11 October 2008

Field Guide: Catherine Deneuve

It wouldn’t be Cannes without her

In the United States, Catherine Deneuve is and has been for many years the best-known of all French actresses. In France, she’s a monument — literally. Several years ago, she was the model for Marianne, the symbol of the Republic, on all the stamps and statues. It’s an honor that’s bestowed periodically on prominent beauties, and it’s not always clear that the government takes it seriously: a couple of years after Deneuve posed, the nod went to Laetitia Casta, who as a professional fashion model was distinguished primarily for her ability to be born pretty, and who did not reside in France at the time. (Why not Naomi Campbell instead?)

More than one might expect, Deneuve understands and respects her status in this country, I think, and she attempts to use her power for good. Though she makes several movies a year, the majority aren’t blockbusters, but worthy projects that might go unnoticed or unmade, were she not to lend her name. Rarely do you see her in a movie and think, “Well, she must have needed the paycheck.”

With almost every picture, you can identify a technical challenge Deneuve has made to herself, an area of her craft that she seeks to refine. In her youth, she was more a presence than an actress; today, she’s still a presence, but she’s an actress, too. Not always a good one, it must be said. She doesn’t always meet the challenges she sets herself, yet one has to concede that she refuses to rest on her laurels.

Meeting of the Monuments: Deneuve and Depardieu in Les Temps qui changent

She has pushed her emotional range far beyond the narrow circumference of her youth; her vocal range has expanded, as well, and her line readings have taken on a truthfulness and resonance she lacked as a girl. She’s not a natural comedienne, but she was amusing in Valérie Lemercier’s semi-farcical Princess Diana allegory, Palais Royal!, and the great André Téchiné helped her to locate a warmly humorous exasperation in Les Temps qui changent (Changing Times).

In that picture, Deneuve plays a woman whose stable life is capsized by the reappearance of an ex-lover, played by Gérard Depardieu (her co-star in The Last Métro and a French institution himself). Téchiné approaches the screen as a novelist approaches the page, and though Les Temps qui changent isn’t his most fully realized film, he guides Deneuve through a carefully paced descent, as Depardieu obsessively wears her down. At times he seems like a stalker, she like an ice queen — and yet we like them more and more.

In Jacques Démy’s musicals (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, etc.), Deneuve’s singing voice was dubbed, but she’s bolder now: in François Ozon’s 8 Femmes and in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, she sang fearlessly, for herself. The roughness of her musicality suited von Trier’s drama, particularly. In Gaël Morel’s Après lui (After Him), she plumbed the confused grief of a mother, irresistibly drawn to the best friend of her late son. Deneuve doesn’t hit all her notes — Isabelle Huppert would’ve been ideal in the role — yet her occasional lapses in technique reinforce our idea of a character who’s lost control, and the performance is more poignant as a result. What’s more, her presence inspires the best work yet from Morel, a young man who began as an actor (in Téchiné’s Wild Reeds) but has now devoted himself to direction. What it must mean to a young artist to work with the muse of Buñuel and Truffaut!

With Thomas Dumerchez, in Après lui

I can think of few other movie-star actresses — only Katharine Hepburn, really — so determined to continue learning and improving, well past the blush of youth and long after fame has been achieved.

Unfortunately, like many former sex symbols on both sides of the Atlantic, Deneuve is engaged in a war with her own aging body. She’s had cosmetic surgery and seems unable to reconcile herself with her mature figure. It’s not always easy to watch her these days.

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