Rather than trip over hyperbole in introducing the actress who, for five decades, has been the most famous Frenchwoman in the world, it's best to let Catherine Deneuve, quoted here from a Jan. 28, 1966, Life cover story on "The Film Beauties of Europe," speak for herself: "I owe my start in movies entirely to my face and body. I don't think I had any devastating gift for acting. But my craving and my ambition are getting out of hand."
Deneuve's frank self-assessment ran three months after the stateside release of Roman Polanski's psychosis study Repulsion, which, along with her latest, François Ozon's '70s-kitsch orgy Potiche, will screen this week as part of LACMA's tribute to the legend. (Potiche opens theatrically March 25.) The six films being shown are a mere fraction of the triumphs in a career that began in 1957.
Born the third of four daughters to actor parents in Paris in 1943, Deneuve started performing in movies almost by accident, as she notes in 2006's Close Up and Personal: The Private Diaries of Catherine Deneuve, largely thanks to her beloved older sister Françoise Dorleac, with whom she co-starred in an early film, The Door Slams (1960).
Jacques Demy, impressed by the teenage Deneuve in her second movie, offered her the role that made her an international star at age 20: the proper jeune fille Genevieve in his sui generis, all-sung The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), both a lollipop-hued musical celebrating the quotidian and a chamber opera darkened by war and the loss of ideals. Deneuve, in pastel cardigans and hair ribbons, leaves us sobbing as she says goodbye to her boyfriend, called to fight in Algeria; when they see each other six years later at a snow-blanketed Esso station, the actress, now sporting the intricately engineered bouffant and all-black ensemble of a joyless bourgeoise, destroys us all over again, her character's youthful exuberance completely supplanted by adult resignation.
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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg marked the first of four movies Deneuve made with Demy; indeed, all but one of the titles in LACMA's series are by filmmakers the actress has worked with at least twice ("I have to get the impression that the director is really the author of the film," Deneuve told me in an interview three years ago, explaining how she chooses projects).
During the 10-year period bookended by Umbrellas and her extended cameo in silly provocateur Marco Ferreri's wearying Don't Touch the White Woman (1974), Deneuve specialized in debasement. (Has any other actress been slapped on-screen so frequently?) But not all her defilements are equal: The near-gratuitous humiliation in Jean Aurel's dismissible Manon 70 (1968) — in which Deneuve pleads with Sami Frey in the tub, "Swear that I'm the first woman you ever raped" — can't compare with the adroit debauchery and byzantine psychosexual fantasies in her films with Buñuel, Belle de Jour (1967) and Tristana (1970). As the former's Séverine, a deeply disenchanted Parisian wife in an unconsummated marriage, Deneuve, finding liberation through the 2-to-5 shift at a brothel, is frequently trussed up and mussed up while sporting the smartest Yves Saint Laurent finery.
The LACMA series concludes with François Truffaut's occupied-Paris backstager The Last Metro (1980), the final landmark in the first phase of Deneuve's filmography. If Deneuve's signature roles with Buñuel pivot on inscrutability (just as her character Carole, plummeting into glacial catatonia, does in Repulsion) and largely define the first part of her remarkable career, her films with her most frequent collaborator, André Téchiné, with whom she began working in 1981, mark the second. Essentially, Deneuve transitioned from being an exquisite tabula rasa onto whom all sorts of perversions could be projected to something far more complex: an actual person.
BEAUTIFUL DREAMER: THE EARLY FILMS OF CATHERINE DENEUVE | March 4-12 | Bing Theater at LACMA | lacma.org