“There are two women in you,” flirts the ardent young actor Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) on several occasions in François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980). In his (only sometimes successful) come-ons to various attractive women, Bernard’s flattering platitudes ring hollow. Yet when he ultimately utters the line to theatrical grande dame Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve), it seems at last to be meant sincerely but also to be a worthy insight into the conflicting personality not only of Marion but of Deneuve herself. One of many Deneuve roles in which the legendary French beauty is cast as an erotic ideal, Marion Steiner is merely one example of an intriguing duality present throughout Deneuve’s oeuvre. By ‘duality’, I mean those dialectically opposed binaries (subject/object, villain/victim, pure/impure etc), which co-exist in Deneuve’s characterizations. The resulting creation (synthesis) of richly dichotomous characters defies cinematic conventions for female roles and render Deneuve’s screen persona complex, individualistic, and (perhaps) ultimately unknowable. Considering Deneuve’s singular beauty and the predominantly sexual themes of her films, these dichotomies seem primarily to formulate a unique sexual persona for Deneuve. The various ways in which Deneuve’s highly capable directors (and Deneuve herself) interpret this signature sexual persona is the subject of this essay.
Since achieving immediate and sweeping prominence with her 1963 role in Jacques Demy’s operatic melodrama The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Deneuve has enjoyed continuing popularity and a prolific career. Among Deneuve’s many lauded performances within her homeland, two films apiece by three venerable directors shall serve herein as example of her four decades spent as France’s leading lady: Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), François Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969) and The Last Metro, and André Téchiné’s My Favorite Season (1993) and Thieves (1996). To be examined in contrast are several Deneuve roles in non-French productions helmed by directors of diverse national identities: Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) and Tristana (1970), Robert Aldrich’s Hustle (1975) and Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983). I classify Deneuve’s directors by nationality in order to examine additional, intriguing contrasts, patterned by cross-cultural differences, in the construction and interpretation of Deneuve’s sexual screen persona.
Unlike other internationally regarded screen beauties such as Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor, Deneuve escaped being principally relegated to sex symbol status. While her screen persona is unequivocally one of sexual allure, Deneuve’s is an understated sensuousness restrained, no doubt, by the delicate and aloof beauty for which she is known. Even in roles which emphasize her potential for carnal passion, Deneuve displays far less of the frank sexual candor exhibited by other screen sirens. Indeed, glimpses of Deneuve’s nude form are rarely and covertly revealed, while scenes depicting sex are conducted with minimal exposure. Deneuve’s famous and unique beauty is concentrated primarily from the neck up, evident by the predilection of her directors to favor lingering close-ups on her exquisite facial features over more objectifying shots of her body. It points to the exceptional nature of her facial structure that despite a decidedly subdued presence (steady tone of voice, minimalist gestures and frequent impassivity largely typify her acting technique), Deneuve is so uniquely mesmerizing on screen. The consummate example of this is Deneuve’s largely mute performance in Repulsion, in which she is able to convey such potent emotion almost exclusively through subtle, coy gestures and glances.
Deneuve’s much-noted beauty is indeed striking, and is often remarked upon within her films in a strangely self-reflexive manner, as if such acknowledgements are aimed beyond her characters to Deneuve herself. “Ahh, the beautiful younger sister!,” Ian Hendrey’s character greets Deneuve in Repulsion (consider that Deneuve was the beautiful younger sister of another of Polanski’s actresses, Françoise Dorléac.) In Mississippi Mermaid, the police detective who hunts Deneuve’s character remarks on “her perfect features,” noting that “people remember her. I guess men do prefer blondes…she doesn’t escape notice.” Playing Deneuve’s brother, Daniel Autueil reminisces on their childhood in My Favorite Season: “Whenever people found you pretty, it stressed you out. You felt it was unfair, a flaw…You were every boy’s fantasy, every girl’s ideal.” Such anxiety could understandably impinge on Deneuve herself, considering that with critics and the public alike, impressions or mentions of Deneuve’s beauty often precede acknowledgements of her talent. Much of the existing discourse on Deneuve focuses on her associations with acclaimed filmmakers and the highly revered works on which they have collaborated. The surprising dearth of serious critical analysis on Deneuve exclusively would seem to indicate that her renowned beauty perhaps overshadows the quality of her performance, resulting in an unfortunate overlooking of her talents as an actress.
