Wearing lightly tinted sunglasses and smoking a profusion of slim cigarettes, Catherine Deneuve, aging goddess of French cinema, neither quite meets expectations nor disappoints them. Perhaps it would be fair to say that she rearranges them. If you feel let down in one way, you’re more impressed than you expected to be in another. In town to promote the new Lars von Trier film, Dancer in the Dark, the 56-year-old actress speaks rapidly in melodiously accented English, accompanied by much gesturing of the hands and the occasional burst of laughter. Both voice and laughter are beguiling. Her patterned rayon blouse and pale muslin skirt are more proper Parisian than glamorous movie star. What‘s most striking about her is her eyes. Even with the sunglasses, you feel them on you constantly, alert and sharply observant. She is a woman who remains interested in life and interested in movies, too.
It helps, of course, that she has some interesting movies to act in. Although she only occasionally gets leading roles now, Deneuve enjoys a screen presence that remains eagerly sought-after. In her youth she worked with legendary directors such as Jacques Demy, Luis Buñuel and Roman Polanski, but her recent filmography isn’t exactly shabby. This year she could be seen in Raoul Ruiz‘s acclaimed adaptation of Proust, Time Regained, as well as in East-West, Regis Wargnier’s moving film about Soviet exiles who voluntarily return home after being promised amnesty by Stalin, only to find themselves trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Currently she is appearing in three movies: Dancer in the Dark; Nicole Garcia‘s Place Vendome, an engrossing drama set in the world of diamond dealing; and Leos Carax’s Pola X, which opens in two weeks.
So far, though, it‘s the von Trier, in which Deneuve plays second fiddle to Bjork with winning good humor, that’s received the lion‘s share of attention. Deneuve has been a fan of the Danish director since seeing his earlier film, Breaking the Waves. She liked that film so much that she wrote him a letter — the first time she had ever written to a director, she says — and von Trier wrote back saying that he was working on a musical with Bjork, and enclosed a copy of the script.
”I was more interested in the project than in the part, of course,“ she acknowledges. ”If it had been someone else, I would have been, ’Well, it‘s not that much, you know?’ But knowing it was him, I knew it would be something special. I went to see him in Denmark, and he told me about the way he was working with the video and the choreography and the hand-held cameras and the editing, and I thought it was very interesting, so I got involved.“
Deneuve pronounces herself very pleased with the film. It‘s an unusual film, but there should be more unusual films, she says. She seems less enthusiastic about the luminously shot Pola X, in which, as a mother with incestuous leanings, she lounges on a bed with her son smoking cigarettes, has a brief nude scene and rides a motorcycle. ”I think the film is too long. But, you know, in Europe you have to respect the director’s choice. Here I think [Carax] would have been forced to cut it down, but in France he could get his way, and the film didn‘t do too well.“
Arguably the best Deneuve movie (for Deneuve fans, certainly) on American screens right now is Place Vendome, the only one in which she stars. As the alcoholic wife of a bankrupt jeweler, she makes the most of a complex, finely shaded role. Verging on the matronly in some scenes, wickedly seductive in others, in this film Deneuve almost persuades us that beauty in decay can be as compelling as its nubile, youthful version. Which is why one feels disappointed to note that, since making these three movies, Deneuve appears to have had a facelift. Somehow, though, I can’t find it in me to ask her about it. If she did, one knows why; if she didn‘t, well, it’s like drugs at the Olympics — you‘re automatically a suspect anyway.
What pleases one, meeting Deneuve, is her obvious intelligence, her interest in film as a vehicle for expression rather than self-aggrandizement. With the directors she works for, she emphasizes, box office is a secondary matter: What comes first is making the film you really want to make. Place Vendome has done well in the States by foreign-language-movie standards, but her expectations are low. ”Here in America they don’t want to have films dubbed and they don‘t want to have films subtitled,“ she says, laughing. ”What can we do about that? Let’s just say they don‘t want anything that is not American.“
”Do you get many offers from Hollywood?“ I ask.
”I don’t get that many offers, and I don‘t think the parts I have been offered are that interesting, otherwise I would have come,“ she replies. ”I would like to, because you know it’s going to be such a big audience. But I don‘t want to do an American film just for the sake of coming here.“
”What kind of parts were you being offered?“
”Average, conventional, not important enough. I think you can play a small part in a film if it’s interesting, if it adds something special. But otherwise . . .“
I ask Deneuve what she‘s working on now, and she tells me that she’s just finishing a film in which she plays the Queen of France.
”You are,“ I suggest, ”a bit like the Queen of France. Or the Queen of French cinema, at any rate.“
”No, no, no, I don‘t want to be a queen,“ Deneuve protests, laughing. ”I don’t want that. I don‘t want to be somehow looked at or talked to as a queen. It’s a democratic work, being an actress. It‘s one of the few professions where your values and your skills are more important than who you are, where you come from — at least in France.“
”And do you have any anonymity in France?“
”People leave me quite alone, you know. I live in a very nice part of Paris where I can do a lot of things. I can go to the movies, I can go to the bookstores, I can go to my gym lessons, the Luxembourg Gardens are close, it’s a very nice area. It‘s a long time I’ve been living in this apartment there, so people are used to seeing me.“
Our hour is almost up. Someone from Fine Line Features, the company releasing Dancer in the Dark, comes through the door. I decide to give Deneuve a little surprise. ”I hear you like gardening,“ I say. ”And that you go to a gardening show at a place called Courson twice a year.“
”How did you know that?“ she demands in a lovely trill of startled amusement. I explain that my mother lives in France, is an avid gardener herself and has seen her at the show.
”Ah ha, yes, it‘s true!“ Deneuve says, relaxing back in her chair. Then she tells me how, almost every weekend, she takes off from Paris to work on the garden at her house in the country. ”I like plants, I like nature, more than anything, I think. It’s very interesting to make a garden. It‘s very hard work. That’s why working in the factory in Dancer in the Dark was not such a problem for me. Because when you garden, and you have a hat, you are used to the physical things. So when people say to me, ‘You in a factory! With gloves!’ That‘s what I do every weekend. It’s heavy duty, you know, gardening. Sometimes I come back after the weekend and I‘m more tired than when I left on Friday night.“