Siren. Icon. Muse. You can apply any or all of those labels to Catherine Deneuve but trying to make any one of them stick is trickier than lighting a match in a rainstorm. Ask her about her five-decade career in movies and she will pointedly deny ever thinking in terms of a career. Mention the litany of top-flight international auteurs who have built films around her — Luis Buñuel, Roman Polanski and Jacques Demy, to name but three — and she responds that she has merely tried to be an instrument for realizing their visions. Raise the subject of her enduring status as a symbol of international glamour and she quickly sets you right by saying that she has few film-industry friends and enjoys spending her spare time gardening, a hobby she favors because “it’s very hard” and puts her back in touch with the earth.
But talk to Deneuve about the movies she’s made and why she made them, about being a woman of “a certain age,” or about her lifelong love for cinema, and the 65-year-old actress engages you with an intelligence and intensity a far cry from the carefully polished sound bites most “stars” dole out while promoting their latest releases. So it was that Deneuve — jet-lagged but radiant in a bright orange skirt, elegantly chain-smoking her way through a pack of ultra-slim Philip Morrises in her rooftop suite at the Bowery Hotel during last month’s New York Film Festival — held forth on her life, work and role as a cancer-stricken matriarch in Arnaud Desplechin’s just released A Christmas Tale.
L.A. WEEKLY: A Christmas Tale is your second collaboration with Arnaud Desplechin following your small role as a psychiatrist in Kings and Queen (2004). What appealed to you about working with him again?
CATHERINE DENEUVE: It’s the energy that he shows toward everyone — the camera, the actors. You cannot just stay put; you are taken by this flow. It’s incredible, really incredible.
You play a character who’s dying, but who, in many respects, seems more alive than her neurotic, bickering children.
She’s a woman who presents herself to her son’s fiancée by saying, “You know, I’m the one who has the cancer,” as if it was her name. It’s cruel, but it’s quite funny at the same time. It’s a very casual house, casual people, except that they say things to each other that you’re not used to. Maybe you know that people think this way, but they don’t speak this way. In life, people try always to make things work, but here you see a mother say to her son that she doesn’t like him. And he says the same thing to her.
Starting quite early in your career, you signed on for unconventional leading roles in films by uncompromising international filmmakers, like Polanski’s Repulsion and Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. Even then, you seemed resistant to being typecast as a comely ingénue.
My curiosity for people and films started at a very early age as a moviegoer. So, I was not thinking about a career. I’ve never thought that way. When I was 22, I had seen Polanski working. I thought he was quite fascinating, and I didn’t think twice that it could be this or not be that. Anyway, I like to play a little different, extravagant part, and this was a very special part. It’s not like in America, where your agent might say, “Be careful, it could be the end of your …”
You’ve said that a real turning point for you was when you starred for Jacques Demy in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). At the time, you already had roles in more than a half-dozen movies. Why was this experience so significant?
It was a special feel, a special atmosphere. The characters were beautiful. It was sung, like an opera. So all of a sudden it seemed that a film could be that — not only looking good and nice. It’s a very simple film but a very unusual film at the same time. [Demy] was very nice to me. It seemed to me that I was very important to him in the film, and it gave me the impression that [film] could be something more than I had thought, because I was not sure [I would] go on making films, really.
Like a lot of successful international stars, you were courted by Hollywood and made a few films there, including The April Fools (1969) with Jack Lemmon and Hustle (1975) with Burt Reynolds. I imagine you could have made more films in America if you’d wanted to.
I didn’t want to do films just because they were American and parts I would not have considered to do in my own language. I would rather do films that I find more interesting, in Europe, rather than very passive parts of European women in an American film. I like the ones I did, but I didn’t think I could stay there, and also because what I received afterward was not that interesting, apart from The Hunger.
You’re widely considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, and yet you’ve allowed yourself to age naturally on screen in a way that’s thought to be a liability for American actresses.
It’s very difficult for an actress in America, it’s true, to find interesting parts after a certain age. I’m sure even some actresses that I like very much, like Meryl Streep … maybe she has to read more scripts, but she does very interesting films. It’s not as difficult in Europe, because men have a more mature relationship toward women — an older woman, a grown-up woman, a mature woman. I think in America, it’s like in The Graduate, you know? A mature woman and a young man is something still very taboo. There are a lot of taboos about things like that in America.
You actually appeared in two movies in the Official Selection at Cannes this year: A Christmas Tale and I Want To See, a very interesting film by co-directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige in which you play yourself — a famous French actress who travels to Lebanon for a charity event and asks to see the remnants of the 2006 war with Israel.
I thought it was a very good idea, and that’s why I accepted to do it. It was supposed to be a 20-minute film. There were no [scripted] dialogues. And after a week of shooting, they started editing the film and they saw they had a lot of material and maybe they should try to make a longer film. That’s how it happened.
The film seems to come from a place of genuine concern, whereas a lot of the images we see in the media of celebrities traveling to war-torn corners of the world feel somewhat self-serving.
You think so? I am sure that most of the time the people who do it are honest about wanting to see what really happens in those places. I know sometimes it can be taken another way — it depends how you accept to be photographed in those situations. But I’m sure most of the people who take their own time to go there and see how people live, how children are treated.?… I think when George Clooney goes to the Sudan, he’s doing it to show something to American people who don’t seem to be aware of the situation there. He feels very concerned, but he does it not to prove something about himself but to make a statement about a situation.
Also in Cannes, you received a somewhat odd “special” prize from the jury that was said to be for your performance in A Christmas Tale but also an acknowledgment of your career in cinema. What was your reaction to that?
They called me on Sunday, four hours before [the awards ceremony]. They said I had to come, that there was something for me. My first reaction was to say, “What do you mean?” I mean, it was one o’clock in the afternoon, and I was in the country! In the end, everything worked out well to go there. But it was a mixed feeling, because Arnaud’s film was in competition, and I had the impression that this was a way to sort of give something to the film they couldn’t give it officially. Some people on the jury probably disagreed on the film, and finally that was the way to deal with it. That’s why, when I made my speech, everything was related to the film of Arnaud. I really give everything to A Christmas Tale.
You’ve been in movies now for 50 years, and you are still making, on average, two to three films per year. What keeps it fresh for you?
I find cinema still very interesting. For me, to see a film, and to see a film and to be shown a story with actors that I like or actors that I don’t know, it’s always a discovery. I’m a great fan of films and I still go to see films in theaters. Even when I’m working, I try to see films. It’s a desire, and it’s something very important in my life. It’s still something that I’m looking for, you know? It’s like listening to music — it’s part of my life.