Catherine Deneuve: Angelic Ambivalence

M. K. Raghavendra

Catherine Deneuve is arguably one of the three greatest female stars of French cinema – of its modern period – with the other two being Jean Moreau and Isabelle Huppert. Deneuve has been in films by directors as varied as Luis Bunuel, Francoise Truffaut, Jacques Demy, Roman Polanski and Lars von Trier. Considering the range of roles that Catherine Deneuve has played the first surprising thing about her is her compelling beauty. Extraordinary good looks for an actor can become a distraction in any film but this is hardly the case with Deneuve. The important thing is that she does not try to alter her language of gestures for any role but allows the role to envelop her presence – angelic but not without ambiguity – and subverting our expectations.

If one were to examine the qualities that impart ‘stardom’ to an actor one discovers that the quality found among the French is noticeably different from that found in Hollywood. The quality found in a Hollywood actor is a kind of transparency which makes one identify with the thought processes going on inside his/ her head when playing a role. There can be no ambiguity about a Hollywood star’s presence because the films try to create individuals, or rather, ‘individualities’ as types; there is identification with the star-as-protagonist because he/she represents us as we might have been, if we had had the strength to be what we actually are.

As an example of a female Hollywood actor who fits the description one could cite Bette Davis or Julia Roberts; one cannot imagine either of them in a role in which the character is not what she appears to be. This is not to say that the star does not ‘act’; Bette Davis tried to be different – and diffident – in Now, Voyager (1942) and Julia Roberts played the wicked queen in Mirror Mirror (2012). But these performances are more impersonations than delineations of character and hardly provide contrary evidence.   

‘Individuality’ is perhaps best approached through the notion of ‘liberty’ and American cinema is informed by a notion of individuality owing to the intellectual tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, with freedom defined as ‘the absence of external obstacles’. French cinema derives from a different political school – with Rousseau’s writing as the guiding philosophy – which conceives of liberty not as the ‘absence of external obstacles’ but, rather, as the democratic ‘self-rule’ both of the individual citizen and of civil society as a whole. What is important in French cinema is hence not the ‘individual’ but the ‘citizen’ – implicating a social context that the notion of the ‘individual’ does not. Where the Hollywood star tries to show us what a person ‘is’, the French star is content to do much less. He/she relies on the social context or the relationship involving someone to define him/her, and this allows star’s presence a greater degree of mystery. The character played by Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim (1962) or Catherine Deneuve in Mississippi Mermaid (1969) is in fact defined by her mystique; the fact of what she ‘is’ remains elusive. Since the narrative context created by the director is crucial here, one cannot imagine a French star compensating for a weak script through his/her presence but, at the same time, given the right roles, French stars have offered audiences a deeper understanding of character and the social interface.  French stars are also comfortable in avant-garde cinema, films outside the genres as Hollywood stars are usually not.

One of Deneuve’s greatest roles is the one in Luis Bunuels’ Belle De Jour (1967). This film begins with a sequence in which a beautiful woman (played by Deneuve) is driven in a coach into a forest until it comes to a clearing. The coachman dismounts, helps the beautiful woman down, guides her to a tree, ties her to it and strips her roughly. He then fetches a whip and begins to lash her bare back with it. A moment later it becomes evident that this is a dream and that the dreaming woman is happily married to a doting husband. Bunuel offers no explanation for why Severine Serizy has such dreams or why she conducts herself subsequently as she does: she goes into town and takes up employment as a prostitute in a sleazy brothel, working only in the afternoon when her husband is away and being given the name ‘Beauty of the Afternoon’ or ‘Belle De Jour’. Bunuel was an uncompromising surrealist and the film may be understood as a wicked attack on the stultifying institution of marriage; but the important thing from our viewpoint is how Deneuve fits the role. There is something deeply shocking in seeing someone so angelic in her appearance – as Deneuve is – placed in Severine’s position and submitting willingly to physical abuse! I contend that it is Deneuve’s beatific – but still ambiguous – presence in the role that gives Belle De Jour its nasty edge.  

Another great role for Deneuve is that of the woman protagonist in Francois Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid. This is a noir film based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich (who also wrote Rear Window). In this film a rich Tobacco planter in a colony (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is due to marry a young woman whom he has never seen in the flesh although they have exchanged pictures. The woman is due to land on the island and the two will get married almost immediately thereafter. Louis Mahé is surprised when the woman who arrives is not plain – as she seemed in her pictures – but is stunningly beautiful. The woman Julie (Catherine Deneuve) explains that she wanted Louis to love her for what she is rather than for what she looked like. The two get married and Louis shares his bank account with her. Gradually, is begins to seem that the woman claiming to be Julie is really someone else and that there is even the possibility of this woman having killed the real Julie. Making Mississippi Mermaid such a ravishing film is the chemistry between Belmondo and Deneuve – coupled with the element of danger introduced by Deneuve’s ambiguous presence.    

One of my personal favorites among Catherine Deneuve’s roles is that of the heroine in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Le Sauvage (1975) in which she is cast opposite Yves Montand. The film may be described as a romantic screwball comedy and Deneuve plays an impulsive woman who changes her mind without explanation in her choice of men. Martin is a former perfumer who has become sick of the rat race and is therefore living alone on a desert island haven close to Venezuela growing vegetables. Nelly has just changed her mind about the passionate man she is due to marry. She decamps with a Toulouse-Lautrec canvas which she hopes to sell and buy herself an air ticket back to Paris and Martin seems the most likely buyer. Nelly’s role in the film succeeds brilliantly not only because Yves Montand provides it with just the right kind of foil but also because Deneuve’s angelic presence is juxtaposed with the deliberate – almost ruthless – way in which Nelly tries to get what she wants, even when it means completely destroying Martin’s private heaven.

Catherine Deneuve does not struggle with her acting – as most leading actors tend to do – but relies on a presence which has brought alive some of the greatest of films. Deneuve’s presence is difficult to describe but what makes it extraordinarily compelling is that it combines – strangely – an angelic innocence with deep ambiguity and it is largely this aspect that will make so many of her films endure.

September 2014