In 2017 I went to Paris to interview Catherine Deneuve. The interview took place in a large studio complex in the 11ème arrondissement, and turned out to be a major fashion shoot, with dozens of people milling around, a catering crew, and Deneuve trooping back and forth from her dressing-room to the studio area in an endless parade of different outfits, all of them ineffably chic.
The interview ended up being shoehorned into half an hour at the end of a very long afternoon. I was expecting Deneuve to be exhausted and impatient to get home, and so she probably was, but I had reckoned without her professionalism. I didn’t get a lot of time with her, and there were still so many people milling around and interrupting that the ambience wasn’t exactly relaxing, but she gave me 100%, chain-smoking all the while. She has the sort of charisma that makes you want to be her friend, and also that knack, invaluable for a mega-famous actress, of seeming completely warm, honest and open while actually keeping her cards very close to her chest.
For reasons beyond my or anyone else’s control, the interview was never published. I’m posting my first draft here to tie in with the UK release of La vérité aka The Truth, the first film Hirokazu Kore-eda has made outside his native Japan. It’s not a patch on his Japanese films (maybe because the filmmaker is so quintessentially Japanese, even when tackling universal truths) but there is an awful lot to love in it – in particular Deneuve’s performance as Fabienne Dangeville, a narcissistic French film star whose about-to-be-published autobiography is so cavalier with the truth that it discombobulates the daughter (Juliette Binoche), a writer who is visiting from New York with her husband (Ethan Hawke) and child. (Fabienne, incidentally, is Deneuve’s own middle name…)
Kore-eda handles the intimate family dynamics with ease, as you’d expect, and there’s a lot of pleasure to be had just in spending time in Fabienne’s shabby-chic house and garden in Paris (though as the characters keep pointing out, it’s next to a prison). The film-within-a-film (in which Fabienne is playing a daughter whose mother, for science fiction reasons, looks younger than she does) never really comes into focus. But Denueve is delightful, mischievous and often very funny, as well as touching. And it’s a lot of fun just watching her take her dog for a walk.
Some film legends can be disappointing when you meet them in the flesh, but not Catherine Deneuve. She exceeds expectations. She’s every inch the star, helping herself to chocolate mousse from the catering table, or puffing away at an endless supply of Marlboro Slims. “Isn’t this a no smoking area?” I ask a member of the loyal entourage which has been attending to her hair and make-up. He smiles. “She’s Catherine Deneuve. She can smoke wherever she wants.”
Deneuve has been a star since 1964. In 1985 she was chosen as the model for the face of Marianne, the French symbol of freedom and liberty whose bust decorates town halls throughout the land. At the age of 74, when the rest of us might be thinking about putting our feet up, she is still making at least two films a year to add to the mounting tally of well over a hundred, not counting shorts, mini-series and guest appearances on TV shows such as Nip/Tuck. What does she do when she’s not filming? “When I’m not making films, I work,” she says. “Because there is so much to do, even when the film is released. Do the press, go to other countries to show the film… The shooting is the best part!”
Today she’s been hard at work again, surrounded by an army of beauticians and technicians, the calm centre amid a whirlwind of activity. Just watching from a distance is exhausting. Yet she gives me her full attention, even in response to questions she must already have been asked a thousand times, and shows no trace of boredom or fatigue. After an awkward start, when I dither over whether to talk in English (in which she is fluent) or French (in which I can hold my own… but what if she speaks so rapidly that I can’t keep up?), we settle on English. She asks for an ashtray, lights another Marlboro Slim, and we’re off.
In person, Deneuve proves to be unexpectedly funny, warm and relatable. The cool blonde enigma of masterpieces such as Repulsion and Belle de Jour is only part of the picture. Cinephiles in English-speaking countries rarely got to see her early comedies, nor little-known gems such as Écoute Voir… (1979) in which she plays a private eye who does karate. (“I learned to shoot! I like that film!”)
