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The grande dame and the boy genius

Meeting Catherine Deneuve for the first time is a little like getting a private audience with the Pope or the Queen of England, only a lot more exciting. And glamorous.

For going on half a century, Deneuve has been the embodiment of feminine elegance and charisma, the personification of idealized French womanhood. In the 70's she was the official face of Chanel and the personal inspiration of Yves St Laurent. In the 80's, her face served as the model for Marianne, the symbol of the Republic who appears on French stamps, coins and statues.

Catherine Deneuve is, to abuse a well-worn cliche one more time, a legend in her own time - a fact that causes a tinge or two of anxiety at the prospect of meeting her face to face. The anxiety is amplified by the occasional report of her notoriously diva-ish behavior when dealing with the press.

Deneuve is in Toronto to promote the American release of her new film, "8 femmes" (Eight Women), which is the highest grossing movie in France and opens in the Bay area this week. As I wait for the star to arrive, counting the minutes... 10 minutes late, 15 minutes, 20... my mind fills with stories of Madame D. being ushered into press conferences covered head to toe in concealing scarves and wearing dark glasses, then demanding the lights be turned as low as possible and refusing to speak in anything above a whisper.

That person bore no resemblance to the woman who finally entered the room and sat down in the seat next to me for a roundtable interview.

Deneuve is a friendly, energetic 60-year-old woman, still beautiful and quite at ease among a crowd of commoners, quick to smile and to engage a lowly journalist's eye. She's dressed in a simple but elegant tan colored slip dress, with an enormous topaz ring on her finger. The icon sports a nasty looking burn on her wrist (and no, I never ask her about it). We're sitting in a no-smoking suite at the Four Seasons hotel, but no one says a word to Deneuve as she lights up the first in a series of Philip Morrises and proceeds to nonchalantly puff away.

"Eight women" is a very strange bird. The movie is an absurdly colorful, elaborately stylized musical that also happens to be an Agatha Christie-like whodunnit, in which a house full of females are all suspects in the murder of the movie's lone male. The characters are anything but normal, and Deneuve dives right into the subject of playing someone so potentially off-putting.

The character was so far from me or anyone I know, anything I feel, so that in a way it was really liberating to be playing such a strange woman, she laughs. The relationships she has with people is so far from me that it was easier to really make her out as a little monster.

A monster ?
I see all of the them as monsters,she says. All of the women in the movie are incredibly selfish and unpleasant. I think it's a great film for actresses, but I don't think it's an homage to women. It's an homage to actresses.

Deneuve's distinction is dead on. "Eight women" is a veritable who's-who of some of the biggest female stars in France - besides Deneuve, there's Isabelle Huppert, Danielle Darrieux, Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Beart and Virginie Ledoyen, just to name a few. We can't resist asking Deneuve if it was difficult for that many famous egos to co-exist peacefully.

No, she answers quickly. That was the first question that all the journalists in France asked when the film was released, expecting we would all have some witty, nasty things to say. But the film happened really in a much different atmosphere. It was like a big, strange family. We all wanted the film to work and to be right.

"Eight women" was directed by Francois Ozon, a filmmaker often considered the bad boy of French cinema. Ozon, best known here for "Under the sand", is a sleeker, more polished version of what Ranier Werner Fassbinder was to Germany a few decades ago. Like Fassbinder, he's a cinematic wunderkind : young, gay, insanely talented, prolific and often provocative to the point of subversion. We ask Deneuve what appealed to her about working with Ozon.

I don't think there are many people who are really cineastes, she replies, you know ? A lot of people want to make films but they don't have a vision of their work or what they want to do in their films. Ozon is a moviemaker. He has a vision.

Ozon looks more like a movie star than a filmmaker. The director is boyishly handsome, tan, dressed in a stylish but casual combination of jeans and dark designer jacket, and immediately takes issue with Deneuve's impression of the film's women as monsters.

"I think they're not only black or white", he insists. "They are many things. Maybe for the actresses it's easier to say they're monsters in order to have distance between themselves and the characters. But I think there are many different parts of humanity in the film. There's a lot of game playing, but there is reality too".

Ozon claims that his new movie came about because of a desire to do a "female script." We wonder why he was so keen to immerse himself in a project with so many women in it.

"Because of my experience with Under the sand," he replies. "I had a wonderful relationship with Charlotte Rampling and I love to work with actresses like her. She's a star and a woman too. It was very interesting to me, the idea of how to film a star so that you forget the star. For Eight Woman, I wanted to do exactly the opposite. I didn't want you to ever forget the fact that you had some stars on the screen. I wanted to make a film about the actresses too."

The outrageous theatricality of "Eight women" can be traced to the movie being based on an old stage play, one that no one even remembers these days. Ozon thinks there's good reason for the play's obscurity but doesn't particularly care.

"I thought the play was tacky", admits Ozon, "but I loved the fact that you had eight women together, a man is killed, and one of the eight is the killer. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to put out all my obsessions about women, about family, about actresses in that story.

"I try each time I do a film to make something new, to experiment and have a kind of challenge," he adds. "But I don't have the feeling the films are so different. For example, I think Under the Sand and Eight Women are exactly the same film. The treatment of the story's not the same, but in both films a man disappears and then a woman tries to change her life."

Ozon may be underplaying the leap from his last film to "Eight women", but there's no getting around that the director is clearly in awe of the great actresses he's working with this time, particularly Catherine Deneuve. Was it maybe even just a bit intimidating, we ask, directing a star of her stature ?

"I didn't have time to think about that, because we shot the film so fast. If I'd had time to be able to stop to think, 'Oh my God, she's made films with Bunuel, with Truffaut, Polanski!' - I would have been paralyzed".

As for the legend herself, Deneuve is quite happy with her current position and place, a woman on the far side of middle age, and far from Hollywood. For all her success in Europe, Deneuve has never seemed much interested in doing movies on this side of the Atlantic.

I haven't been offered parts that have been interesting enough to work in America, she explains. And especially today it's even more difficult, because here after the age of 40, you can almost forget about being an actress. There is an incredible refusal of growing old on screen, as in life, for American people.

An artiste to the end, Deneuve ages with courage as well as grace, putting herself on the line with interesting projects like "Eight women", even when she finds some of the nuances of those projects troubling. Deneuve continues to maintain that the portrait of women in Ozon's movie is deliberately unflattering, and we can't resist asking where she thinks that comes from.

I suppose since it's by a gay man you could look at the film and say, ' "Well, of course, he doesn't like women' - which in a way is true, she says. Ozon, he likes women, yes, but he doesn't love them. It's true you could say there's a kind of revenge in the way he decides to show things, especially when he's so excessive in the film with his decision to show women behaving like that. You expose yourself when you decide to do that. But he shows them very appealing too.

In other words, we offer, the surface is beautiful.

The surface is beautiful, yes, she muses, staring at her cigarette, lost in the complexities of Ozon's world, but they're basically very dark.

And then the diva's spirits seem to lift, as if realizing this particular train of thought is probably getting a little too "heavy", as the Americans say. But it's only a film, she says with a laugh, getting up and leaving the room, her cigarette still burning in the ashtray.

Par : Lance Goldenberg

Film associé : Huit femmes


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