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Hello, I'm Catherine Deneuve

For one of the world's most beautiful women, Catherine Deneuve talks awfully, awfully fast. The icon of French chic is still gorgeous enough at 49, as her American publicist puts it, "to make you sick." But perched on the sofa in her Los Angeles hotel suite, the Parisian actress who has come to symbolize French womanhood on a global scale is talking, talking, talking (about film, about France, about Hollywood, about the difference between European and American stardom and the startling fact that you can get a meal in the U.S. at almost any hour) with the slightly bored, agitated air of someone who has heard it all before.

In America, she says pronouncing it Ah-mer-eek-a, it is never too young, never too rich.

Rich as in reech.

Maybe it's the language differences, although Deneuve's English seems pretty up to speed, that causes her to be given to these kind of sweeping generalities delivered with a certain obvious impatience.

On her position in French cinema :

In France I am very loved, very privileged.

On the many famous European directors she has worked with :

I have been lucky enough to do films with directors who write their own stories.

On being an older actress :

It is nicer to grow old in Europe. In America, it is always the question "The face-lift ?"

Well, perhaps Deneuve's rectitude is simply the result of her first working visit to the United States in four years, to promote her latest film, "Indochine", an epic saga of France's occupation of Indochina in the 1930s written for Deneuve by director and screenwriter Regis Wargnier.

I have done so many interviews, the actress says somewhat wearily. The meaning of life, the meaning of a woman's life - everything except what you supposed to be talking about, work and promotion for a film. Even in France, where people are used to talking about personal feelings, I don't answer many things.

Indeed, Deneuve's defense of her briskly businesslike behavior on this recent afternoon could also serve as a tartly worded subtitle to her screen presence. Her ethereal beauty notwithstanding, the Deneuve persona has been consistently, coldly aloof throughout her 30-year career. She has been called "the ice queen" by more than one reviewer and her acting theories, based on nuance and a minimalist approach toward behavior, seem to bear that out.

I try not to think that I am acting, but that I am the person. And instead of giving the audience your fantasies completely (in a performance), I think it is more interesting to give them a place where they can imagine things instead of knowing everything. But maybe that is very French.

The actress's best performances - Jacques Demy's "The umbrellas of Cherbourg," for which she won a Palme d'Or award at Cannes in 1964, Roman Polanski's 1965 thriller "Repulsion" and Luis Buñuel's surrealist fairy tale "Belle de jour" in 1967-have capitalized on her impassive but singular physicality, using it as a prism through which repressed passion, and particularly sexual passion, has been filtered.

Polanski said that he cast Deneuve as the schizophrenic young woman who becomes a murderer, "because I needed an angelic girl who could kill a man with a razor". Buñuel, who is Spanish by birth, is said to have found in Deneuve "an Anglo-Saxon, someone with a static visage, a constant deadpan", as the actress herself once put it.

It is a peculiarly Gallic persona, this opaque siren, and one that has been buttressed by the actress's off-screen life. Although Deneuve was married to the British photographer David Bailey for five years in the late 1960s, her better-known relationships include a liaison with director Roger Vadim, who directed Deneuve in the films "Le vice et la vertu" and "Et Satan conduit le bal" when she was still only a teen-ager and with whom she has a son, Christian. She also had an affair with actor Marcello Mastroianni, her co-star in Nadine Trintignant's "It only happens to others" and the father of her daughter, Chiara, born in 1972.

Indeed, American audiences tend to know the actress largely by reputation. Only a handful of Deneuve's foreign-made films met with significant box office in the United States., and her infrequent forays into Hollywood films - "The April Fools" with Jack Lemmon in 1969 and "Hustle" with Burt Reynolds in 1975 - have not been successful. Until the release of "Indochine" here this month, Deneuve's most recent film to attract a major international audience was Francois Truffaut's "The last metro" in 1980, which paired the actress with that other French cinematic icon, Gerard Depardieu.

There is no such thing as a Hollywood career for a French actress today, says Deneuve, suddenly turning voluble. You can come here and do films like Juliette Binoche, but you can't come here and have a career.

Deneuve's reasoning for this diminution of opportunity is not dissimilar to the arguments voiced by some American actresses.

