People don't know very much
about me. They do not know what really goes on in my private life,
says 51-year-old French film sensation Catherine Deneuve
as she sits in her pink Saint Laurent suit in one of the several suites
she's taken over at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.
Most people still believe I am the person I have played
on-screen - whatever person they have liked the most. I enjoy that.
For many women, lesbians in particular, the career of the
elegant and enigmatic Catherine Deneuve did not take off with Jacques
Demy's 1964 French musical "The umbrellas of Cherbourg". Nor
did it begin with Roman Polanski's pathological 1965 "Repulsion",
nor with Luis Buñuel's "Belle de jour" - the shocking
1967 film Miramax is re-releasing this summer that Deneuve has come to
America to celebrate. It didn't even begin with her 1980 award winning
performance in Francois Truffaut's "The last metro". None of
these legendary films that so skilfully exploited the icy fire of Deneuve's
inscrutable presence -nor any that came between or after- marked the beginning.
Instead that cataclysmic event, which has now become part
of Lesbian lore, began when a luminous Deneuve, playing an aristocratic
vampire in Tony Scott's 1983 film "The hunger", swooped down
on an innocent and utterly bedazzled Susan Sarandon and for eight hot
minutes devoured her with explicit sex and unprecedented, everlasting
sensual enthusiasm. The she bit her, and the rest is history. "The
lesbian vampire has a long and honourable past," says Allure magazine
chiefwriter Lindsy Van Gelder, who authored one of the first articles
on lesbian chic in1992 - called, "Lipstick lesbians" - for the
Los Angeles Times Magazine. "The idea of a beautiful, predatory,
undead glamour-puss has been going on for some time, but it is surprising
how many lesbians I've interviewed mention "The hunger" and
That actress was born Catherine Dorleac on 22 October 1943
in Paris. The daughter of a veteran stage and screen actor and the younger
sister of Francoise Dorleac - a vivacious and popular actress killed in
a car accident in 1967 - Deneuve took her mother's maiden name and made
her screen debut at 13. After a series of small parts, the 16-year-old
ingenue met French film director Roger Vadim, who became her mentor and
lover. It is significant that Deneuve replaced Vadim's first wife, sex-kitten
actress Brigitte Bardot, in his life and on-screen, offering a new image
to cinemagoers. For while Bardot's appeal was the promise of availability,
Deneuve's most certainly is not. "Catherine is unattainable and represents
everyone's existential dilemma - wanting what we can't have", say
lesbian author and psychologist JoAnn Loulan. "There is this feeling,
and not just among lesbians, that if we could attain something we can
not have, then ourlives would be smooth and easy, we would be turned-on
all the time, and then we could even have great sex with Catherine Deneuve".
Indeed, Deneuve's remote femme-fatale persona has always
served her well. In the 70's her frosty elegance brought her to the attention
of Chanel, who had Richard Avedon photograph her draped over a bottle
of perfume. That incredibly successful campaign eventually led to the
launch of her own fragrance line, Deneuve.
I realize that I am better known for those advertisements
in this country that I am as an actress, she muses.
Liberated and independent in her
private life, Deneuve has been married only once - to British photographer
David Bailey. That brief interlude notwithstanding, she has declared,
"Marriage is obsolete and a trap". Instead, she bore children
by both Vadim (son, Christian, 32) and Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni
(daughter Chiara, 22) and refused to marry either one of them.
Still, a liberated heterosexual
lifestyle isn't necessarily a focus of fascination for lesbians.But perhaps
the secrecy that veils Deneuve's private life combined with the fearlessly
sensual lesbian love scene she did in "The hunger" - in which
she was the seducer, the corrupter, and the powerful one - does matter.
Ever since that movie, it has been very erotic and
provocative for people to wonder about my feelings for women, she says
But for many, watching "The hunger" caused more
than wondering about Deneuve. For some, it caused some wondering about
"I remember the first time
I saw "The hunger",says Guinevere Turner, cowriter and star
of "Go fish". I was 16, straight, and over at my boyfriend's
house. I had no idea a sex scene between two women was going to come on.
I was so blown away. I remember thinking, That's so sexy! I hope someday
I get to be gay so that I can do something like that". Comedian Suzanne
Westenhoefer had a similar revelation. "I watched the whole movie
with this platonic gay girlfriend of mine" she says. "We had
known each other since we were 18 and had never been attracted to each
other. After the love scene was over, we started looking at each other
very seriously. We couldn't help ourselves because it was so incredibly
Completely aware of the lesbian
firestorm she set off 12 years ago with "The hunger", Deneuve
is remarkably, though not unexpectedly, cool about the attention. Instead
of being opposed to taking on another film role in which she makes love
to a woman, La Deneuve has already done so.
I have just finish filming Andre Techine's newest film,
"Child of the night" ["Thieves"], in which I play
a philosophy teacher having a relationship with my female student, she
says without apprehension.