Yet standing as testament to Deneuve’s talent is her long and distinguished career, commencing with her screen debut at the exceedingly early age of 13. Born in 1943 into an acting family, Deneuve (née Dorléac) is the eldest daughter of veteran stage and screen actor Maurice Dorléac but adopted her actress mother’s maiden name. Deneuve’s older sister Françoise Dorléac, also a great beauty, had already attained international stardom when an automobile accident in 1967 ended her life tragically at the age of 25. Raised in Paris, the two sisters were unusually close and appeared together (as sisters) in The Young Girls of Rochefort. Deneuve’s early career was helped along by star-maker Roger Vadim, who cast her in her first film and made her a teenage mother when she gave birth to their son Christian in 1963. A 1965 marriage to renowned Swinging London photographer David Bailey ended in divorce in 1972. In that same year, she gave birth to a second child, Chiara, by Marcello Mastroianni. Internationally acclaimed as a screen legend, Deneuve enjoys an unparalleled level of prestige and adoration within her native France, evident in her having been selected as paragon of the modern Marianne, the symbolic figure who represents the French republic. As such, the postal service issued Deneuve stamps and Marianne busts in Deneuve’s likeness were installed in over 30,000 town halls throughout France.
Unlike another recent Marianne, perennial sex symbol Brigitte Bardot, Deneuve’s incarnation as the patriotic maiden seems predicated on the screen persona with which she has been identified in French cinema since her debut as virtue personified in Vadim’s 1963 film Vice and Virtue. French directors have generally chosen to interpret France’s leading lady and national treasure as femininity and purity exemplified. However, as is befitting the matter-of-fact view of sex attributed to the French, quite often Deneuve’s characters defy the chastity expected of them (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) or turn out not to be the innocents they initially seemed (Mississippi Mermaid). Interpretations of the sexual purity (or lack thereof) of Deneuve’s characters by non-French directors is, as will be shown, rather more disturbing.
Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was a revolutionary hit when it was released in 1964, not only for being the first all-sung musical (in a candy-colored hybrid of opera, Douglas Sirk and Busby Berkeley) but also for introducing the world to 20-year-old Deneuve. With her angelic looks and ethereal presence, Deneuve made audiences gasp, encouraged by musical composer Michel Legrand’s soaringly romantic score. Winner of the 1964 Palme d’Or at Cannes, the melodramatic narrative recounts a doomed love between sheltered shop girl Geneviève (Deneuve) and poor mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). When Guy departs for military service and Geneviève learns that she is pregnant, her social-climbing mother pushes her into marrying a wealthy but bland jewelry merchant. The lovers’ eventual reunion is tainted with regret; a bittersweet musing that true love does not always conquer all. Perhaps more than any other director, Demy highlights Deneuve’s beauty to full effect by frequently shooting her lovingly in close-up, costuming her in an array of dazzling pastels and, in three spell-binding shots, having her gaze directly into the camera.
As the only child of an overbearing mother, Geneviève becomes pregnant with the illegitimate baby of a humble working-class man. That Geneviève eventually heeds her practical-minded mother’s advice and consents to a loveless marriage with the wealthy Roland introduces a recurring theme in Deneuve’s performances, perhaps best designated as the fairy-tale princess syndrome. Roland refers to Geneviève as “Sleeping Beauty” and offers to ‘save’ her, first by paying her mother’s debts and then by proposing marriage. When Geneviève reluctantly accepts, saying “I have no choice – you are my king,” Roland places a golden crown upon her head.
Mississippi Mermaid begins, essentially, as a fairy tale, with Belmondo’s Louis as the wealthy prince who rescues Deneuve’s Marion (a welfare baby) by summoning her to his island paradise for a royally lavish wedding. And when her prince loses his fortune, Marion is inspired by a Snow White comic strip to attempt poisoning him. In Repulsion, Hendrey’s character remarks of Deneuve’s Carol Ledoux, “I don’t think Cinderella likes me,” while Carol’s suitor wards off his pub mates’ queries on his success with “Little Miss Muffet.” Carol herself spends much of the film dressed in a filmy nightgown that is part-princess, part-little girl. Raymond Durgnat interprets Belle de Jour‘s narrative, which overlays reality and fantasy, as “a fairy-story which Sévérine is telling herself, as so many young women tell themselves romantic fairy-stories.” (Durgnat, 1977, 146) Indeed, the horse-drawn carriage of Sévérine’s fantasies also evokes Cinderella. In Hustle, Deneuve’s hooker Nicole wishes for Burt Reynolds’ cop to transport her from a life of prostitution to a romantic European existence. The Hunger‘s Miriam Blaylock (Deneuve), a princess of darkness who resides in a castle-like mansion full of treasures from antiquity, seduces Susan Sarandon’s character with a story of an Indian princess who travels with her attendant to a river’s source. This pervasive fairy-tale motif buttresses the regal qualities of Deneuve’s sexual persona, in addition to establishing in Deneuve’s films an extensive discourse on money and social class.
