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Deneuve's masculine mystique : pursuing the paradoxical charms of France's fabulous femme

Hoping for a moment's glimpse, a microsecond revelation of the real Catherine Deneuve, you lurk in a bedroom doorway, here in the tired gloom of a Fifth Avenue hotel suite.

You lurk, you loiter, you lie in wait.

O Deneuve.

You remember her face in "Repulsion", back in the '60s, her frantic indignation as she went at a man with a razor. At him and at him.

You remember her in the Chanel ads, cool and soft at the same time, like the pillow when you turn it over in the middle of the night.

You remember her as the elegant, distant, desperate blonde in "Belle de jour" - whips and gags, the bourgeois wife debasing herself as a part-time whore.

You remember "The last metro" - she glides around with a grace so offhand it verges on the arrogant - an utterly private grace, like the grace of a woman walking toward a mirror holding a new nightgown against her shoulders.

Now you want to see how she looks with no camera, no audience. It might be impossible, but you want a first impression of a woman whose face hovers in your mind like a hologram. And she'll have to walk down this hallway to get to her interview with "Good Morning America".

In the living room of the suite, the crew has set up floodlights. They blaze through the tired gloom to create an effect of tired cheer.

"She's on her way", a British public relations woman says in an accent that seems to confide things rather than say them.

You wait. You expect a willowy blonde (are brunettes ever willowy ?) who leads with long legs when she walks, maybe even leads with her hips, like a model.

And star quality : at 49, after nothing more than some advertisements and a handful of movies spread over a quarter-century, she is a star in America. She has mystique. She is an archetype, an epitome. In France, where she has been in scores of movies, her face appears on town-hall statues as "Marianne", a figure vaguely equivalent to Uncle Sam, embodying the Republic.

She has eros that goes beyond the stock appeal of the perfect blonde, the angel men want to despoil. Just as there are actors who make a woman feel like the only woman in the world, Deneuve is the rare actress who can do it for a man, make him feel like the only man in the world. This is pleasant, though you suspect that even as the only man in the world, you might not get her. And will never know why. Roger Vadim and Marcello Mastroianni fathered her two children, a son and a daughter, but she stayed unmarried. Do they know why ?

Gerard Depardieu, the big-chinned actor who played opposite Deneuve in "The last metro" and other movies, once said : "Catherine Deneuve is the man I'd like to be".

In a book of unmailed letters, he wrote to her : "Certain people think you're cold. You're simply direct, frank and unambiguous. People think you're serene and organized : I've never seen anyone so disordered or so capricious with money and belongings".

And : "You are stronger, more responsible, more armored than male actors. You are less vulnerable, and doubtless this is the paradox of real femininity".

You wait to see.

You stare through the hallway twilight.

O Deneuve.

Short ! She is much shorter than you expect. Of course, most movie stars are shorter than you expect, but she is clearly too short to be willowy, or even the sort of elegant you've imagined. She looks startled, maybe chronically startled, a look that makes her seem to be walking very fast. She doesn't lead with her legs or her hips, she leads with her shoulders, a walk that looks self-assured on the screen, but here has a practical quality, an earthiness you associate with middle-class Frenchwomen, like concierges, the kind who wear steel-rimmed glasses and take no nonsense.

The man I'd like to be. Is it her clothes ? She is dressed as if she's meeting another woman for a business lunch, a woman she wants to intimidate: black pin-striped, man-tailored Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit with a cashmere turtleneck and a man's Swatch watch. And she's cut her hair! It's not quite short, but it's a lot shorter than the hair that has lounged on her shoulders for so many years. It still goes back from her brow, though, to give her the aristocratic look that's utterly lacking in old pictures of her with her hair down on her forehead, like the ultimate '60s California girl. The hair still seems to have heft - you sense that if you lifted it a little, it would be pleasantly heavy (the idea of touching her is unthinkable, of course).

She flicks her hazel eyes from side to side - the world seems to astonish and disappoint her. She keeps flexing the corners of her mouth, pulling them down as if she's neatening them before she goes in front of the "Good Morning America" cameras. She hits you with a glance that makes you feel intrusive and obliged. Is that a whiff of Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue ?

She walks into the living room, into the lights. She licks her lips, she blows out her cheeks. Nervous ? Bored ? Tired ?

There is no air in here, she says. Could we open a window ? You don't feel it, the lack of air ?

You realize that the charm of a French accent is not only the way it sounds, but also the way it makes a face move. She settles down. She talks with Charles Gibson about life - "I never regret things I've done or haven't done" - and love - "Latin people think that love is a passionate and disturbing affair".

When the lights are out, and the ABC crew has gone, she talks with the British public relations woman in the bedroom.

She says : "But no, how can I go to this dinner, I have to pack, I am leaving, there isn't time".

"It's a buffet", the public relations woman says in the calm, ecru tones of a woman accustomed to dealing with testy celebrities.

Ah, buffet ! Well, in that case it will not take so much time, Deneuve says in the tones of a celebrity accustomed to getting testy with people accustomed to dealing with it.

Was Depardieu right ? Is she the man he wants to be ?

She slouches a little in her armchair, legs crossed, arms crossed.

For a woman", she says, I'm quite masculine, you know, in the relations I have toward people, men. All of them, I don't make much difference. And I think it's the way I'm quite straightforward, you know, and he can love me as a man. I understood what he meant, you know, because he has a very feminine quality and I have a masculine quality. I don't try to charm, I have quite strong and straight relations with people. In film it's different. In films you are a character and woman.

