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Catherine Deneuve is 54 now, and if the years have added heaviness to her finely boned face and elegant frame, she has also seasoned her feminine mystique with a classy world-weariness that only the French can make so alluring.

Smoking icicle-thin cigarettes behind Jacqueline Susann sunglasses in a SoHo restaurant, Deneuve is more than half a lifetime away from the delicate blonde songbird who flitted and fluttered so charmingly in Jacques Demy's 1967 fairytale musical "The young girls of Rochefort", a restored print of which is enjoying a revival at the Film Forum in downtown Manhattan.

"Rochefort" tells of Delphine and Solange, beautiful twin sisters longing for true love, who become entangled in the spun-sugar webs of destiny when a trade fair visits their coastal city. As with Demy's earlier "The umbrellas of Cherbourg", which also starred Deneuve, every line is trilled by the actors.

Depending on your tastes, the film is either an ultra-kitschy, tooth-rotting confection, or a chirpy, color-splashed fantasia resplendent with delightful artifice.

"It would be impossible to do a musical like this today, full of so much light and joy. It's a film from another time", says Deneuve.

It's odd to consider that Deneuve played a doll-faced ingenue in the meringue-light "Rochefort", for in the same year she stunned the world as the chic housewife-turned-hooker in Luis Buñuel's darkly erotic "Belle de jour" - one of her best-known roles.

But the actress points out that there's a serious undercurrent beneath the vivid frosting of "Rochefort". The twins' mother has lost her true love, there's a chance the girls might not find theirs, and, well, there's an ax murderer on the loose in town. Yet Demy's sentimental vision is so forceful that the pain, fear and melancholy seem faint and fleeting.

"Rochefort" is indelibly imbued with sadness for Deneuve. Her older sister, Francoise Dorleac, played her twin in "Rochefort", and was killed in a car crash shortly after finishing the film.

The two were very close, and Deneuve says she was shattered by her sister's untimely death. Yet she returned to work immediately after the funeral, keeping her grief bound up tightly inside. Only last year did she speak about it publicly for the first time, in a documentary about Dorleac for French television.

"It was quite painful for me to do the interviews, and then they showed her films for a week after that on television. But I was pleased to see her coming to life again", Deneuve says today.

Though she appears in "Rochefort" to be the epitome of a vivacious cutie engaged in girlish pursuits, in reality Deneuve was far removed from the youth culture in late '60s France - a movement that revolutionized French society, and nearly brought down the government.

"I was already having a very grown-up life for my age", she says. "I was working a lot. I had my son by Roger Vadim too. When you look back, those days were historical, but when you're living in it, it's nothing but work and trips".

Deneuve has worked steadily over the years, and even now, when parts for older actresses are harder to come by, finds French directors, such as André Téchiné, who create roles for her.

She finds the naked careerism of younger actresses hard to take.

"You have to do the films you want to do rather than think of planning your career. It's much more interesting to enjoy your life and your work rather than worry too much about planning things", she says. "Because you can't really work things out. You can think, "This is more commercial,' but you can't be sure anyway. You have to stay close to yourself".

Deneuve says she has borne her career ups and downs by ignoring the chattering of critics and the public, and striving to protect her private life. And most of all, honoring that obscure object of desire: love.

She has had famous lovers, including the late Marcello Mastroianni, with whom she had a daughter, Chiara, who is herself an actress. But Deneuve is a closed book on the subject of her romantic life. After seeing her in the dreamy "Rochefort", one can't help asking if she believes destiny brings true love.

"Sometimes", she answers warily.

"Has it in your life ?"

"I started out working so young. I was very much of a dreamer, then I went into active life. In between, I'm not sure I had those hopes. I was quite successful very young. I think my hopes were always on my personal and private life, on love. Love ..."

Enough of amour - Deneuve wants to talk about the deliriously mod clothes she and Francoise wore in "Rochefort". They make her smile, remind her of her youth, and of her beloved sister.

"Sometimes when I put on the clothes of this period - and I still have some of them - it's like putting on a disguise. It doesn't last, but it gives me pleasure, for a moment".

Par : Rod Dreher

Film associé : Les demoiselles de Rochefort

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