Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Beautiful Oeuvre of Catherine Deneuve

"Her beauty, then and now, is like a blow to the eyes."
-- Roger Ebert,
   writing about Catherine Deneuve in 2004

Talk about being slow on the uptake, late to the party and lost somewhere in Siberia.

But making up for it in a big way.

Until this past March, despite having heard her referenced as "the most beautiful woman in the world" likely dating back to 1983--around the time The Hunger was released--I had never watched a Catherine Deneuve movie.

Now, just 3 months later, I have seen 25.

I won't deny that, after watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg--a delightful French musical from 1964 directed by Jacques Demy, which was Deneuve's first starring role--I realized why so many have been captivated by her beauty.

And I wanted to see more of it.

Certainly, extremely attractive women and men have adorned movie screens since they've existed, and we all have our favorites.

Some of mine include Paulette Goddard, Gene Tierney, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Connelly, Anne Hathaway, Kate Beckinsale and Aishwarya Rai, a Bollywood icon the esteemed Mr. Ebert described as "not only the first but also the second most beautiful woman in the world" in 2004.

Well, with due admiration to all of the above and many others, to this beholder no woman has ever been more attractively beguiling on-screen than Catherine Deneuve.

At her most elegant, she had a face that could have been sculpted by Canova.

But part of what made taking an addictively deep dive into her mostly French filmography--IMDB, All Movie--is that Deneuve, now 70, has never stopped being a movie star, or an icon, even as the exquisiteness of her appearance has aged and softened.

As the TCM bio of Catherine Deneuve says more eloquently than I could:
"By the late 1990s, she was well past the age when most American actresses would be virtually forced into retirement. Fortunately, for Deneuve, the French were more forgiving of women over 30 and she continued working at her usual productive pace. Still beautiful, yet no longer defined by her beauty, Deneuve was finally free to take on roles other than of the fantasy woman."
The 25 movies I watched were from 19 different years, with at least two from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s. So while my exploration was undeniably prompted by Deneuve's breathtaking beauty--most overt in her earlier films--I truly enjoyed most of the movies I saw from the 21st century, when Catherine was clearly less constricted by the acclamation of her appearance, and consequently more human in the characters she's played.

I didn't catch On My Way in its brief American release earlier this year, so will have to wait until it hits DVD in a few months. She seems to be the primary, above-the-title star in that one, but as with the latest film of hers I watched--2011's Beloved, in which she stars with her real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni--Deneuve now more frequently appears within ensemble casts and gets less screen-time.

This is rather normal--even the great Meryl Streep plays the lead a lot less than she used to, and other than Helen Mirren and Judi Dench, I can't think of many actresses over 60 who regularly appear on film--but somewhat confuses my guide below, which is meant to recommend Catherine Deneuve movies more than simply movies with Catherine Deneuve in them.

According to IMDB, Deneuve has 119 credits as an actress, almost all in film excepting a Nip/Tuck episode in 2006. Though she has starred in a few English-speaking films, the vast majority have been in her native French.

So there are still a number of pictures I can still try to explore, but I think I've exhausted most of the ones that rates most highly and/or that the Skokie Public Library owns, Netflix streams or Amazon rents for instant viewing.

While I would say less than a third of the 25 "Cinéma de Deneuve" selections are truly first-rate films, almost all were eminently watchable.

In large part, this is because her beauty is just that alluring--especially in her early films but even in the later ones, I noticed a palpable "Michael Jordan on-the-bench effect" that saw me become acutely less engaged whenever Catherine was offscreen--but she has always been a fine actress who has worked with stellar directors and co-stars.

In addition to substantively adding to my intake of French cinema, my gorging on the work of Deneuve also nicely expanded my cinematic vocabulary.

Although I had seen some of their work before, I became more familiar with directors like Luis Buñuel (Belle du Jour, Tristana), Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Donkey Skin), François Truffaut (Mississippi Mermaid, The Last Metro), Roman Polanski (Repulsion), Robert Aldrich (Hustle), André Téchiné (My Favorite Season, Les Voleurs (a.k.a. Thieves), The Girl on the Train), François Ozon (8 Women, Potiche) and Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark).

Through Catherine Deneuve, I am now cognizant (or more so) of legendary French actors like Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michael Piccoli, Gerard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil and Philippe Noiret, the latter only previously familiar to me as an older man in the Italian classics Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino. And while Aldrich's 1975 L.A. film noir pic, Hustle, isn't outstanding, viewing it did provide me with a different perspective on Burt Reynolds.

But just sticking to Deneuve herself, my eyes were opened--and not just fixated.

By bouncing around her filmography without any prior familiarity, not only was I able to appreciate her longevity--there aren't many still active Hollywood or world cinema actors or actresses who have been movie stars for 50 years running; only Robert Duvall (often a supporting actor), Clint Eastwood (now primarily directing) and the Swedish Max von Sydow readily come to mind)--but I enjoyed noticing how her appearance and persona changed over the years.

