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Buñuel called her the Anglo-Saxon. In one film ("Belle De Jour "), he tethered her to a post and supervised a scene in which mud was thrown at her pristine gown and face. In another ("Tristana"), he shot her first as a pig-tailed ingenue and later as a mad, cynical scarlet woman.

Other men, too, have had fantasies about Catherine Deneuve, and they've regularly involved tarnishing her image as a chilly glamour-puss. Roman Polanski, for example, cast her in "Repulsion" as a beautiful and frigid woman who became a paranoid killer. The film critic David Thomson explains her particular appeal. "In her best work, she deserves a place with the most enchanting women of cinema, childlike, reserved, a novice on the way to the brothel", he wrote. "Deneuve is a fantastic actress, her beauty a receptacle for any imagination, perhaps the greatest cool blonde, forever hinting at intimations of depravity". Barely a headline goes by about Deneuve without her being referred to as the Ice Queen or the Ice Maiden. Adjectives follow : chilly, distant, cool, majestic. And throughout, critical assessment of her has been tangled up in sexual fantasy. For Thomson, as for Buñuel, there is wish fulfilment in these fantasies : she is the bourgeoise, perfectly swathed in Yves St Laurent, who wants to be a Jezebel.

Though she is still deeply familiar from her films and her ads for Chanel, few people know much about Deneuve since she has been so assiduous in protecting her privacy. True, she had a son with the director Roger Vadim, was married to David Bailey and had a daughter with Marcello Mastroianni. But her name doesn't appear in the gossip columns, she rarely speaks to the media, and where she has, it has sometimes been painful.

People who think I'm an ice queen have that impression from interviews, and because of "Belle De Jour". But if they would form an idea of me by seeing a lot of my films, it would be different.

In the beginning, it hurt me very much to be perceived as so cold, but then I realised it was quite helpful to be perceived as a person who does not feel familiar with people. It was better to have an approach that is in my real character: to be warm with people I feel close to, and not to be warm with everybody else. So, in a way, it was quite true.

Many people see me as a symbol, but I have much more of a republican image than a royal one. I haven't been married - apparently, she's forgotten her short stint with David Bailey - I had children without being married.

When I'm at home, I'm all right. I'm not treated like royalty. I drive my own car. I've lived in the same part of Paris, near St Sulpice, for 17 years. But when I go out of my territory, I protect myself, like an animal.

We're in a palatial hotel suite in Cannes, talking about "Les voleurs" ("Thieves"), in which she plays a philosophy professor embarking on her first lesbian relationship. She's wearing white espadrilles and tortoiseshell wraparounds which, despite the slate-grey afternoon, never come off.

It's no the first time Deneuve has played a lesbian in a career that spans four decades and 70 films (among her French contemporaries, only Gerard Depardieu has made more). In the 1983 film "The hunger" she played a lesbian vampire who sucked the blood of Susan Sarandon.

I've worked with strange directors. I've played strange parts, she says evenly.

It's not only men who've had their fantasies about Deneuve. As a result of her performance in "The hunger", she became a lesbian icon. Some women were so besotted with her that they set up a magazine called Deneuve, until the actress threatened legal action. In an out-of-court settlement in 1996, its name was changed to Curve. She insists, however, on clarifying her reaction.

It was very difficult for me as a woman to react against a lesbian magazine, but it was something commercial. They tried to use the fact that I had played lesbian roles in films, but it has nothing to do with my life. I wouldn't have let any magazine use my name.

And, in 1995, the US lesbian and gay magazine Advocate asked her whether she and Sarandon had used body doubles for the sex scenes. After she admitted that they had for some of the shots, the interviewer said : "Really ? Thousands of lesbians just read that and wept". In "Les voleurs" ("Thieves"), Deneuve portrays warm, middle-aged Marie, the lover of one of her students, Juliette (Laurence Cote), a professional thief on self-destruct who is as selfish as Marie is selfless. Marie offers herself completely to her beloved, but Juliette is engaged in a bestial affair with an unfeeling cop, Alex (Daniel Auteuil). Marie looks fleshy and wears almost no make-up, her hair often just matted down.

The light is hard sometimes, very, very harsh, Deneuve says, slightly embarrassed. When I saw the rushes, I was not always very happy. It worked, but sometimes a little too much.

It's obviously not easy to lose her glamour completely.

I ask her mischievously about the scenes in which she walks on crutches after she twists her ankle in a hospital lobby. Isn't Techine funny, to prop her on phallic symbols so that she can compete for Juliette's affection with Alex ? She emits an unexpected belly laugh.