It's because you don't sign with studios anymore, she says. I remember when I did "Umbrellas of Cherbourg", I signed a contract with Fox. At the time, actresses would be proposed different scripts because they had to use you. Sure it had some inconvenience, but actors made films they might not ever make if they weren't under contract. Now, only individual producers choose and actors are left on their own.

Deneuve also sees key differences between Hollywood and the highly subsidized French film industry where the actress has made nearly all of the 70 films that compose her career.

In France, the box office, yes it's important, but it does not mean everything. Because we are making more middle-budget films, we are allowed to do films that are not so popular. I wouldn't call them mistakes, but they are smaller. In America it is very brutal if you make a film or two and they are not good at the box office.

Her own current profile in this country, she concedes, is largely due to the advertisements she made in the early 1970s for Chanel and Lincoln Mercury.

Yes, "the image", says Deneuve, who will be seen next year in promotions for Yves Saint Laurent products. This beautiful woman coming from Europe. But that is because Americans have not seen me so much in film, they think of me from still pictures in advertisements.

Perhaps that is why Deneuve is talking so animatedly here in her Los Angeles hotel suite-a bit of counterintelligence. Seated on an overstuffed sofa that is actually a bit too high for the 5-foot-4 actress, Deneuve keeps pushing herself back into its slippery confines with her sockless feet clad in some rather ordinary loafers. Her entire outfit, a navy pin-stripe suit, white silk blouse and a turquoise plastic Swatch watch, is less minimalist chic than cobbled together. Although her face is still radiantly beautiful (she is coy about any questions of plastic surgery), it seems at odds with her bourgeois ensemble and her unserene demeanor. She punctuates her rapid-fire conversational style with bursts of tinkly laughter and a girlish way of twirling a strand of her honey-colored hair, which after years of being worn in her signature page-boy is now cropped close.

You see, she says triumphantly. People always think of me as dressed in Saint Laurent going to a premiere. That's true and it's not true. I get fat and I have to exercise. It is good you met me, that you see I can wear a Swatch. That is maybe the most important thing you learned about me today.

Deneuve's just-plain-folks demurrers aside, the actress enjoys the status of superstar in France, where she has also become something of an emblem for the nation as a whole. Her image now graces stamps and, seven years ago, she replaced Brigitte Bardot as the model for Marianne, the symbol of the Republic and something of the French equivalent of the Statue of Liberty.

Although Deneuve is reluctant to address what seems to be her iconhood - "I'm very privileged," she says again - it is largely because the actress has come to represent France both at home and to the rest of the world that Wargnier wrote "Indochine", and the character of Eliane Devries, specifically for the actress. Her portrayal of Eliane, the owner of a rubber plantation outside Saigon during the French-colonial occupation of Indochina and a woman who maintains a fierce attachment to her adopted country and its people, serves as a metaphor for that larger, but equally fraught relationship between France and Southeast Asia.

The role was written for me, says Deneuve, who first met Wargnier, who has only two previous directing credits, several years ago when he was working as an assistant to director Claude Chabrol. He asked me if I would do a film for him one day and I said, "Yes, why not ?"

While Deneuve suggests that the impetus for "Indochine" began with the film's producer, Eric Heumann, "who had a grandfather who had a plantation over there", she credits Wargnier, who co-wrote and directed the film, with pegging the epic's narrative to a middle-aged woman. "He is the one who said "If it is possible for me to write a part for Catherine Deneuve, I want the film to be about her". "

Indeed, Deneuve does seem to be the ideal personification of Eliane, a fiercely independent woman of means charged with the raising of her adopted daughter, Camille, a Vietnamese princess (played by Vietnamese actress Linh Dan Pham). Although "Indochine" is a historical epic-the film is set in Vietnam just prior to the communist revolution-it is also freighted with melodrama. When Camille unwittingly falls in love with her own stepmother's lover, a French naval officer (portrayed by French actor Vincent Perez), and bears his child out of wedlock, Eliane is forced from her position of jealous lover by her growing maternal feelings. Deneuve's performance is a subtly nuanced one that ranges from sensuality to loss to steely resolve.