Polish director Roman Polanski, who noted that Deneuve “looks like a professional virgin, but sexy,” revealed to the hilt this so-far untapped quality of Deneuve’s in the first of his several brilliantly chilling portraits of sexual psychosis. Polanski’s second and arguably best film, 1965’s horrifyingly effective Repulsion, casts Deneuve as a painfully shy Belgian manicurist living in a London flat with her coquettish sister, who departs on a romantic holiday with her fiancé. Left alone, Deneuve’s Carol Ledoux descends into a murderous madness brought on by her extreme seclusion and sexual frigidity. Haunted by nightmarish delusions, she is driven to slay a would-be suitor and a lecherous landlord.
Deneuve’s virginal Carol, displaced in a strange city and a third wheel at home (where she is forced nightly to listen to her sister’s lovemaking), is assaulted on all sides by reminders of her burgeoning sexuality. Leering men call to her in the street, one ardent suitor repeatedly begs her for a date, other girls at the salon confide their own men troubles, while the salon’s grotesque older clients warn that “there’s only one way to get along with men – treat them like you don’t give a damn about them…There’s only one thing they want, and I’ll never know why they make such a fuss about it.” Neither, it seems, does Carol know – she is repulsed by sexual contact and men in general. Her neurosis is based on an unwillingness to mature sexually, preferring to remain in the motherly care of her sister and resenting the presence of a man in the house. Reluctantly allowing a would-be boyfriend to kiss her, she remains wide-eyed and unresponsive before fleeing, and afterwards viciously wipes her mouth. Much like the roving eyes of the film’s male characters, the consistently subjective camera, often moving and usually at eye level, is “seemingly infatuated with Deneuve, rarely leav[ing] her face and body except to reveal her nightmares.” (Wilmington) These nightmares constitute Carol’s sublimation of a deeply neurotic sexual frigidness, a condition from which other of Deneuve’s characters suffer as well (though not to such a psychopathic degree.) “I can’t even stand the idea of making love,” Deneuve’s Marion tells her newlywed husband in Mississippi Mermaid, while Sévérine’s husband in Belle de Jour is so accustomed to her refusals that he’s stopped attempting to “impose” on her.
Frozen in an arrested prepubescence, Repulsion‘s Carol gazes longingly out her apartment window at a group of Catholic schoolgirls at play in a churchyard (the source of the tolling bells which accompany Carol’s visions.) In analogizing Carol to both a young girl and the Virgin Mary, Polanski joins several of Deneuve’s directors in associating the actress with innocence and purity. Roland tells the pregnant Geneviève in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, “You resemble a virgin with child,” while her mother repeatedly reminds her that she is still merely a child. Deneuve and sister Dorléac are compared to the children whom they teach in The Young Girls of Rochefort. Mississippi Mermaid‘s Marion (her name evokes the Virgin’s and is noticeably the name Truffaut gives Deneuve in both of their films together) keeps a pet canary, is scared of the dark and is repeatedly told by her husband that she’s “adorable.” (“Do you know what that means, ‘adorable’?” asks Louis. “Worthy of adoration.”) In Belle de Jour, Sévérine asks her husband to stay with her until she falls asleep, to which he replies, “You’ll never grow up.” Later, Madame Anaïs assures Sévérine of her sexual potential by saying, “You are sweet and fresh, just the way they like them,” while the lascivious Husson compliments her dress as making her look like a “precocious schoolgirl.” Attracted to her virtue, Husson declines to sleep with Sévérine after discovering her in the brothel. Durgnat interprets Belle de Jour as a masochistic fairy tale for the reason that “throughout it, Sévérine is seeking to put herself in situations in which she is a child, in which she has no choice.” (Durgnat, 1977, 146) Tristana enters Don Lope’s house as a recently orphaned child, “that strange flower, so rare these days, which is borne of perfect innocence,” and following her amputation reverts once more to childlike behavior (teasing her former playmate Saturno and delighting in winning a treat from a street peddler.) Durgnat notices as well Buñuel’s analogy to the Virgin with “a direct cut [that] compares the church Madonna with [Tristana’s] balcony exhibition of two perfect breasts.” (Durgnat, 1974, 56)