But there was a real reason. I had a bad accident with my ankle before starting the film ! I had to begin with my two things for walking.

I tell her I now feel foolish.

Oh, no ! No ! I think psychologically it works. Very often, when you have to take care of someone who is ill, something happens to you.

Then that laugh again. Does she really understand someone like Marie ?

I do, she insists. I do understand that woman very well, even though I'm not like her, and I'm not an intellectual. She lacks the aggressivity that you need to survive in a normal world. She talks about it and she expresses it in the classroom, but she cannot live up to it. I know I have the aggressivity to survive. She is a tragic character, but she's not in despair.

I would feel very good to be loved by a person like that, by a woman like that - it's almost impossible to resist. Man or woman, there's no difference. Someone who is giving so much - it's very dangerous.

Deneuve has worked with many of the great French directors. She describes Francois Truffaut, for whom she made "Mississippi mermaid" and "The last metro", and Jacques Demy - whose "The umbrellas Of Cherbourg" made her famous - as directors with whom she had close professional and personal relationships. But her current mentor is Andre Techine. He's a close friend, and she's now made four films with him. In the last two, "Ma saison preferee" (1992) and now "Les voleurs", she has given a couple of her finest performances. In both films, she's played roles that are as far away from the ice maiden image as is possible to imagine. In the former, she plays an uptight, dowdy provincial notary who abandons a burned-out marriage and represses her desire for her brain-surgeon brother (Auteuil).

Techine waxes enthusiastically about Deneuve. "Catherine is like a blank sheet of paper which can be filled", he says, echoing David Thomson. "She's very reserved, and you have the feeling that there is always something left to reveal. She plays more with what she hides than with what she shows. She's like a mine you can dig endlessly".

"My work is to release her inhibitions, to make her less divine. In order to make her look as human and as natural as possible, I have to put her into situations of danger". So in "Les voleurs" Deneuve is forced into rubbing shoulders with the sleaziest of Lyons low-life. "She becomes more human, but also more mad", says Techine. "There is a dimension of madness in her". Auteuil adds : "Catherine throws herself into a scene like one throws oneself into the ocean: without control, without precautions. You think she's going to vanish, then, suddenly, she resuscitates herself". It sounds exhausting, and it is.

I'm so tense on the set that my energy goes very fast. So I need all the time I can get to sleep there. When I'm not working, I'm sleeping. I can sleep in a backroom. I can sleep in a chair.

Her ability to rest may explain why, at 54, she still looks so youthful. But that doesn't mean she's not worried about ageing.

If I said I wasn't, would you believe me ? It's a problem for everybody. When a man divorces at 50 to marry a 20-year-old girl, it's not a sexual thing : it's a fight against ageing. Women are horrified at getting older. So imagine what it is like for an actress, with such a visual aspect to the work.

But growing older does have some advantages.

When I was younger, falling in love and having a relationship was the most important thing. It's still important, but it's at a better place, a more correct distance. It doesn't pull you apart as it does when you are younger. And, as a woman of a certain age, you have to feel something.

Deneuve recently played a supporting part in Leos Carax's "Pola X", an adaptation of Herman Melville's Pierre Or The Ambiguities, which the director is editing now. She portrays the mother of actor Guillaume Depardieu (Gerard's son) in a story that contains suggestions of maternal incest and matricide.

Her real-life maternal impulses are rather less transgressive. She gets nervous about the acting careers of her son, Christian Vadim, and daughter, Chiara Mastroianni.

I'm very worried sometimes. There are so many young actors and actresses in France. But both of my children go to auditions, so at least they do something, even when they're not chosen. Because actors, when they are not working, are really doing nothing.

She found Chiara's small rôle in Gregg Araki's American indie film "Nowhere" amusing.

She has a wig, and she's playing a dominatrix. She was very scared, but she had fun.

Big laugh. It sounds like a role Mama might once have taken.

But what about the future ? She has plans, she says, to do a comedy.

It's with a French director. I can't tell you who, because I haven't signed yet, and I'm superstitious. But - here she becomes coy and impish - it will be a lot on homosexuality.

It was nearly impossible to translate the phrase "glutton for punishment". But, when she finally understood, Catherine Deneuve guffawed a lot.

Par : Howard Feinstein

Films associés : Les voleurs, Belle de jour, Tristana, Répulsion, Ma saison préférée, Les prédateurs, Pola X



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