Two cornerstone films were Truffaut's The Last Metro from 1980, which takes place in Nazi-occupied Paris, and 1992's Indochine, an epic directed by Régis Wargnier that enlightened me about French Indochina before the Vietnam War. Both these roles are considerably meatier than most of her earlier ones, and while still supernaturally gorgeous, there is a steeliness to her character and a stateliness in her elegance that marked her maturation as an actress, and a woman.

Although, thanks largely to the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup group in which I participate, I had previously feasted en masse on the films of a certain star, genre or director, never before had I done so to this extent nor so entirely uninitiated.

It's been a fun and fruitful investigation, well beyond merely looking--over and over--at a pretty face. And darn nice figure too, although typically embodying demure elegance, Deneuve was not nearly the erotic sexpot that may have once been promoted to draw art house audiences; she appears nude--very briefly--in just 3 of the 25 films I watched.

She is also a considerably better actress--and always was--than the porcelain dolls she was most famously made to portray. With more range than one might imagine, she consistently brought wit, wisdom and integrity to her roles. Even with subpar scripts that objectified her, she never appeared to be phoning it in; beyond just her looks, she is always a pleasure to watch. 

While I don't think I need to feel sheepish about appreciating--so long as not lewdly--the appearance of anyone, let alone an iconic actress, blessed with rarefied physical attractiveness (and the dedication obviously required to maintain it), observing the oeuvre of Catherine Deneuve has also enlightened me a bit on flip side of such beauty.

After her initial success in the buoyant-yet-poignant Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in which she shines like the mid-day sun, Deneuve was soon cast by Polanski in Repulsion (1965) and Buñuel in both Belle du Jour (1967) and Tristana (1970).

All three films are now considered classics or close to it, as well as among her most famous work, but in repeatedly embodying cold, remote, troubled and/or virginal young women, Deneuve became known as "the ice maiden." (reference article)

Each of these movies is cinematically stellar and isn't devoid of narrative rationale, but I can't help feel that they--and Polanski in particular--played, and preyed, upon Deneuve as a object of sexual desire to an overly voyeuristic, even misogynistic extent.

To wit, this comes from TCM's capsule on Repulsion:
"Polanski also had specific ideas about the kind of costuming he wanted, specifically as a way of sexualizing this otherwise meek and repressed-looking character. Though he'd originally wanted Deneuve to be completely nude under the nightgown she wears in the film, he settled on putting her in a body stocking. He did persuade her, however, to pose nude for Playboy as a way of promoting the film. Deneuve bitterly regretted doing so. "It was a terrible mistake," she has said. "I'd never do anything like it again.""
This information, and Repulsion itself--though ostensibly a rather divergent horror movie featuring a female protagonist--makes me not so shocked by Polanski's later troubles (in 1977 he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl, after which he left the U.S. and has never returned).

I don't think Ms. Deneuve needs me to defend her virtue, but it's not hard to imagine something demeaning about a recurrence of roles--mostly early ones--in which Deneuve plays either a wife or girlfriend who engages in sextracurricular escapades (Belle du Jour, La Vie de Chateau, The April Fools, Manon 70, The Last Metro, Beloved) or a prostitute or otherwise unscrupulous hussy (Hustle, Mississippi Mermaid, La Sauvage).   

(Stated simply as fact, in real-life Deneuve had children by two high-profile romantic partners, French director Roger Vadim and Italian actor Marcelo Mastroianni, to whom she was never married; she was also wed to British photographer David Bailey (the inspiration for Blow-Up) for 7 years.)

Even in the best of her recent starring roles, in the delightful Potiche (2010), she plays a long-subordinated trophy wife who only exerts her intelligence, business savvy and backbone when her husband is forced to abdicate  leadership of the company her father had founded.

Even aside from the characters she's been employed to portray, there are lessons to be learned from Catherine Deneuve about the burdens of beauty that many of us--at least of the male and/or non-goddess persuasion--may scoff at or never consider.

Alternate English title of Le Sauvage
Sure, it may not seem so terrible to be called--or to call someone--"The Most Beautiful Woman in the World," or even a compliment not quite so exalted, but imagine the pressure of trying to live up to or rationalize such praise.

Not only does such acclamation bring considerable lechery, evaluation, comparison and dissenting opinion, but God forbid one gets a zit, puts on a couple pounds or--as Deneuve has, completely still in the public eye, at least in France--matures with age.

Consider this paragraph in a Newsweek cover story from 1968, when Deneuve was just 24, already a huge star in France but raising her American profile considerably with her first Hollywood movie, The April Fools (co-starring Jack Lemmon): 
"Perhaps because she feels her reputation rests on her beauty, Deneuve is particularly insecure and unsure of her looks. "I read in a magazine that I was the most beautiful girl in the world, but I did not put the magazine down and believe it." In moments of doubt she will say: I have very skinny thighs and a very skinny face, but I am not that thin. Or she will lament: "There are so many pretty girls around, I really worry about this. I think 'How long can it last? It can't go on.' In public, she will shift seats in a dimly lit restaurant to conceal a small blemish on her skin."
By the time of this 1973 interview with People magazine, when she was 30, Deneuve had seemingly become a bit more accepting of the adulation, but not all that comfortable with the seeming advantages that accompanied an appearance such as hers. In her words: 
"All the doors automatically open for a beautiful woman. I know it's very fashionable for good-looking ladies to say how hard it is to be beautiful, but that's not true, there are times when it depresses and bothers me to see just how easy things are made for a beautiful woman. I am much more conscious of it now that I'm 30 than I was when I was younger. When I'm in a rush, or when I have a problem, people react differently for me. As I say, the doors open, there seem to be no limits—it's unbelievable. It's really the great injustice in the life of a woman, all this because nature has been kinder to one than to another."
Knowing next-to-nothing but Catherine Deneuve's name until 90 days ago, I have no awareness of her public persona, how she's lived her life or any gossip that may have surrounded her over the years.