Eliane is a woman from today, but also a woman from the '30s, says Deneuve, who spent two months filming "Indochine" in Hanoi and Halong Bay last spring. She is like those English women who lived in Africa-wealthy but not extravagant, yet really on their own; fragile, but strong at the same time. She has a lot of power and a lot of advantages because she is rich. She also has a lot of cultural complexities : she is not French in the sense that she is born in Asia, and while she is not Asian, she feels closer to the native people than the French colonials because they are very social and bourgeois. Also, the big dedication of her life is raising this child that she adopted. She is a woman who is not married raising a child who is not her child.

Despite France's long history in Southeast Asia, Deneuve found the film's location shoot last year to be something of an eye-opener.

Indochina has always been an attraction because of the colonialization-mysterious and erotic. But because of the Vietnam War I never imagined Hanoi to be such an incredibly romantic place, so green, so beautiful and so French with all the French colonial buildings.

Deneuve also experienced a welcome dose of non-star treatment in Vietnam.

That was nice, to be on the street and people don't know you. There are almost no cinemas in Hanoi and it had been a long time since I felt just like one tourist.

Yet such anonymity aside, portraying Eliane Devries, another sensual, emotional complex woman with a steely core, can perhaps be seen as the ultimate Deneuve's screen persona ?

You mean, detached ? she asks, speaking as much for herself as her character. I think that women who have to deal with a big amount of people have to compartmentalize themselves. You have to have an attitude of strength in a way, because you are supposed to direct and organize the life of people in that way, aloof. It doesn't mean much, it's just an attitude.

Her answer all but begs the question - where does the persona end and the person begin ?

Well, it must be something in my character as well.

Tracing the roots of Deneuve's screen persona in her personal life is an exercise of limited options. She has described her upbringing-she was the third of four daughters born to a pair of stage actors, Maurice Dorleac and Renee Deneuve-as "bourgeois". The Dorleac family divided its time between an apartment in Paris' 16th Arrondissement and a country house, and Deneuve attended private Catholic schools like many a Parisian student. Her half-hearted foray into acting, made when she was just 13, a role in the film, "Les collégiennes", was largely the result of Deneuve's following in the path of her older sister Francoise, who was determined to become an actress like her parents and with whom Deneuve was very close.

I was too young, says Deneuve, who took her mother's maiden name as her professional name. I didn't think acting was for me because I didn't know what I wanted to do. My sister was older and she was an actress, but I was much more (into) dreaming about things.

The two sisters made several films together after their debut in the low-budget film "Les portes claquent" in 1960. When she was 17, Deneuve met Vadim, already a well-known director, with whom she made two films and had her son, Christian, in 1962. Despite social pressure, Deneuve refused to marry the director - a difficult time in her life that she is reluctant to discuss today.

It happened and I just faced it, she says. Even though I was very shy, there were things that I just didn't want to go through. I am not that different today than when I was 20. My private life has always been a big part of my life, but it is a private story and I don't discuss it.

Indeed, it wasn't until she met director Jacques Demy and was cast as the heroine of his 1964 musical, "The umbrellas of Cherbourg", that Deneuve became famous-she won the best actress award at Cannes that year-and began to take herself seriously as an actress.

Jacques made me believe in me, Deneuve says. I was so young and so shy and had such a complicated life, he made me feel special about acting and after ("The umbrellas of Cherbourg"), which was such a big success, it was like instant recognition everywhere, I felt very different. I remember even the shooting of the film was very special.

It was also with Demy that Deneuve made her last film with her sister Francoise, "Les demoiselles de Rochefort", in 1966. The film was not a success and Francoise was killed in a car accident just a few months after its completion - a seminal event for the 24-year-old Deneuve, whose marriage to David Bailey broke up the following year.

She went on to make dozens of films, the most successful during her stints working with Polanski, Buñuel and Truffaut. Yet Deneuve grows testy when it is suggested that her best work was the result of these collaborations.

I'm sure they were important films, she says. But I think I was doing many important films afterward. People always say Buñuel because Buñuel is Buñuel. It was fine, he likes actors but he doesn't like to bother with them too much, which is fine with me as long as I have the impression that we are doing the same film and the script is good.