“That’s what I like about film,” she once said. “It can be bizarre, classic, normal, romantic. Cinema is to me the most versatile thing.” She has even starred in a cult vampire movie – The Hunger. (“I love vampire stories! I think it’s so erotic…”) More recently, it has been hard to miss the rollicking sense of humour on display in films such as Potiche, where she plays a pampered trophy wife who steps up to manage her husband’s umbrella factory when he has a heart attack, or the surreal Belgian satire The Brand New Testament, in which she plays an unhappily married woman who has an affair with a gorilla. “Oh, we had so much fun!”
How does she do it? What is her secret? “There are no secrets,” she says. “Or everybody knows the secrets. It’s trying to get enough sleep. To do some activity when you’re not working. I don’t like sports too much, but I do some Pilates. Twice a week maybe, so it’s enough.” In one of her recent films, The Midwife, she is clearly having a blast playing a hedonist who carries on drinking alcohol and tucking into red meat even after a terminal cancer diagnosis. “I like the character, but she’s not me. She likes eating, drinking, yes, but I don’t do that in life. I don’t think I would be in this state at my age if I was living like that.”
And it’s true she does look fabulous, even at close quarters. It’s no longer the face of an ingenue, of course, but when François Truffaut compared her to a vase “into which one can put all one’s flowers,” he did her an injustice. Despite the flawless beauty, she was never a blank slate; there was always a lot going on behind her eyes, and an almost imperceptible set to her chin which indicated she had a mind of her own. Now she is ageing gracefully, with character and class. This is the actress who famously once said, “At a certain age you have to choose between your face and your ass,” but from where I’m sitting, both are still in enviable shape.
What does she find the most challenging aspect of filming now? ” To keep in shape in a day of ten, twelve hours. It’s a long day. It’s the energy, you know. It’s difficult sometimes, but that’s the major thing, because the energy is what makes the difference.” I’ve heard she’s good at taking cat naps. “Very good! Anywhere, any time. Ah yes, I could put my pillow here and sleep, even with noise. Not on a film set, but in my trailer, yes. If I have twenty minutes in a car I fall asleep.”
I’ve been warned in advance not to ask about her private life, but I’m curious to know she has managed to avoid the sort of media intrusion which can so easily poison the lives of celebrities. “Yeah, I’ve always been very careful to keep my private life private. I had a reason to do that very young.” She’s referring to a relationship she had at the age of nineteen with Roger Vadim, which sent gossip columnists into a feeding frenzy. “The father of my son was quite known as a director, and I was very young, and it was terrible with all the press. Not as bad as today, but it was already really something, so I saw it was very important to be careful and keep everything private.”
And so, while trying not to be intrusive, I establish that she divides her time between her apartment in Paris’s chic 6th arrondissement and her house in Normandy. “I like the countryside, I like nature very much.” She has a dog, cats, a donkey, hens, sheep (“little black ones, very nice”) and enjoys gardening. “It’s not only gardening, it’s being in the country and doing things, it can be the woods, it can be walking, But I like gardening yes, it’s true. Not particularly flowers, but trees, plants, I love gardens.”
Does she ever watch her old films? “No. Well, they’re on television all the time, so I come across them. Maybe I will look for ten minutes, but no, because I don’t have time.” On the other hand, she loves movies. “Oui! But I don’t like to watch films I haven’t seen on DVD. I like to go to the movies! I can look back at them afterwards on TV, but I prefer to discover a film on screen, yes. Big, and the sound! It’s the sound that makes the difference!”
And she travels. “Because I sometimes go to very far countries to present a film, or I go to festivals.’ How does she make herself feel at home in a strange hotel? “If I know I’m going to stay for a few weeks, like I do for a shooting, I take a bedspread with me.” I picture a whole valise stuffed with bulky bedding, but she corrects me. ” No, no, thin, light. But the thing that makes you feel most at home is the bedspread… If it’s your bedspread, the room seems immediately yours. For me it works.”
One evening in 2002, a Parisian friend dragged me into a crowded square in front of the Pompidou Centre, where an enormous screen had been set up for live transmission of the event taking place inside: Yves Saint-Laurent bidding farewell to the fashion world amid a throng of VIPS, models and celebrities. Among them was Deneuve, the couturier’s close friend and muse. The most moving part of the evening was when she began to sing Ma plus belle histoire d’amour (“My most beautiful love story”), a chanson by the beloved French singer-songwriter Barbara. The watchers in the square dissolved into tears, and so did I.