She doesn't charm. She doesn't have to, with that face : it seems like an aesthetic principle she totes on her shoulders like a jar of water. You find yourself watching her rather than listening to her. The jawline is so long, the face is so big. You find yourself trying to make her smile, to arouse her interest. Not like Tom Sawyer walking a fence for Becky Thatcher, but more like a geisha girl entertaining a Japanese businessman. You try to intrigue this woman who does not try to intrigue.

She said once that she spent her girlhood dreaming of loving and being loved.

I haven't changed my view, she says. I think it's a very important adventure in life, yes. To love and to be loved, yes.

She uncrosses her arms. The subject seems to interest her.

You can't have always passion - it's very, very tiring. The passion, you know, is, sort of, is very destructive, you know. It is like something you cannot really decide - you have not much influence on yourself, you know. It's something that takes you, you know. It's something that drives you, it's not something that you drive.

How lovely to imagine her distraught and glowing as the phone rings at last. But how impossible.

It's pointed out that in "Love in the Western World", Denis De Rougemont writes that romantic love as it's known in the West always involves a death wish.
Yes, it makes sense, she says. In a way you want the destruction of the other, you want to eat the other. It's not like war, but you want to have him for a year and then get rid of him. Passion is a destructive thing. Because you suffer. You don't work, you don't eat.

How Latin. Americans believe that passion descends like a holy shaft of light through a cloud and sanctifies our marriages, our divorces, our sex, our new clothes. When it goes bad, we think we're crazy and consult psychiatrists. Deneuve seems way, way beyond all that.

I try to live. I try not to really, sort of, analyze things, she says, with a lift of eyebrows and a flash of pout, a facial shrug. "I'm so involved, you know, in the world. The more you grow, the more you know people, the time becomes very reduced, and you have to be careful because you have not much time for yourself".

She takes care of herself. The clothes, the jewels, the country house that was in Architectural Digest.

Depardieu has said she is capricious with money.

What does that mean, capricious ?.

A spender.
I'm a spender, oh yes. It is true. Things for the house, books, objects, clothing. Not caring. Not making plans so, you know, everything that goes with living without being careful. I'm not careful.

How lovely to imagine her distraught over her bank balance, like Madame Bovary running to her lover to plead for a loan. But how impossible.

Easier to imagine yourself, or Depardieu.

The man I'd like to be.

Is there something here that explains why she is a star in America on the strength of perfume ads and a few films ? Why has she lasted in the public mind, while we've seen the fading of two other stars who came up with her in the '60s, Julie Christie and Faye Dunaway ? Where are they now ?

Deneuve acts as if she has been insulted somehow. She says : Julie Christie is alive and living in the countryside in England. I admire her very much. Faye Dunaway is living in Costa Rica, which is not bad.

This does not answer the question. The point is, there's something that she has that Americans find…

I'm European, that's why, she says. And people talk about my reserve, but it's not something I thought up. It's something, not cold but cool, that makes people want to know more. There is an attraction when you don't know everything, you know. Like the secret of Bluebeard, you know. Don't open that door, you know ? That's the only door you can't open. Of course, that's the only one you want to open.

She comes from a Parisian theater family. Her parents acted at the Comedie Francaise, and her father dubbed foreign films into French. Her beautiful sister Francoise Dorleac was a film star until she was killed in a car crash. Show people. Another world. You wonder if her famous reserve isn't partly the ease of a show business kid in front of a camera.

In any case, at 49, as Marianne, as Deneuve, she has reached that level of stardom where people begin to think of her as their property. When she cut her hair for her new movie, "Indochine" (opening in Washington in February), all France talked about it.

I wanted to know what it was to feel short hair, to feel my head, you know, which I never had. People were so shocked. In France it was such a thing, as if I had, I don't know, as if I had married the pope. I didn't know it was such a sacrilege to cut my hair without asking to.

She is their ideal, an icon, but in fact she is this shortish, middle-class, slightly masculine actress who is probably the most beautiful woman you have ever seen.

Is it true what a magazine said, that she's a Libra with a Capricorn ascendant ?

Absolutely, she says, pulling in her chin and lifting her brows as if she is contradicting you. Is it possible she's being playful ? Absolutely true.

Ah ! Astrology ! Here's the key to getting Deneuve to define herself !

What, you ask, does it mean to be a Libra with a Capricorn ascendant ?

She shrugs, she turns down the corners of her mouth, she widens her eyes.

I don't know ! You tell me !

Isn't she the one who went to the astrologer ?

Never ! Never, you know. Sometimes my friends tell me about it, and I listen, that's all. I can walk under a ladder too, I can see a black cat, I can take my umbrella out in my house, I don't care.

It is suggested, as a last and ridiculous hypothesis, that maybe she is a bit of an existentialist.

Maybe after all these years I am a bit existential ! she says, nodding as she turns over the idea. You are the one who found the right word. Maybe that's it. Yeah ?

Mmmm, how charming she's being.

Would she have been comfortable hanging around the cafes with Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir in the heyday of being, nothingness and absurdity ?
No, she says. She thinks about it. Smoking.

What ?
Smoking. She puts her fingers to her lips and drops her eyelids as if she's smoking (does anyone do half-lidded eyes better than Deneuve ?) You can see her imagining the cafe, the arguing, the cosmic critiques. Making out the world as you want it to be, you know. I am not enough of an intellectual, though. I'm not an intellectual. I'm a physical person, I need to do things, to move, I don't know, maybe if I was still smoking I could have been like that. But not being a smoker you cannot stay in that one spot. You need that to be a great ... a cigarette helps to think, you know ? You turn…

And she turns in her chair, eyebrows lifted, phantom cigarette in her mouth, the model of an existential philosopher blowing smoke into the air.

At the very least she is the actress and maybe even the existentialist you'd like to be.

Par : Henry Allen

Film associé : Indochine



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