But given the number of screen beauties who have suffered or succumbed, perhaps in part due to the pressures that accompanied the demands of glamor and/or the repercussions of faded glory--Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Greta Garbo, Gene Tierney, Rita Hayworth, Jayne Mansfield, Veronica Lake, Jean Seberg, Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor come to mind, though not all are fully congruent--it is especially impressive that Deneuve is still working steadily as she has for over 50 years, and seemingly has aged gracefully both on-screen and off.

Wikipedia does not make for an in depth biography, but along with her extensive filmography, the citing of Deneuve's charitable and political involvement is what's most notable.

The most tragic event in Deneuve's life of which I'm aware--the 1967 death of her sister, Françoise Dorléac, in a single-car accident shortly after the two starred (along with Gene Kelly) in Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort--served to add poignancy in watching the otherwise average Après Lui from 2007, in which Deneuve plays a mother trying to come to grips with the death of her son in a car accident.

While watching, at times, five Catherine Deneuve movies over a weekend, could be an oh so arduous task, not only was devouring a good portion of her beautiful oeuvre eye-opening and pleasurable, it was rather informative and fascinating in myriad ways.

And "the most iconic European actress walking this planet" doesn't seem to be stepping away from the camera anytime soon. Just since I started writing this article two days ago, it was announced that Deneuve has signed on to star in an as-yet-untitled new film, on the heels of appearing at the Cannes Film Festival with the premiere of another André Téchiné film, In the Name of My Daughter

So it seems I have much to look forward to, and--with your recommendations quite welcome--more at which to look backward.

But based on what I've seen of a really fine body of work--pun intended but true in both entendres--I am happy to provide you with:

SethSaith's Guide to the Films of Catherine Deneuve

(Please note: Below I will use movie titles and years of release to match Catherine Deneuve's filmography on, typically utilizing or also noting English titles, but not exclusively. Her IMDB filmography is another helpful point of reference. Both sites, and Wikipedia, have good movie summaries, so I won't provide much description here.

The movie ratings are mine and based on a @@@@@ scale, similar to AllMovie. I am rating each film based on its overall quality, not its merit as a showcase for Deneuve. Because I factor both aspects into these recommendations, the films are not necessary ranked by rating.)

The Five Best to Behold First

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) - @@@@@
Belle du Jour (1967) - @@@@@
The Last Metro (1980) - @@@@1/2
Indochine (1992) - @@@@1/2
Potiche (2010) - @@@@1/2

Further Your Exploration and Appreciation

The April Fools (1969) - @@@1/2
Hustle (1975) - @@@1/2
(The above two films aren't fantastic, but quite worthwhile for how Deneuve acclimates to Hollywood movies.)
Tristana (1970) - @@@@1/2
Repulsion (1965) - @@@@1/2
The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) - @@@1/2
La Vie de Chateau (A Matter of Resistance) (1965) - @@@@

Mainly Because She's Simply Stunning

Le Sauvage (1975) - @@@1/2
Manon 70 (1968) - @@@ 
Mississippi Mermaid (1969) - @@@1/2 (She bares her breasts in this one, prompting a driver to slam into a tree)
La Chamade (Heartbeat) (1968) - @@@
Donkey Skin (1970) - @@@

Pretty Good Films but She Isn't the Lead Actress

Dancer in the Dark (2000) - @@@@
The Girl on the RER (The Girl on the Train) (2003) - @@@1/2
8 Women (2002) - @@@1/2
A Talking Picture (2003) - @@@1/2

Decent Enough for the Deeply Devoted

My Favorite Season (1993) - @@@1/2
Les Voleurs (Thieves) (1996) - @@@
Après Lui (2007) - @@@
Beloved (2010) - @@1/2

With Apologies to David Bowie, Deneuve's Sex Scene with Susan Sarandon is the Only Real Attraction

The Hunger (1983) - @@


Gray LeBlanc said...

I have done this with Jessica Lange before, but I am a newcomer to Catherine Deneuve, as you were a few months back. I have seen "The Hunger," and now I am currently watching "Repulsion." Thanks for the article, and feel free to stay in touch!

Anonymous said...

Saw your link on IMDB. Very fine writing with amazing reviews. As a fan of Deneuve for over 15 years, there are still many films I have not explored.

Manish said...

I absolutely adore Catherine Deneuve. a top tier actress. My favorite film of hers is Belle de jour. one of the most beautiful and puzzling films of all time.

thanks for the article! i especially like the quotes!