancholic child. I was always like that. Melancholic… When I see someone, I know if they are cheerful or anxious (she looks at me); in the face, the eyes. I can always tell. I still am melancholic. A little.”

Did you think about what you wanted from life ?
“Oh, I was a dreamer – I was sad, I suppose, because I couldn’t go to the moon (laughs). I was very much ‘not there’. Very dreamy. I thought love was the most fascinating thing there was. The rest was just a big game. I was also very serious.”

At 16, Deneuve has said, she also dreamt of Monroe, “Having her body… She had an innocence and a seductive quality that was carnal,” yet she’s very definite when she tells me she had not dreamt of what she later became. “Oh no. I was interested in watching people, knowing people, listening to people. I haven’t changed much at all (laughs). Not fame, though, no. Like I never moved to America to become more famous or something. I’ve never been interested in that.”

Although Deneuve made her debut at 13 in Les Collegiennes during a school vacation, under encouragement from her sister Francoise, she made her real debut, aged 16, in Les Petits Chats, taking her mother’s maiden name, playing her sister’s sister, a role she repeated in her next film Les Portes Claquentes. Deneuve has always calmly accepted and acknowledged that it was her looks and her sister that were responsible for her entrance into acting.

After a slight summer film with Johnny Holliday, she succeeded Bardot, when she was ‘discovered’ by Roger Vadim. She dyed her hair blonde and made Et Satan Conduit le Bal and the Sadean erotic punishment of Le Vice et La Vertu. She then gave birth to Vadim’s son, Christian, now 26. With typical cool independence she refused to marry Vadim. (She also has a 17-year-old daughter by Marcello Mastroianni.) In 1965, she married David Bailey and although the marriage lasted only five years, their friendship endured, so much so that the day after this interview she agreed to be photographed by Bailey in London.

Have you been in love much ?
“I don’t think I will answer to you. I will tell you personally, but not as a journalist. I don’t think there is only one person for you in life, to last you all your life. I really don’t think we are meant to live with just one person.”

In 1967, her sister Francoise was killed in a car crash near Nice airport and it has been said that Deneuve has never fully come to terms with the loss. Aside from her film career, her fame spread further still with a long Chanel campaign, the launch of her own $165-an-ounce perfume and her own lines of fashion and jewellery, launched in Brazil. In 1965, she was overwhelmingly voted to succeed Bardot as the model for the face of Marianne, the sculptural emblem of the French Republic, whose statue appears in villages throughout France – a decision that Le Monde saluted as a “return to classicism.”

Did you have to grow up quickly, starting acting at such a young age ?
“I had to grow up, yeah, on the outside, very much. But inside, at the beginning, no.”

When did you grow up ?
“That’s exactly the word I use – grow up, not grow old. I’m still growing up. My problem is… I go backwards. I don’t progress anymore when I cannot really grow up enough (smiles).”

How easy did you find acting, being so private, shy ?
“You find that it just works, that it’s something you can do. I was never anxious: I was so involved in the work. I have never even looked through a camera; I don’t want to know what it looks like. I don’t like to see myself on screen, that’s true. I don’t like to imagine other people watching me. They see you but it’s not you. I always tried to express things in a low level, you know. You can feel vulnerable. It’s very emotional sometimes. Then it’s very difficult to only act.”

How do you cry in a film ?
“It was very difficult for me when I was younger, very, very difficult. With years, it’s less so. I get very distraught. Tired. I cry… It’s not being depressed, just very tired. After a certain amount of years, it’s not very difficult to think of things that move me… Oh, I think of the people I can’t see, that aren’t with me.”

3. “She didn’t act so much as appear”

At 19, Deneuve was internationally famous, had had one illegitimate child and had made eight, not particularly distinguished, films. Then, in 1963, she made Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, a musical fantasy which won Cannes and the French Academy Grand Prix. Demy, she said, “made me want to learn about acting.”