Deneuve’s directors follow their preliminary thesis of purity with an antithesis of impurity by associating her characters with prostitution. After learning of Geneviève’s marriage in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Guy solicits a harlot named Ginny (“You can call me Geneviève”) who says to him, “You’re going to tell me I remind you of someone.” In Repulsion, Carol’s lovesick suitor is assured by his pub mates, “They’re all the same, these bloody virgins – they’re just teases.” Her landlord’s lewd proposition (“Take care of me and you can forget about the rent,”) leads to Carol’s second killing, with the blood splattered on her nightgown a symbol of her defilement. Mississippi Mermaid‘s Marion initially dresses in light-colored, feminine garments. After learning of her deception, husband Louis burns her lacy white lingerie, and she is next seen wearing the racy black costume of a nightclub hostess. Seeing Marion turn away a lecherous man who has followed her home, Louis asks cruelly, “Why didn’t you let that guy in – not enough money?” Kissing her lover Horacio, Tristana is chastised by a passerby not to “use the street as a brothel;” after returning to live with Don Lope, she is urged by a priest to marry her guardian so as to correct her concubinage. And in Belle de Jour and Hustle, Deneuve depicts two diametrically opposed versions of the world’s oldest profession, both of which defy conventional interpretations. While Hustle‘s Nicole unashamedly sells her body to survive (“Everybody hustles,” is the film’s axiom), Belle de Jour‘s Sévérine seeks erotic fulfillment that her staid married life cannot provide.
In Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, Deneuve gives what has often been called the best performance of her career, despite – or perhaps because of – a nearly explosive tension with Buñuel. A bored bourgeois housewife, Deneuve’s Sévérine Serizy entertains highly charged, masochistic sexual fantasies but remains incapable of passion for her surgeon husband Pierre (Jean Sorel). Perverse curiosity leads her to begin working afternoons in an upscale brothel, where she assumes the name ‘Belle de Jour’ and falls in love with brutish gangster Marcel (Pierre Clementi.) In a jealous rage, Marcel shoots Sévérine’s husband, crippling him and soon after being killed himself by a police officer. When her husband’s lascivious friend Henri (Michel Piccoli) exposes Sévérine’s indiscretions, Pierre seems ready to die of shock but in an abrupt volte-face (which may or may not occur in Sévérine’s imagination) recovers fully. The film closes with the implication that Sévérine is reformed, content to dutifully attend to her paralyzed spouse and occasionally slip back into her old fantasies.
A significant proportion of Deneuve’s roles portray women who aspire to a higher social class or, having achieved this goal (through marriage or by criminal means), demonstrate a preoccupation with material wealth or elevated social status. Deneuve’s Geneviève is won over by Roland’s promise of financial security in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, while Mississippi Mermaid‘s Marion goes to murderous lengths for money and tells her husband, “I hate men who work,” when he suggests taking a factory job. Deneuve’s Tristana chooses to remain with wealthy Don Lope rather than return to her lover Horacio. Buñuel makes prominent the issue of class in his tragicomedy of manners, Belle de Jour, in which Sévérine’s sisters-in-sin exclaim over her elegant clothes and are made to feel inferior when Sévérine’s “classy” appearance is favored by clients.
Deneuve’s association with François Truffaut occurred both on and off screen, as the pair were for a time linked romantically (Truffaut also had an affair with Deneuve’s sister and his Soft Skin star Françoise Dorléac.) In 1969, Truffaut cast Deneuve as a mysterious beauty in Mississippi Mermaid, his Hitchcockian tale of a wealthy tobacco factory owner (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who summons a mail-order bride to his lavish home on the African island of Réunion. Deneuve’s bride does not fit the description of the expected woman, but Belmondo’s Louis is taken by her beauty and in short order falls in love and marries her. When Deneuve’s Marion absconds with the money from their joint bank account, Louis begins an obsessive hunt that leads to an Antibes cocktail lounge. Based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich, who also penned the source material for Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black and Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the film casts Deneuve as the prototypical Hitchcockian cool blonde.
It is surprising, considering Truffaut’s much-noted devotion to Deneuve, that he cast her in one of her few villainous roles (though he is said to have been devastated when she ended their affair.) Deneuve’s Marion is an imposter and accomplice to murder, who reacts coldly when Louis kills the private detective seeking to arrest her (“That’s one bastard less,” she says contemptuously) and later attempts to poison Louis. This cold-hearted, narcissist tendency is often attributed to Deneuve’s characters, from the chilly remove of Geneviève in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Emilie’s estrangement from everyone (including herself) in My Favorite Season.
