An Interview With Catherine Deneuve

Catherine Deneuve on her new film, A Christmas Tale, and her long, glorious non-career

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 that's 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 New York's Bowery Hotel — held forth on her life, work and role as a cancer-stricken matriarch in Arnaud Desplechin's just released A Christmas Tale.

Westword: 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 shines, as usual, in A Christmas Tale.
Jean-Claude Lother - Why Not Productions
Catherine Deneuve shines, as usual, in A Christmas Tale.

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 ingenue.

My curiosity for people and films started at a very early age as a movie-goer. 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.

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