The following year, she made Polanski’s Repulsion (her first English-language film, about a sexually inhibited Belgian girl, whose obsessive loneliness sees her retreat from reality into morbid fantasy and finally murder), and in 1967 his classic, Belle de Jour; Bunuel apparently gave her no direction in her role as a bourgeois housewife who takes on prostitution to fill her days.

Deneuve’s acting style has attracted analysis ever since.
“I hate effort, showing effort,” she once said. “I don’t like to act spontaneously. I hate location shoots, crowds… There’s been no conscious change in my approach to the cinema since I was 15… If you have a technique, you’re finished as an actor.”

Her acting detachment, insouciant calm, played a large part in her growing iconic appeal. But others, like critic Francis Wyndham, were unconvinced.
“She often seems as if she’s not acting at all… No evident understanding that she ever knew what she was doing… A style and a technique so transparent that it hardly counts as acting at all.”

She confused matters further by telling The Sunday Times “essentially I’m acting myself.” Manny Ferber called her “Catherine Deadnerve”. Man Ray said she was “the quintessence of every mannequin I ever photographed.” While Bailey called her “an authentic peasant”, Polanski started something by calling her “a professional virgin”. Wyndham later referred to her as “a cool combination of the vicious and the virginal peculiar to herself”.

Despite constant roles involving strange sexuality (defilement in Belle de Jour, a high-price call girl in Hustle with Burt Reynolds, a bisexual private eye in Ecoute Voir, and an ancient bisexual vampire in the fabulously ludicrous The Hunger, she continued to capture a staggering, almost sensual sense of innocence, making her seem untouchable.

John Baxter saw this quality, this mysticism, as “a beguiling innocence combined with an ingrained seriousness, even solemnity… To see Deneuve laughing is to see her naked, yet physical nudity reveals no more of this remarkable woman than it would of the young Garbo.”

Although she’s made over sixty films, only Bunuel’s Tristana, Truffaut’s The Mississippi Mermaid and The Last Metro, and Demy’s The Slightly Pregnant Man continued the quality and style of this period. Of the seven films she’s made since The Hunger, only A Strange Place To Meet looks set to receive (or possibly deserve) an English release.

Do you have any regrets about your career ?
“There are some things I should have done and some I shouldn’t have done, but it’s too late. The things I should have done ? No, they’re private. I am proud, yes, of certain things. Working with Bunuel, Truffaut, Jacques Demy. Once, it can happen, but twice it’s more than making a film.”

4. “You realise what you’re making me do ?”

A Strange Place To Meet is a debut feature film, written and directed by Francoise Dupeyron. It opens late on a winter night when, after an argument, France (Deneuve) is abandoned by her husband in a motorway lay-by where she finds Charles (Gérard Depardieu) taking apart his car engine. He wants to be left alone, but she insists on waiting for her husband, to prove her love to him. Over the weekend, spent in the lay-by and a motorway café, Charles and France fight and fence, until Charles begins to fall while France remains immobile, although verging on frantic distraction.

Everything is weighed with ambiguity (notably Depardieu’s lovely last line) in a film that only the French could make: slow, serious, droll, peculiarly existentialist, ironic. France is proud, unnerved and increasingly erratic, with growing signs that she is losing her sense of herself.

In what ways are you like or unlike France ?
“When you see her arriving, walking in her big fur coat, from far away you really think, ‘This is Catherine Deneuve’. There were two ways I could look. One was to be completely different, change my hair, change my look. Sometimes that makes trouble because people try to recognise you behind the character. So I said, ‘I’m going to look exactly like me, but then roll off.’ I’ve seen women like that. Physically they look completely perfect, on the outside, but as soon as you start talking to them, about their personal life, they fall apart. She’s disturbed, completely disturbed. You can feel that if something happened and she had to get him back, there’s no limit to the humiliation she could stand for. I think everybody who has been deeply in love with someone has been very dependent at one time or another…”

5. “When I have to look beautiful, I have to make an effort. It happens once in a while”

In the film you look at the lines around your eyes in a hand mirror. Is it harder to grow old if you’re beautiful ?
“Of course ! I wouldn’t say it’s difficult. It’s cruel. I would still rather be beautiful and have to grow old. Everyone gets old. It’s true, though, that there will be something cruel to remind you that you are not what you’re supposed to be, what you were.”

