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Beauty hides the beastly moments

Caring for her grandchildren and ageing gracefully have allowed Catherine Deneuve to come to terms with her demons.

Catherine Deneuve is famous for keeping her personal life personal, but there is one little secret she will reveal.
"It's not an obsession -- that's exaggerated -- but, oh, I love shoes. I could wear a black skirt every day, but shoes ? I like to change them three times a day".

It is a beautiful morning in Paris and we are sitting in a palatial suite at the Ritz, overlooking the Place de la Concorde, the pair of us admiring her purple crocodile slingbacks by Dolce & Gabbana. Not the sort of shoes one expects a 62-year-old grandmother to wear, and rather at odds with her immaculate coiffure and demure, fur-trimmed tweed suit. But then, hasn't a certain streak of unconventionality always been part of this screen legend's immortal allure ? Fire and ice, madonna and whore, and all that ?

"Oh, I hope so", shrugs Deneuve as she inhales on her cigarette, then absent-mindedly rubs the ash into the carpet with one of those vampy soles. "People see me as a very sophisticated lady, which I am in a way, but I'm not at all conventional. Non, non. The choices I've made in my life -- they are not conventional".

Should she be going out looking like this ?

"Of course, although only for evening. For day, I wanted something simple but precise. Because a woman who has to work doesn't have time to fuss around. Then, for night, all she has to do is put on a new dress, brush her hair and add a bit of light sparkle", she says with the confidence of one who knows a thing or two about make-up tricks.

I could talk for hours about Deneuve's unconventional, ultra-cool life ; how she was swept off her feet by the that Svengali, Roger Vadim ; how she and Jane Fonda, his next paramour, had their babies by him in the same clinic, same room even ; how she recoiled in horror at being shot for Playboy by David Bailey, then subsequently married him ; how Mick Jagger was their best man ; how Marcello Mastroianni was married to his wife Flora when Deneuve gave birth to their daughter, Chiara.

But one senses it's best to tread carefully here. When Vadim put out a book about his past loves -- Fonda, Deneuve and Deneuve's predecessor, Brigitte Bardot (detailing, among other things, how he and Deneuve never married because he was put off by her insistence that if they divorced, she wanted to keep the saucepans) -- she successfully sued.

It has been nearly 40 years since Deneuve appeared in Luis Buñuel's cult 1960s classic "Belle de Jour" as the bored, Yves Saint Laurent-clad housewife who turns to prostitution to satisfy her masochistic fantasies. What a bygone era that seems, and yet it is still quite possible to see what Buñuel meant when he described his leading lady thus: "As beautiful as death, as seductive as sin and as cold as virtue".

Up close, the texture of her skin is phenomenal, prompting one to wonder whether she has had any surgical help. But no, this is apparently the work of a "magician" on the Rue Premier called Francoise Meurice, who has been practising lymphatic massage on her face for the past 20 years. And if she hadn't been so rash about tanning in her 20s, and if she could quit smoking, it would probably be even better.

"I gave up for 12 years", she says in her low, sometimes indecipherably fast voice. "Then, because of certain problems, certain difficulties, I started letting myself have three a day. Then it was six. I tried organic cigarettes once, but it's like organic wine -- I'd rather not. And besides, I don't want to put on weight".

Born in 1943, Deneuve wanted to be an archeologist rather than an actor. It was her beloved elder sister Francoise, herself a successful actor, who persuaded her into the business. Then, in 1967, not too long after the sisters had appeared together in "Les demoiselles de Rochefort", Francoise was burned alive in a freak car accident at the age of 25. It is a loss from which Deneuve has never recovered. At the time she was married to Bailey and looking after Christian, her young son by Vadim. As she revealed in her memoirs, Close Up and Personal : "I'm pretty manic-depressive. I have moments of unconcern, followed by moments of sadness, and on it goes".

There was, too, the perpetual frustration, in her 20s and early 30s (at the height of her beauty), of being judged solely on her appearance,
"having people look at you rather than listen to you". She felt this most acutely when she first went to Hollywood. The idea of being a Hollywood movie star still makes her shudder; it is a place where, she believes, "everybody is obsessed by youth".

Yet, at the time it seems it was hard not to behave as people expected, such as throwing a tantrum when her hairdresser threatened to leave. "Well, yes, in my 20s I had such different preferences", she says. "I wanted to have my hair straight back, I wanted to wear a tailleur [suit], I wanted to be the perfect mother with a big home".

"After I turned 40 and the children grew up and I realised time was passing, it became a different story. No, not different story -- same story, just a different chapter".

Does that mean she is happier now ?

"Well, my 20s were more difficult and there is certainly more equilibrium now, but I still have highs and lows. Oh yes, I have to watch that", she says, the ruby knuckle-duster on her finger glinting in the sunlight as she adjusts her prescription sunglasses.

"You know, a doctor said something nice to me the other day : that the reason French people are the biggest consumers of sleeping pills and antidepressants is not because they give out more, but because the sensibility is different here".

"Maybe we don't try to fool ourselves. The problem with Prozac is that it has become a caricature, but when things become so much of a problem that you can't work any more, it's..." Her voice trails off, leaving the subject of whether she has been treated, like so many other subjects, elegantly opaque.

Although my time is supposed to be up, Deneuve seems in no hurry to curtail our surprisingly girly conversation. We talk of how she simply adores Stefano Pilati's interpretation of Yves Saint Laurent (to whom she was famously a muse in the 1970s), how Jean-Paul Gaultier is so kind and how his couture is "to die for", how Alber Elbaz at Lanvin makes the most wonderful things, but how, although she goes to all of the shows, she is a shy, insular person at heart.

We talk, too, of how exercise, gardening and cooking at her "island" (as she calls her farmhouse in Normandy) keep her from psychologically dipping; how Chiara, her son Christian and her two grandchildren are the most important things in the world; how she always sprays her pillows with nice scent.

There is this wonderful shop on the Rue de Grenelle called Frederic Malle. Have I been there ? I haven't ?
"Oh, but I will write it down for you and you must go immediately. Especially when it's such beautiful weather today. It is hard when it is like this not to be in a good mood, non ?"

Par : Christa D'Souza


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