I describe this experience to Deneuve, fearing it will sound silly, but she responds with emotion. ‘Ah oui, oh my God that was something. Ah yes, it was so difficult, I am so shy. I don’t go on the stage, it’s very difficult for me to be physically in public, but they asked me to do that for him, and I overcame my fear to do that for him, for this farewell. Ah yes, that was so sad.”
Her association with Saint-Laurent dates back to 1966. “Because I was going to be presented to the Queen of England, and I needed an evening dress, and my husband then, David Bailey, talked to me about Yves Saint-Laurent, and I showed him a picture of a dress from the collection before and it was so beautiful, white with red. That’s how I met him, and then we did a film together.”
The film was Belle de Jour, one of Deneuve’s most celebrated roles and the first of several for which Saint-Laurent designed her wardrobe. As Séverine, the bourgeois housewife who gets a secret day job in a Parisian brothel, she is so immaculately clad in classic fur-trimmed leather coats and double-breasted frocks that I suspect many modern women find the clothes as much of a turn-on as Séverine’s erotic fantasies. Deneuve ascribes it to the timelessness of the designs. “When you see films of that period they can sometimes be really dated you know, visually…” But Belle de Jour hasn’t dated one jot. “No, because it exists out of time.”
As for singing, that has been a recurring motif in her career. “In my family we used to sing, yes. My parents, my sisters, in cars, you know, travelling. Bécaud, Brassens, even songs from my parents’ time…” She was born Catherine Fabienne Dorléac in Paris in 1943. Both parents were actors, and her elder sister Françoise was already forging an acting career when Catherine followed her on to the screen, taking her mother’s maiden name. After half a dozen films, she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue, but then she met Jacques Demy, who was looking for an actress to star in his bittersweet musical romance, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
“He gave me confidence most of all. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was a very different film. It was a musical, it was like an opera. It was such a wonderful incredible story. I realised cinema could be that, and it’s because of that film that I decided to go on making films, because of him, the way he directed me, the way he looked at me, and put me in that situation. A major decision, yes. A major thing in my life.”
Deneuve went on to work with Demy three more times, most memorably co-starring with her sister Françoise Dorléac in his joyfully bonkers 1967 musical, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. “Demy and Deneuve were a bit like Hitchcock and Grace Kelly,’ Demy’s friend Bertrand Tavernier observed in a documentary about the production made 25 years later by Agnès Varda, Demy’s wife. “I think Jacques found something in Deneuve he’d been searching for – the actress with star quality.” Tragically, the year of the film’s release became one of the saddest in Deneuve’s life when Françoise died in a car accident.
Whereas the songs in Demy’s musicals were dubbed (as was the custom), Deneuve’s own singing voice can be heard in later films, such as François Ozon’s glorious comedy-musical-melodrama 8 Women. In 1981 she recorded an album of songs written by Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she was starring in a film at the time. “I liked him very much,” Deneuve says of the brilliant but sometimes badly-behaved singer-songwriter. “He was very shy, you know. Very shy.” (This is the last thing I expected to hear about the man who in 1986 said to Whitney Houston on live TV, “I want to fuck you.” )
Watch a drunken Gainsbourg trying to muss Deneuve’s hair on TV, and Denueve removing his wandering hand, repeatedly:
Deneuve’s former son-in-law, French singer-songwriter and actor Benjamin Biolay, has been hailed by Paris Match as “le nouveau Gainsbourg”. His marriage to her daughter Chiara (whose father was Marcello Mastroianni) provided Deneuve with the third of her five grandchildren, but the 2005 divorce appears to have been amicable since the voices of both Biolay’s ex-wife and erstwhile mother-in-law feature on an album he released only last year, and Deneuve still refers to him as “family”. “Have you heard the album he made in Argentina?” she enthuses. “It’s called Palermo Hollywood, after a neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. Oh, you must listen to that. It’s great!’