Have you ever talked to the
gay press before ?
Well, in Paris one time I did something for their Act Up movement to raise
money for Aids. But I did not do an interview. This is the first time
I have spoken with the gay press.
For a beautiful actress to have
the devotion of men - gay or straight - is not a new phenomenon. You have
distinguished yourself by having not only the men but the women - gay
and straight - as well. Why do you think that is ?
I really don't know. I think that in some films I've done, I've kind of
deceived some people - maybe gay or lesbian - to feel much closer to me
than to some other actresses. Of course, it is true that I have been involved
in some films other actresses would not have done.
Do you like women in general
Yes, I like women. I feel very close to women. I have been very supportive
of women's issues. I signed the French abortion paper in 1972 and took
a position about abortion at a very difficult time. I am very sad that
once again abortion is becoming very suspect. I find that incredible.
I think all these things have helped to make women have an image of me
that is different from other actresses.
Do you think that your role
in "Belle de jour" - where you are living a double life, being
a whore during the day without your husband knowing - resonates with some
gays and lesbians who hide parts of their lives from the world ?
Yes, I can see that. People are very fascinated with that aspect of the
film. They assume it is my way also. I am a very private person, so I
think that sort of helps to maintain this image of me living a secret
In "Belle de jour"
the brothel Madame, played by Genevieve Page, obviously has a thing for
you. You actually grab her and try to kiss her at one point. Did this
cause any lesbian interest in you when the film came out in 1967 ?
No. That didn't start until after I did "The hunger". I think
it was because the love scene between the women was so beautiful in "The
hunger". I think Tony Scott, the director, made such a visually beautiful
film, especially at that time, because it was a vampire story. I love
vampire stories. That 's why I did the movie. Women especially were taken
with that movie - even more so when it came out on video. They always
ask me to sign the cassette box of that video.
Susan Saradon did an interview
with "The Advocate" in 1991, and she said the press kept asking
if she had to get drunk to go to bed with you. She told them that was
ridiculous. Why would anybody have to get drunk to sleep with Catherine
[laughs] Oh, yes, I feel the same about her. The relationship I had with
Susan Sarandon was very good. and I think something came out of it onto
the screen. You can tell. There was something very natural between us.
She is a very warm lady. It was a very long shoot, and neither of us was
in our own countries, so we spent a lot of time together. Afterward, we
saw each other and wrote to each other. We have a bond. I have a picture
of her children in my home. She is always in my mind and heart. Also I
think the scene we did was very sophisticated and good-looking. I think
it was a very idealistic image of women together, a very good thing to
have on film for homosexuality.
It's interesting that lesbians
watching "The hunger" did not - at least at the time - grab
on to Sarandon the way they did to you.
I do not know why, but it is true.
You didn't even play a lesbian.
You played a vampire.
Yes, but even at the time, when the film was first released, I could tell
in interviews that the women did not see it that way. I could feel it
in the questions. They were not thinking of me as a vampire. I had become
a symbol for lesbians.
Have you ever heard of the phrase
lesbian chic ?
No. Oh, do you mean gay women who go with men as well ?
[Laughs] Well, no, but who knows
? That would become chic, too. I'm sure every lesbian would give you a
slightly different definition, but it refers to a trend that started in
the '80's, when some lesbians consciously took back some of the things
usually associated with straight women. Things like fashion, makeup, femininity
Oh, yes, now I know what you mean.
Do you think you might have
helped to create an early picture of lesbian chic in lesbian's minds because
you are very beautiful and feminine and you did an erotic love scene with
another woman ?
It is true that before "The hunger", the film image of a lesbian
was always very masculine. She would have to dress like a man. If there
was going to be a woman who liked a woman, then she had to look like a
man. "The hunger"had a very strong image of beautiful women,
so perhaps it is true. Suddenly, there was a woman looking like a woman
and liking women. Yes, I showed you can be beautiful and be a lesbian.
Maybe I did that.
When an actress plays the owner of a rubber plantation,
the way you did in "Indochine", no one asks her if she really
owns a rubber plantation. But when an actress plays a seduction scene
with another woman, the way you did in "The hunger", everyone
wants to know if she is a lesbian.
Isn't that true! I think anything that has to do with sexuality makes
people very interested. When you are working on the sexual side of a character,
things become very complicated. When you have to touch and kiss someone
in a film, it is not any longer something that belongs to the character.
It belongs to you, because it is a continuation of your physical self,
your desire. Some people fall in love with their costars and feel things
that they never thought they would feel for them because they are touching.
I may know an actor for years, and then we'll do a film together with
a love scene, and I am astonished. It's not necessarily a sexual thing
that happens to you, but it has to do with the fact that you touch and
kiss and can be physically taken by someone-because we don't touch each
other like that in real life, unless, of course, we really are lovers.