(But) I don't have favorites. Some films I prefer. I like very much the film ("Hotel des Amériques" in 1981) with André Téchiné and even the comedy I made with Jean-Paul Rappeneau ("Lovers like us" in 1975) was something very helpful and important to me. I am not a comic actress but I think it is very good for actors to do comedy. And sometimes it is important for actors what you have learned (on your own).

Today, Deneuve makes a film a year, but like many actors, she says :

There is so much to do now to make a film. You have to read scripts more and meet more people. Before, your agent signed a contract but now, actors have to get much more involved. And you spend a lot of time on things that might never happen.

She adds that for her to agree to a film :

I have to like the director - I can't say yes to a film without knowing the director. And I have to be more sure of the story than the characters, because I think that a film is first a story with characters - not only my character.

Deneuve also concedes that despite the vagaries of a French star working in Hollywood today she would like to make another American film.

I would love to, she says, but it's not a decision I can make, it's a question of opportunity.

She also is unsentimental about the current American appetite for foreign-language films.

It has changed, she says, referring to the heyday of the French New Wave. I don't think Americans go see a French film today. They don't like subtitles and in France we are used to it. American cinema is very important in Europe but I don't think Americans are pushing to get French films in America.

The conversation turns for a moment to her personal life, or as much as it can with Deneuve, who has lived a very private life for the past several years in an apartment in Paris' chic St. German de Pres neighborhood.

When I'm not working, I'm working, she laughs. Things take a lot of time and we do things in a smooth way in Paris. You lose a lot of time in the cafe and talking and we chat a lot and before you can have a serious meeting you have three other meetings and a week is only five days and there is so much to do with photography and publicity and journalists and the telephone, that's the worst. I spend so much time on the telephone.

It is only with some prodding that Deneuve discusses her children, who have both embarked on acting careers :

My son at the moment is in theater and my daughter, she is 20, just started, she did one film

- and concedes that yes, she is a grandmother now, a subject about which she seems decidedly ambivalent.

I love children, grandchildren. But I don't know what it means to be a grandmother. It's just a word.

It is a topic that leads to a discussion of aging and being an older actress.

If I said, "No (it doesn't bother me)", that would be a lie. I don't know any woman who does not care about getting old and I don't think I have anything more to say than the common sense of any woman. For actresses like Meryl Streep, it is difficult to get parts and time is harder on a woman here than in Europe. In France, if you are living with the same group of people you don't have the feeling they are looking at you the way people do who don't know you. But I think the most difficult thing is if you meet people and they just stare.

As if to illustrate her point, Deneuve suddenly bounces up from the sofa and heads outside trailing a photographer and her interviewer.

I think you have asked me enough, she says laughing. You know everything, now I want to ask you questions.

Deneuve parks herself at a table on her hotel terrace and with a disapproving squint at the sun - "This is not the best time to have your picture taken" - clamps on a pair of dark glasses and with her elbows firmly on the table, begins firing away.

Why do you live in Los Angeles ? Do you like it ? Why don't you go to New York ?

With the tape recorder turned off, the conversation, perhaps inevitably, turns to a discussion of French and American women and their different eating habits.

Oh, we exercise, she says. It's just that French women are quieter. It's not like in America with those big gyms. But all European women will tell you they put on weight here. American women eat so much bread, so much sugar and so much drinks. L.A. (restaurants) I don't know too well, but in New York I like to eat in delicatessens because what I like is you can eat at any time.

Deneuve breaks into peals of laughter at this revelation, all but shattering her ice queen image.

That is dangerous, she adds, checking her Swatch. But now, I'm going to go eat a big American lunch.

Par : Hilary de Vries

Films associés : Indochine, Les parapluies de Cherbourg, Les demoiselles de Rochefort, Hôtel des Amériques, La vie de château, Répulsion, Le vice et la vertu, Et Satan conduit le bal, Ca n'arrive qu'aux autres, Belle de jour, Folies d'avril, La cité des dangers

Documents associés

Jacques Demy
Jean-Paul Rappeneau
Luis Buñuel
André Téchiné
Régis Wargnier

Enfance 1943-60
Réveil de la Belle au Bois Dormant 1961-64