|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
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
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
"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
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.