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Catherine Deneuve: Ice maiden comes down to earth

In 'Potiche,' she plays a trophy wife who finds a sense of purpose, which symbolizes her film career. She began as an aloof goddess in movies in the 1960s and moved on to diverse roles, big and small, in many films.

March 20, 2011|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • Catherine Deneuve is photographed in Beverly Hills on March 9, 2011.
Catherine Deneuve is photographed in Beverly Hills on March 9, 2011. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

Catherine Deneuve bounds onto the screen in a red track suit with curlers in her hair in the opening scene of her new film, the 1970s-set French comedy "Potiche."

"The curlers, it was my idea," said Deneuve, taking a drag on a slim, sweet-smelling European cigarette in a hotel bungalow on Sunset Boulevard this month. She was impeccably coiffed, in a sweater, slacks and flats, sounding every bit the quintessence of Gallic womanhood. "When we did the fitting, we tried, how do you call the joggers, the special pants? And my hair — it looks too chic. I proposed to put curlers on, you know, so it could give a little more downtown."

To audiences who know her best as the aloof, glamorous blond from classic 1960s films like Luis Bunuel's "Belle de Jour" or Roman Polanski's "Repulsion," or as the flawless face of French brands such as Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, it's a shock to see Deneuve on screen looking like a nosy neighbor from a "Three's Company" rerun.

At 67 — an age when most of her American contemporaries have grudgingly retired — Deneuve is not only working, she's attempting to surprise moviegoers. "It's comforting to know people have other sides to what you thought they had," said Deneuve, the subject of recent career retrospectives at the L.A. County Museum of Art and Brooklyn Academy of Music. "It's resting not to always think you have to be a certain kind of character, of sophisticated person."

In "Potiche," Deneuve plays the bored wife of an umbrella factory owner who finds a new sense of purpose when her husband falls sick and she must take over the business. In French, "potiche" refers to a large vase, or the kind of decorative woman Americans might call a trophy wife. "It means something that looks good but has no use," said Deneuve. "You're trapped, you have nothing to do. That happened to me a long time ago."

Deneuve was married only once, to photographer David Bailey, and divorced about 40 years ago, but she has had a string of associations with remarkable men — a son with director Roger Vadim, a daughter with actor Marcello Mastroianni — and relationships with Francois Truffaut, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. She declines to mention when or with whom she felt trapped.

"That American obsession to get married — it's a cultural thing," said Deneuve, guarded but wry. "I don't think American women are more romantic than European women, but they get married much more. They feel, I don't know, protected."

Born in occupied Paris to two actors, Deneuve was the third of four beautiful daughters, one of whom, also an actress, died in a car crash in 1967. Catherine made her screen debut at age 13 in the film "Les Collegiennes" but first gained notice in the 1964 musical "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."

"Her beauty was her protection at the beginning," said Francois Ozon, who directed Deneuve in "Potiche" and the 2002 film "8 Women." "People didn't realize she was a great actress."

Early in her career, Deneuve became muse to some of cinema's finest directors. As a sexually repressed, paranoid schizophrenic in her first English-language role in "Repulsion" and a bored housewife who fulfills her fantasies working as a prostitute in "Belle de Jour," she established the ice maiden archetype for which she's best known. "It's great luck for an actress to work with great directors at an early age," she said. "It's like when you learn music if you have a good teacher you know it's much better to have right impressions from the beginning."

By bouncing between art house cinema and box office hits in France, Deneuve has stayed culturally and commercially current in her home country. She reteamed with Bunuel in "Tristana," in 1970, made multiple films with Truffaut, including "The Last Metro" in 1980, and shot Tony Scott's "The Hunger" in 1983, a movie that established her not only as a male fantasy but a female one, for a love scene she shot with Susan Sarandon.

"She's a fantasy figure for others to project their stories onto," said Tim Palmer, author of "Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema" and associate professor of film studies at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. "She's always managed to reinvent herself, to never be typecast for too long."

Deneuve has worked little in Hollywood — she starred opposite Jack Lemmon in the 1969 comedy "The April Fools" and with Reynolds in the 1975 crime drama "Hustle" and played a brief guest-starring role in the TV series "Nip/Tuck." She earned her only Academy Award nomination for her role as a French plantation owner who adopts a Vietnamese daughter in "Indochine" in 1992 and played against type as a machine operator in Danish director Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" in 2000.

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