So people questioned your sexuality after "The
Yes, there were many questions. In the film, I just finished for Andre
Techine, "Child of the night" ["Thieves"] - he also
directed "Wild reeds" - I play a teacher who is in love with
her pupil, a girl.
I'm glad to hear this, because I was wondering whether you would ever
dare to play another romantic role with a woman after "The hunger".
Well, you are the first person I'm telling this to. And I do have concerns
about talking about it beers if I say that I am doing this movie where
I play a teacher, there are not many questions. If I say I will be playing
a love scene with another woman where there is kissing and touching, then
suddenly it isn't about the film. It is personal to me. It's not anymore
the role but the actress. It is all about me touching another woman.
(Laughs) Still, you're doing it again.
(Laughs) Oh, yes! I do yet another roll with a woman, and the questions
will come. Well, it is normal, really, sex being so important. It is still
a big question mark about me. It is something people will talk about forever--and
not just because of "The hunger". That's why I think "Belle
de jour" is such an important film for me. You can look at it today
and still find it relating to the fantasies of women and men--but mostly
You've said that you are concerned that women might
have a problem with "Belle de jour" in the '90s because of the
Yes, because prostitution is something that happens to you because of
troubles you had when you were young. In reality no woman would choose
to do that just for pleasure.
There's a split-second scene with your character
as a child, and it seemed as if she as being molested. Is that true ?
Yes, that is why it is not a choice for her. All women who do extreme
things like kill or have sexual obsessions or who are prostitutes have
trouble with their fathers. Even if a woman is abused a very long time
ago, it comes out in her life in a negative way. Some women get into relationships
where they are physically hurt. Women are talking more about this because
a long time ago they didn't dare.
Do you think this private side you've maintained
has helped to create interest in you from lesbians too ?
Oh, yes. And women know that I like women. I have very, very close women
friends, and so people often say of me that I only like women. It is something
that appeals to people. Me being an actress, not being married but having
children, means I have this whole other side, this secret, private life.
People still wonder. And the less I tell them, the more the wonder grows.
People actually think you are gay ? I mean, I know lesbians hope you are,
but do they actually think you are ?
Oh, yes. If I go out with a man three times, they don't immediately say
that he is my lover. But if they see me in a private situation or going
on a holiday with a woman, they say, "Oh, yes, I think she is!"
They ask you if you are a lesbian ?
No, they don't dare ask me that to my face. Never in France, because the
press is different from the way the press is here. But sometimes I can
But you have a very public heterosexual life.
But I don't really let people see it.
You say you are very close with women. Where do
you draw the line? Have you had moments of knowing what it would be like
to be in love with another woman ?
The word "love" means many things to me.
Have you ever had a physical romance with a woman
I cannot imagine having a physical relationship with a woman. I have not
done that. But I really love women. I have a very strong relationship
with a woman that I have known for a long time. I knew her for some time
before I knew that she was a lesbian, but that never changed anything
about my relationship with her.
Do you know what the word closeted means ?
To close ?
Oh, that's interesting. Well, sort of. It's when
people know they are gay, but they don't want other people to know...
Oh, yes, yes. I understand, but in my opinion they should not be pushed.
I know here in America you are very strong about publicly pushing women
to openly say that they are gay, but I don't agree. I think that is wrong.
I think it is very shocking.
But the other side of this is that there is strength
in numbers. People have no idea how many people in this world are gay.
Yes, that's very true.
If a woman is gay and she does wonderful work in
the world, something that other people would admire, she could be a role
model for young gays and lesbians who are desperate for people to admire.
The suicide rate among gay teens is high.
I didn't know that. I thought it was much easier today to be open.
It is, but still there are relatively few role
models for young people.
Yes, it is very hard. We are in a society that is ruled by men, and the
image that people have of a woman is that she is married and has children.
It is a problem for gays; I do know that. I have a lot -no, no, not a
lot - but a few very good homosexual friends. I know one intellectual
who told me he cannot tell people while his mother is still alive.
That is very sad.
Yes, but why should you force...
No, not force...
No, not force, but push someone to be officially recognized as being homosexual
? I think to have a public life, you still have the right to have a private
life. And some people have been talked about before they have decided
they are ready themselves. They have been pushed before they are ready
to... to go out ?
Yes, come out. To me that is not right.
If a friend of yours came to
you - and she was a closeted romantic-lead film actress - and told you
that she was considering coming out, how would you advise her ?
I would tell her that she would have to choose carefully whether to reveal
something that is still, in our profession, difficult to be - without
having a lot of trouble. You see, it is still a man's profession in France.
Even if there are a lot women in films, there are few who are lesbians
- that people know about.
Yes, that's the point. No one knows about them
if they don't come out.
