Catherine Deneuve could have looked ridiculous. There she was in the opening scenes of 2010’s “Potiche,” jogging down a woodsy path in a red tracksuit, pausing to adore the forest creatures and write a little poetry. It was a Disneyfied bit of corn that might have seemed beneath the 68-year-old French film legend, who has worked with Europe’s greatest directors and is considered the embodiment of Gallic womanhood. Yet Deneuve, with her wide, twinkling eyes and still-classic blonde beauty, made it work.
As the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert remarked of Deneuve and co-star Gerard Depardieu in his review, there’s “never a note wrong, never the slightest strain, always such an unforced ease in the sight of the camera that they might have been born onscreen.”
Since 1957, Deneuve has appeared in more than 100 films, which gave her plenty of ground to appear so. She’s sung in musicals (1964’s “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”), slashed away at intruders (1965’s “Repulsion”) and had sex with Susan Sarandon (1983’s “The Hunger”).
But Deneuve, who receives the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 39th annual Chaplin Award on Monday, has established an elegant, bulletproof persona that is equal parts cool eroticism, graceful self-confidence and innocence that has only grown more enigmatic over the years.
“She’s not a flamboyant actress,” says Edward Turk, professor of French and Film studies at MIT. “Her acting style is direct, restrained, and underplayed. But people respond viscerally to her: They’re hoping to see a little more of what’s behind the veneer.”
For Deneuve making movies over the past five decades is neither job nor play. “It’s more like an activity,” she says. “Actors who have been in this activity for a long time, it’s a major thing to keep that innocence over a project. It has to be like the first time, each time.”
Deneuve was born with at least two other important assets: A flawless face and parents who were also actors. One of her three sisters, Francoise Dorleac, had similar striking looks, which got her into the business. The pair appeared in 1967’s “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” but Dorleac died in a car accident, which “destroyed” Deneuve, but did not deter her from acting. “When she died I had already met (Jacques) Demy and (Roman) Polanski and (Luis) Bunuel,” she says.
Demy captured her for “Cherbourg” at an ideal period between late adolescence and womanhood that Turk says showed her off “like an angel come down to earth.” Polanski, meanwhile, saw a darker side to her beauty for “Repulsion” and Bunuel subverted that remote sensuality in “Belle de jour” and “Tristana.”
“I’ve always believed in directors more than anything,” she says. “I have to have confidence in the director, and I don’t mind getting notes.”
Yet while she portrays self-confidence, what’s really behind that veneer is the opposite. “I was so shy when I started,” she laughs.
“I’m confident in my choices, not myself. In a way, acting is like jumping with a parachute — the more you get into it, the more you have to do it and the more it is in you.”
Hollywood and Deneuve never meshed well; she’s only appeared in a handful of American films and is unapologetic about that decision. “I was not offered very interesting things,” she says. “I’m not going to go to America just to say that I’ve done it; I’ve done very well without it.”
Film critics and fans of foreign cinema may have been disappointed, but the best Hollywood ended up offering Deneuve was an Oscar nomination for 1992’s “Indochine.”
By staying home she’s built up an aura as a modern French woman, loyal to her country’s cinema and culture. Her prestige has little to do with box office success but has carried her through her 1960s it-girl status to her avoidance of the press while simultaneously breaking social mores in her personal life (she was not married to either of her children’s fathers, directors Roger Vadim and Marcello Mastroianni), through a fallow period in the 1970s that broke with 1980’s foreign-lingo Oscar-nominated “The Last Metro” and helped her reinvent herself for new audience.
Today, Deneuve is practically her own brand as a spokesmodel for perfumes, makeup, luggage and beyond. If a company wants to identify with beauty and class, they’re most likely looking at Catherine Deneuve — or someone like her.
But for everything she is, Deneuve is not nostalgic. “I don’t look back so much,” she says. “That’s true for my career and my life. I’m walking, I’m not standing still. I’m working — that’s my way of life.”