The mystique in the film is all yours, even though we’re not certain about either of the characters. Can he even fix an engine ? Is the man really her husband ? How unbalanced is she ? Is he really a surgeon ? Even with the café’s passing characters, it’s she – you – who mesmerises everyone.
“He doesn’t speak about who he is, but by speaking about her and his reactions, the way he speaks about his car, about music, the way he tries not to see her when she goes in the lorry at night… She’s so awkward in this place. She’s someone you see sometimes walking by and you try to imagine what they are, who they are. You wonder ‘what kind of woman is she ?’”

Which a lot of people wonder about you ?
“No, because me, I’m an actress. If you see a woman in a fur coat in a snack bar off a motorway and she looks so serious… She should be in the ambulance. She’s very serious. She is very sad.”

Do you understand the intrigue that you hold for people, the nature of your mystique ?
“Yes, but…if you are someone with a strict appearance, but calm, you can sort of suggest much more than someone who expresses more. Apparently.”

You understand, accept that you have a quality that even the most skilful or beautiful actresses don’t have ? Something that can’t be created, even by a Kinski or Adjani.
“Absolutely, that’s true that you can’t create it. It has something to do with morphology and character and personality. You have to create for yourself a look that goes with your personality and style because otherwise it won’t work for long.”

It’s been called a mythical quality. You’re often referred to alongside Garbo, Dietrich…
“It’s not a part of what I do, you know ? This is what people say, but it’s not part of what I do and I don’t think it’s right for me to speak about it. I prefer not to. I don’t read about myself. I live already so much with myself, sometimes I find it too heavy.”

Do you like it much ? Is it what you wanted ?
“No, because it’s too much. It’s so heavy and tiring, intense – because it’s always You You You… You have to make decisions but it always comes back to who you are. Sometimes I would like to do more with other people. I dream of being in a troupe or something, have the mentality of the troupes but…”

Do you think most about the past, present or future ?
“The past ! (She smiles). I’m melancholic ! Haha. I look back, yes. My regrets ? Just people who are not here, people I love that I won’t see again.”

You said to Life magazine in 1969: “I’m not easily involved in anything. I’m totally pessimistic. There’s no better world after death, not for me. For me, the greatest luxury in the world would be to abandon myself to passion.”
“(smiling) Well, I used to feel that when I was younger, and it’s still true. All of it. I haven’t changed much at all. Haven’t changed my ideas about the meaning of life, you know ? Haha.”

What’s the meaning of life I ask her and her answer is the opposite of the icy remoteness she is most famous for.
“Passion ! Haha. Passion. And passion can be a lot of things. It’s a way of attacking life. I wouldn’t like to think that life’s all happening because it just is. You must make things happen. I can’t accept that answer, ‘It just is’, that we give to children. When the parent just says ‘because’. Luckily, my parents never said that to me.”

She finishes by talking about the things she dislikes: eating or drinking in bed (“the bedroom is for sleeping…”), parties, doors being left open (a legacy of not having enough privacy in a large family, likewise her habit of interrupting). And the things she enjoys: cats, dogs, gardens, watching people dance, good food, fashion.
“I like to be with my friends, go to the country, read books about gardens and plants, movies like The Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons. I dream and hope to go to the moon. Maybe that’s still my dream. My daughter is still very young, but very good-looking, very wild, very cool. I don’t really discuss my daughter at her age, 17, she’s trying to be by herself. I have to leave you. One more question.”

How happy are you ?
“Oh quite happy. I think of happiness in moments. My happiest moments – being with my sister when I was younger, some moments with my children when they were babies, I adore babies.”

It lasts less than forty minutes. Walking out, I see her standing on the busy street, calmly looking for a taxi, waiting by a broken bus. People flood past her in the evening commuter charge. Even as they do, naturally, Deneuve’s mystique remains intact.