I think she would have to choose carefully because she would have to fight
for it, for her career. If you are an actress and people know you are
a lesbian, many people in the audience would not be able to forget-when
they watch you-that you like women even though maybe you are kissing a
man in the film. The filmmakers would say, "No, we cannot have her
play the lover of this man. The public would not believe what they see".
This is why it is good for the public not to know very much about your
private life. You should be able to have a big range to be believed in
many different roles.
But we know other things about actors and actresses
that don't stop us from believing them on-screen. If we see Clint Eastwood
and Meryl Streep kissing, we don't say, "Oh, I can't watch that I
know they are really in relationships with other people".
But that is different, because people expect to see a man kissing a woman.
It is what people believe. If they know that an actor really only likes
men, they will not believe him making love to a woman in a film.
People believed you making love to a woman in "The
Yes but they do not know that much about me. People don't think I am a
vampire, but people don't know what goes on in my private life.
So, what would you advise your friend ? Not to
come out ?
(Pauses) No, but I would tell her it is going to be a problem. Are you
ready to fight for your career ? You are going to have to be very open
about it and very committed. You are going to have more troubles getting
the parts you want than someone who is not gay, so you are going to have
to fight a lot of people who are very conventional.
You would support her in this fight ?
Yes, I would say, "I'm sure you can do it, but you are going to have
to fight hard for it".
There is a persistent rumour that you used a body
double in the sex scenes with Susan Sarandon in "The hunger",
is that true ?
There was a body double, yes. We both used body doubles. It is true. I
Really ? Thousands of lesbians just read that and
Not the whole bed scene, no, but there were some images with body doubles.
Have you ever witnessed any homophobia on the set
of a film you worked on ?
(Pauses) What is homophobia ?
It's a fear of homosexuals that usually leads to
some kind of discrimination against them.
Yes, I've seen it. People do this sometimes without even knowing it, you
now. There is an incredible, conventional attitude that people have about
homosexuals to the point where you have to say something to someone. But
then sometimes if you do, if you get into a discussion about this attitude,
it makes it worse. People get more upset.
So you don't say anything ?
What ? Oh, no, they would never say this in front of me ! But I've heard
about it ; people tell me things. But no, no one ever is...
Yes, homophobic around me. Because to tell you the truth, I am not shy.
I have a big mouth. I would not stand for someone to humiliate a homosexual
man or woman in front of me, ever. It is something I cannot stand. I am
a Libra, and I cannot stand anything that is unfair. I want to ask you
something. Have you ever heard of the lesbian magazine Deneuve?
Yes, of course you have ! Well, I am suing them.
You're suing Deneuve magazine ?
Yes, in France. They are trying to bring the magazine to France now, and
it is not fair. They are using my name, and my name is a commodity. You
cannot do that.
Well, it's strange that you're telling me this,
because I called the editor in chief of Deneuve for background information
on her magazine before this interview. And she told me that the magazine
isn't named after you. She said it was named after her first girlfriend.
Yes, yes, I know they say that. They say that it is some friend or lover
of something, but that does not matter. Everyone thinks it is me. Didn't
Yes, I did. In fact, I was shocked when she told
me otherwise, I even asked her if she thought people buying Deneuve knew
it wasn't named after Catherine Deneuve, and she said, "No one thinks
Deneuve is named after Catherine Deneuve".
That is ridiculous ! No one thinks it is anybody but me.
But this is going to be very tricky for you, because
it will look like the big guy going after the little guy.
Yes, I know, and it is a lesbian magazine, so lesbians will think I am
suing them. It's not true. It does not matter what the product is - whether
it is perfume or a magazine. My name is a commodity, and you cannot put
it on something without my permission. It is not fair. I hope people will
understand the real issue here.
I hope so too. Many gay men and women have had
loved ones lost to AIDS and breast cancer. You had a tragic loss early
in your adult life you your sister was killed in a car accident. I realize
this was a long time ago for you, and you've never talked about it. Still,
a grieving process is a grieving process. How did you manage to deal with
this loss ?
Yes, I don't talk of this, but I will tell you something : it was terrible.
I was very young, and she died violently, so it was quite awful for me.
Now, I have lost friends to AIDS, and I have been again living through
those painful sensations. What is very different for me today is that
there are other people to grieve with. There are so many friends who have
also lost people to AIDS and, yes, cancer, that we can share this. When
my sister was killed, I didn't have people to share my pain with, so I
kept it inside. I was young, and I was working on a film and only had
one or two days to mourn. But it was a bad thing, being alone with this
pain. Years later it caught up to me. It took over my life. It was a very
difficult time for me. So I would like to say that even though this epidemic
is a terrible thing, something good has come out of it. It has taught
people how to grieve with each other. People are learning to share this
long process. That is incredibly important. I wish I had known about sharing
pain when I lost my sister. I am very, very grateful to know how to do
this much better now.