Film goddess

April 16, 2011

For anyone who thinks that film goddesses are extinct, a new comedy serves as a gentle reminder that Catherine Deneuve continues to star in movies by some of the most lauded directors in French cinema. Her latest effort is Francois Ozon’s “Potiche” (“Trophy Wife”), which opens in Washington on Friday.

The film, set in the 1970s, casts Deneuve, still radiant at 67, as Suzanne Pujol, the wife of a male chauvinist (Fabrice Luchini) who runs her father’s umbrella factory with fervent condescension.

After his restive employees strike and hold him hostage, he suffers a health scare and is forced to turn over the firm to the seemingly bubble-headed Suzanne, whose frumpy clothes and shellacked helmet of bouffant hair belie a hitherto untapped business savvy. To everyone’s surprise — including her own — Suzanne ends up elevating both profits and morale at the factory, helped in part by a left-wing government official and former paramour played by Gerard Depardieu, one of her favorite screen partners.

“I thought it was a very nice funny story, with a sort of revenge twist that makes people, and myself, quite happy,” the actress, dressed in earth-toned Prada, said in an interview last month at an exclusive hotel off the Sunset Strip. “It’s about a woman who is supposed to be so shy and who is taken advantage of, and then she realizes that life is more than what she thought.”

Deneuve worked with Ozon previously on “8 Women” (2002), a campy murder mystery that included nearly every living great French actress among its entirely distaff cast. But the director wrote the new movie, based on a successful stage play, specifically for her.

“Catherine is so often the iconic image of the cold beauty,” Ozon said by phone from Paris. “But she can be very warm, and I thought this could be a good opportunity to show that personality.”

Ozon maintains that one source of Deneuve’s appeal today is her bearing. “She’s very elegant in ridiculous situations,” he said, mentioning the film’s opening scene, in which Deneuve wears a loud red jogging outfit and interacts with forest animals in the manner of Snow White. “Not every actress can do that. She doesn’t want to be superior to the part. Catherine is very human and can touch you. She has no irony. This is the story of a woman who is suffering, who is humiliated at the beginning of the film, and it was important to show that.”

Deneuve displayed a very different kind of vulnerability when her career began in the early 1960s. Her big break came when she played the dewy female lead in the melancholy musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964), an international hit directed by Jacques Demy, whom she credits with igniting her interest in film acting.

She then starred in two of the most controversial — and critically hailed — pictures of the 1960s: Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965), in which she played a timid manicurist driven to madness and homicide, and Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour” (1967), in which she played a young wife turned noonday whore.

Soon her cool beauty alone drew audiences worldwide, though not always to films that endured. A breakthrough came when Francois Truffaut cast her opposite Depardieu in “The Last Metro” (1980). Her vulnerable yet tensile performance as the wife of a theater director in Vichy France earned raves and caused other filmmakers to see her in a new light. By the 1990s, she emerged as a figure of feminine grit hampered by significant flaws in pictures such as “Indochine” (1992), for which she received her only Oscar nomination.

Deneuve breezily acknowledges her progress but eschews reflection. “I’ve been going through an evolution,” she said, “but I do not inspect myself. I don’t think it’s for me to say. I don’t watch my movies. I don’t have time. When I go to the movies, I see the films of others.”

She counts “The Social Network,” “Black Swan” and “Inception” among recent movies she admires. “I also liked ‘The King’s Speech,’ ” she said, “but there was less surprise in it for me than ‘The Social Network.’ That film is amazing — the rhythms, the imagination — and the script is especially good. It’s very strong and powerful, and also touching in a way.”

Deneuve did not yearn for a screen career, even as she ultimately embraced one. Though her parents were stage actors (the family name is Dorleac), her father was no stranger to film, having dubbed the voices of Alan Ladd and Gregory Peck when their movies were released in France. Deneuve took her mother’s maiden name to distinguish herself from her older sister Francoise, who started acting first. (Francoise died in a car crash in 1967, not long after starring with her sister in “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” another Demy musical and something of a follow-up to “Umbrellas.”)

Perhaps because of her unanticipated entry into film, Deneuve says she did not model herself on those who preceded her on the screen, though she readily expresses admiration for Marilyn Monroe, Carole Lombard and, surprisingly, Jean Arthur, the great American comic actress. “She has a very strange and unusual tone,” Deneuve said. “I love her.”

The actress’s workload has never abated since she achieved stardom, and she has collaborated with some of cinema’s most distinguished directors. In addition to Polanski, Bunuel, Truffaut and Ozon, the list includes Jean-Pierre Melville, Andre Techine, Lars von Trier and Arnaud Desplechin. One quality unites them: “Some people are more universal than others — they have a greater mind, a greater view,” she said. “And some have the ability to put that into images and words.”

Deneuve notes her good fortune, and new challenges and rewards likely await. But not all of her dreams can be realized. “There are a lot of important directors that I probably won’t work with,” she said. “It’s not just the language barrier; there’s also the time. You cannot work with all the important people in cinema.”

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