A silver-screen icon who has embodied the charm, nonchalance, and refinement of French womanhood for more than five decades, Catherine Deneuve saw her acting career take off after Jacques Demy noticed her in Jacques-Gérard Cornu’s 1960 film “L’homme à femmes” (“Ladies Man”), reviewed by Variety on Dec. 7, 1960. Deneuve, then 17, was offered the leading role in Demy’s 1964 musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” which became a huge hit, winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or and earning five Oscar nominations.
Deneuve went on to work with other acclaimed directors, including Luis Buñuel, Roman Polanski, Lars von Trier, François Truffaut, André Téchiné, and Jean-Paul Rappeneau, and earn an Oscar nomination for her role in Régis Wargnier’s “Indochine.” In recent years, she has seen renewed popularity. Upcoming projects include Thierry Klifa’s “Tout nous sépare” with Diane Kruger and French rapper Nekfeu, Martin Provost’s “The Midwife,” and Florence Quentin’s “Bonne Pomme,” opposite Gérard Depardieu.
What are your memories of “Ladies Man”?
“Ladies Man” is far from a forgettable film! I played the daughter of Danielle Darrieux and Mel Ferrer. And for some reason, Jacques Demy, who saw me in this film, sent me a handwritten note saying “there is a cocktail for ‘Lola'” and ‘I’d love to meet you there.” So I went and he told me about “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” this project that seemed a bit crazy… but very exciting, even if at the time I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an actress. I was very young.
Would you say “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” launched your career?
Absolutely. It took a long time to get made because Jacques Demy wrote the music, and it was a tough film to finance. Jacques Demy had a pivotal role in my career. He was a true filmmaker, who was telling me about my character, who had an eye for mise-en-scène. He did amazing shots, incredible traveling shots. And the way he looked at me…. He was both very kind and nurturing.
What about André Téchiné, with whom you’ve made seven films, and Luis Buñuel, who directed “Belle de Jour” and “Tristana”?
I like Téchiné’s films, universe, and mise-en-scène. He also demands a lot from actors. He shoots a lot. You really have to dig within yourself when you work with him. He’s not a director who’s going to ask you for three takes, and that’s it. And I like to be directed. Luis Buñuel was pleasant, but I don’t think directing actors was what he cared about the most; what really interested him was to shoot the story he had written and envisioned.
Your book “In the Shadow of Myself” has anecdotes from film shoots including Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark.” Was Björk really that out of control?
Yes, it’s true that Björk ate her blouse piece by piece because she hated it, and she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t have to wear it again for retakes. It was not an easy shoot!
Who have you admired throughout your career?
I bonded with some directors like Jacques Demy and François Truffaut, but I’ve never had someone who guided me through my entire career. Someone I’ve always admired is Marilyn Monroe. She died young but remains one of my favorite actresses. She did comedies, dramas; she was funny, moving, seductive. I found her incredible. She embodied beauty and cinema at the same time. I also love American actresses from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, like Judy Holliday.
You’ve been taking more chances on lighter roles that show your fun-loving and candid personality. Do you feel more freedom to take these parts now?
I did comedies before, like “Le Sauvage” (“Lovers Like Us”). But it’s true that I’ve done more lately. My roles have evolved with my age group. It’s not that I’ve changed suddenly; it’s just that not many people knew I had these personality traits, and the roles that I’m being offered today let these traits come through. I don’t like comedic films per se, but I like subtle comedies that use situations, dialogue. But it’s very difficult to find comedy projects that have good scripts and interesting roles.
You successfully campaigned for an Oscar nomination for “Indochine” in 1993. What was that like?
I traveled to Los Angeles twice and did a number of interviews. It was quite nice! Back then it wasn’t as much work as it is today with all the different shows and social media… Marion Cotillard, for instance, seems to be working very hard. But in retrospect, I should have probably used that momentum to get a good agent there and pushed to get more opportunities. I’m not as shy today.
You’ve said aging is more difficult for American actresses than for French ones. Do you stand by this statement?
Yes, overall, I think there are more roles for women of a certain age in France than in the U.S. Our culture is not as youth-centric. But things are changing. The question is, for how long?