Deneuve’s agent sends her maybe two scripts per month. What makes her decide to accept a role? “The interest of the subject, of the script, and after that it’s the meeting with the director, because I choose the film more than I choose the part. The film is more important to me.” She has, of course, worked with many of cinema’s most celebrated auteurs: Demy, Buñuel, Roman Polanski, Truffaut, and more recently André Téchiné (with whom she has made seven films) and Arnaud Desplechin. In the mid-1960s she also made a film with Varda, sole female director in the otherwise staunchly masculine French New Wave. (“She was so difficult. It was not really a great party of pleasure!”) But over the years, France has steadily been producing more female directors, and Deneuve has made films with many of them. I ask if working with women was a conscious decision on her part. “No, it happened because of the scripts.”
We talk about Place Vendôme, directed in 1998 by actress-turned-director Nicole Garcia, in which Deneuve is astonishingly good as an alcoholic widow who stumbles across a stash of stolen diamonds after the suicide of her jeweller husband. “I love the film,” she says. “But at the beginning the shooting was very difficult for me because she’s an actress… You know, when it’s a man who gives you the line, everything’s different. But when it’s an actress who gives you the line and tells you how she would like you to do it, it’s a little more difficult… They are more picky, you know, female directors.”
Last year she completed a film directed by another female director, Julie Bertuccelli: Le Dernier Vide-Grenier de Claire Darling, adapted from a novel by Texan writer Lynda Rutledge. Not for the first time, Deneuve appears alongside Chiara, who plays her daughter. “In the film we haven’t seen each other for fifteen years, so we don’t have a very good relationship. That’s not really my character. It’s not the relationship I have with my daughter!”
Does she socialise with anybody from work? “Sometimes. I’m doing another film with André Téchiné in the spring. I see him in life even when I’m not working with him… He’s a good friend. But maybe more technicians than actors. The sound, the light, yeah. It’s my interest, my nature.” Her long career has, inevitably, made her something of a technical expert, though she herself has no plans to direct, and she has been a witness to radical changes within the industry. “The thing that really changed? The numérique [digital]. To not use film any more, so smaller cameras, less light, and the camera much closer to you. It was difficult at the beginning, to get used to having the camera so close. But it gave a lot of freedom, opportunity also, to young directors, because it’s much cheaper to do a film with a small camera than with a big one.”
Any impro? “A little, with Lars Von Trier. Well it’s interesting! But he needs to rehearse the scene first.’ It’s no secret that Björk, the Icelandic singer-songwriter, had a harrowing time playing the central role in Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. “Yeah, it was very difficult for her. I think before we even started shooting, she didn’t want to do the film any more. Because she decided it was too far away from her, the subject was hard and she felt things as if she was really living the situation. So some very tense moments. And I did try to protect her when I could, yes.”
This leads us on to a subject that erupted into the news in 2017: sexual harassment in the film industry. “I’d say it always existed, you know. The difference today is that the Pandora’s Box has been opened. But I say it always existed. It didn’t exist for everybody, but it’s something that happens, and not only in cinema, I’m sure. In sport, in industries, you always have these stories.”
We return to the more convivial subject of make-up. Deneuve’s make-up artist has already divulged that she sometimes calls him with tips about the latest face cream, or other products. Which items of make-up does she find indispensable? “When I work I don’t have to think about it, because I have the make-up person with me. But in real life what do I need? Always have a little transparent powder for the nose. And transparent but coloured lipstick. As I smoke a lot I need to put a little hydration on my mouth; I always have something in my bag.”
Is she good with money? Does she have a manager to take care of all that? Deneuve looks rueful. “I don’t need to. It sort of goes away! I’m not a saving person. I’m bad, bad with money.” I mention a business article which ranked the highest paid French film stars, and express surprise that she wasn’t on the list. “The best paid actors? I don’t know about that, but I’m certainly one of the ones who spends the most!”
So when I ask what she does when she wants to spoil herself, I expect the answer to be treating herself to expensive jewellery or something similarly extravagant. Instead she says, “I buy plants.”