Catherine Deneuve is that most put-together of film actresses, with never a blonde hair out of place nor an article of haute-couture misaligned. She brings dignity, grace and an appealing coolness to every role. She is, in sum, the quintessence of Gallic femininity, and on Nov. 10, AFI Fest 2007 will honor to her with a tribute that includes “Persepolis,” an animated French-Iranian production that is France’s entry for the foreign-language Oscar. Deneuve gives voice to the mother of the pic’s central character — a part her daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, undertakes.
“Persepolis” marks roughly Deneuve’s 100th credit as an actress, if one includes the odd TV appearance, but because we never see her in this film, it lacks her commanding imprint. Deneuve’s appeal, even now, at 64, is purely visual. It resides in her carriage, her bearing, her “look.” As a film actress exclusively — she is reputed to suffer from stage fright — Deneuve, a child of actors, never needed to develop those attributes generally cultivated in the theater.
This inimitable style first came to public attention some 40 years ago, in Jacques Demy’s musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964). By the next year, she had made the first of the pics that defined her early cinematic persona, as a woman confused, even unhinged, by sex. That film, Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965), which still shocks, won her deserved accolades and likely brought her to the attention of Luis Bunuel, who cast her in “Belle de jour” (1967).
A enigmatic touchstone of modern cinema, “Belle de jour” finds Deneuve as Severine, a woman so conflicted by sex that she becomes a noontime whore to satisfy her urges, even as she shuns nocturnal relations with her husband. Yet one is as much struck by the scenes in which Severine’s brothel colleagues can’t keep from fondling her clothes and remarking on their quality.
Deneuve’s unfussy beauty and crisp hauteur were polished to high sheen throughout the ’80s and ’90s, even if a number of her pics proved forgettable. Yet the better ones still elicit accolades, including “Indochine” (1992), for which she received her only Oscar nom, and “Place Vendome” (1998), which earned her the Volpi Cup as best actress at the Venice Film Festival.
Nor has the present decade lacked plums. In 2002 came Francois Ozon’s “8 Women,” with Deneuve heading a cast that included many of the great French actresses of the past 40 years. And 2004 brought “Changing Times,” her fifth film for helmer Andre Techine and her seventh opposite Gerard Depardieu.
As Deneuve has transformed from the naif of her early films to the self-assured beauty of her middle period and on into that territory reserved for “une femme d’un certain age,” she has remarkably forestalled the physical decline that accompanies maturity. In so doing, she has more than remained vital; she has insinuated herself into our psyches as the very model of aging gracefully.