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A Firm Hand: Catherine Deneuve at BAM

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A Firm Hand: Catherine Deneuve at BAM

Catherine Deneuve is a bit like Garbo in that we as an audience have always projected our own fantasies onto her phenomenal beauty; like Garbo, so much of Deneuve’s beauty is in the allure of her heavy eyelids and in the space between those lids and her arched eyebrows. Unlike Garbo, Deneuve is a blond, the ultimate blond, in fact, and she has maintained that perilous status long past the age Garbo retired and went into semi-hiding to preserve her legend. After seeing Luis Buñuel’s Tristana (1970), one of the movies playing in BAM’s month-long Deneuve retrospective, that ultimate blond enthusiast, Alfred Hitchcock, marveled to Buñuel at a Hollywood party about the last third of the film, where Deneuve’s former innocent in pigtails has been transformed into a haughty woman whose artificial leg only adds to her sex appeal. “Tristana’s false leg,” Hitchcock kept murmuring to Buñuel, at a loss for words at the fetishistic power of this image.

One can only imagine Hitch’s reaction to Buñuel’s earlier Belle de Jour (1966), still Deneuve’s most famous movie, where she plays a proper ice queen bourgeois wife who finds fulfillment in an afternoon shift at a whorehouse. When I think of Deneuve, I think of Tristana going out on her balcony, baring her teeth in a deathly smile and opening her robe to show her nude body to a boy who is in love with her. I also think of her, of course, in her white underwear in Belle de Jour, having second thoughts on her first day until bordello madam Anais (Geneviève Page) advises her john to use some light force, whereupon Deneuve goes from frigid trophy wife to unleashed sexual wanton within a few fraught moments. “She needs a firm hand,” remarks Madame Anais, and this dryly delivered line of dialogue has followed Deneuve over the whole of her hard-working career as both movie goddess and film actress.

At BAM last night, I caught the last five minutes or so of Potiche, Deneuve’s new film for François Ozon (it seemed lightweight, to put it mildly), and then stayed for a Q&A with Ozon and Deneuve herself. She entered the theater as a large mane of blond hair floating down the steps; everyone stood to applaud her as she sat down. Sometimes, when actors come to BAM to introduce or talk about one of their films, they seem vulnerable, tiny and touchingly human. Catherine Deneuve, on the other hand, is just as larger than life in person as she is on screen; she’s very much an old-time kind of star. To be technical about it, I think it has something to do with the largeness of her head in relation to the rest of her body, which is a physical advantage she shares with many of the classic Hollywood stars; even from a distance, she always seems to be in close-up. When a boy asked her about Belle de Jour, which he said was his favorite of her films, Deneuve replied that she was much more comfortable working with Buñuel on Tristana; she seems to prefer Tristana because it gave her more scope as an actress. In her other answers, she was playful, charming and helplessly drawn between come-hither and keep-your-distance, which is her most distinctive mode on screen. Asked about the difference between herself on film and in life, she smiled and said, “You know more about me than you think!”

If Deneuve’s two films with Luis Buñuel will always be her essential dirty work, then her first three films with Jacques Demy are the essential romantic Deneuve at the opposite end of the spectrum: ravishingly pure and fragile in his all-sung The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), saucy and ever-so-slightly camp with her sister Françoise Dorléac in his amazing musical The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), and a perfect princess in Donkey Skin (1970). In her sixth major movie of this time, Roman Polanski’s psychological thriller Repulsion (1965), Deneuve showed that she could be more than an icon as a mentally disturbed French girl who comes apart at the seams in a London flat. These six films are the core of her achievement; all of them are showing at BAM, and Tristana, which might be the best of them, or at least the most representative, isn’t on Region I DVD and isn’t shown too often, so that one should definitely be a priority.

Deneuve made a lot of trashy movies in between her big-ticket items, lots of tepid sex comedies and sex dramas; her coolness seemed drawn to somewhat sleazy cinema, or sleazy cinema was drawn to her (she was briefly a wife of Roger Vadim). Ancillary Deneuve vehicles like La Chamade (1968) and Manon 70 (1968) are mere trivia that proved she needed the “firm hand” of a director to make the most of her, and in the 1970s, her career foundered; she worked for directors like Claude Lelouch and Claude Berri after the glories of Buñuel and Demy. There was a brief lift in her career with François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980), a confident entertainment that made loving use of both Deneuve’s beauty and her vitality, and in the years since, she has been adventurous and enterprising, working with first-class directors like Raúl Ruiz, Manoel de Oliveira, Leos Carax and Arnaud Desplechin, who cast her as the formidable, sour matriarch in A Christmas Tale (2007), a movie that I didn’t much care for when I saw it, but one that has stayed with me, especially in the frank verbal duels between Deneuve and her son (Mathieu Amalric).

Since the mid-1980s, Deneuve has worked most consistently with André Téchiné, and it cannot be said that he has always brought out the best in her. My Favorite Season (1993) is their finest collaboration, an ambiguous, troubling portrait of a brother/sister relationship, but Thieves (1996) is a disappointingly inhibited movie, and their four other projects feel more like films made out of habit rather than passion or need. No matter. Deneuve’s work with Buñuel, Demy and Polanski is for the ages, and she should have a few more surprises in store for us if she can find sufficient directorial force to guide her and make her tensely “resist” again the ravening eye of the camera.

Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema and the L Magazine, among other publications.