Deneuve’s eponymous role in 1970’s Tristana most prominently displays this self-determinism. In her second outing with Buñuel, Deneuve plays an innocent, dependent young woman in 1920’s Toledo. Recently orphaned, Tristana is taken in by her mother’s former lover Don Lope (Fernando Rey), a progressive Socialist and dandyish Don Juan. The reliant Tristana quickly progresses from ward to mistress, as Don Lope asserts himself as both father and husband “as it suits [him].” Quickly coming to hate her guardian, Tristana escapes by eloping with handsome young artist Horacio (Franco Nero). Yet she returns not long after, gravely ill with a leg tumor, and remains with Don Lope even after she has undergone an amputation and recovered fully. She concedes to marry Don Lope but refuses to consummate their wedding, and when a heart attack seizes Don Lope, Tristana opens his bedroom door wide to ensure it proves fatal. Both examples of the psychological damage inflicted upon women in the cultures depicted, Tristana and Belle de Jour can be understood as sisters representing either pole of sadistic-masochistic neurosis. “It is no accident,” writes Joan Mellen, “that both parts are played by Catherine Deneuve, whose perfect blond beauty has the quality of ice, of emotion repressed.” (Mellen, 194) Yet whereas Belle de Jour introduces contradiction when Sévérine’s actions defy her masochistic fantasies, Tristana does fulfill her desire of dominating Don Lope, prophesied in her fantasy-dreams of his castrated head substituting the bell clapper.
In Robert Aldrich’s 1975 neo-noir Hustle, Deneuve plays a French call girl living in Los Angeles with her police detective boyfriend (Burt Reynolds). They dream of escaping their respectively sordid work for an idyllic life on the Mediterranean, though Reynolds’ bitter cop resists accepting Deneuve’s matter-of-fact hooking. With the promise to Deneuve of “one last job,” Reynolds crusades to find the killer of a young girl caught up in a seamy underworld. His ultimate masochism leads him to a dead end, with Deneuve left waiting futilely. Deneuve’s Nicole and Reynolds’ Phil make an incongruous pair (as do the two actors themselves), coming not only from different cultures but from opposite sides of the law as well. Yet there is mutual respect, primarily because Phil comes to accept Nicole’s unorthodox brand of survivalism. Defending her to his opprobrious boss, Phil says, “You can’t blame her – Every beauty contest winner does the same thing.”
Truffaut again cast Deneuve (who won a César for her role) as the iron-willed grande dame of 1980s The Last Metro, in which acclaimed Jewish stage director Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennet) in German-occupied Paris goes (literally) underground to hide out in his theater’s cellar. Upstairs, his wife Marion (Deneuve) takes over business affairs and keeps the Nazis at bay while acting opposite smooth-talking Resistance fighter Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) in the theater’s latest production. As Lucas immerses himself in eavesdropping on rehearsals and making extensive notes to be secretly incorporated into the staging of the production, Marion and Bernard fall in love on stage and off. In their first performance following the Liberation, Lucas emerges triumphantly to join hands with his lead actors for the final curtain call.
In the role of a leading actress on the Parisian stage, Deneuve plays a character not unlike that of her real identity as a prominent screen actress, thus initiating a self-reflexive discourse on voyeurism. Truffaut subjected Deneuve to similar scrutiny in Mississippi Mermaid, with Belmondo’s obsessive husband first spying her on television (in a reflexive nod to the medium’s voyeuristic qualities) and again in the streets of Antibes. Later, Louis runs his hands over Marion’s passive, inert form in a disturbing ritual of near-necrophilia (an almost identical scene occurs with Françoise Dorléac in The Soft Skin.) Within Deneuve’s first scene in The Last Metro, Truffaut constructs his mise-en-scène to establish a voyeuristic relationship between Marion Steiner as object and both Lucas and Bernard (as well as the spectator) as subjects. Glimpsing the acclaimed actress in an adjoining room, Bernard (and via point-of-view shots, the spectator) surreptitiously watches her move about. On two other occasions, Bernard again secretly watches Marion, gazing out a café’s wide ‘picture’ window. Bernard’s activist friend makes a side reference to an early film in which Marion appeared; titled House of Sin, it is inferred to have been illicit and to have produced an infamous, coveted still image of Marion.
Yet Marion, we are told, has renounced her former vocations as movie star and fashion model, preferring the more refined work of a stage actress and thus negating her status as object (even for the initially lecherous Bernard.) Indeed, Truffaut’s film allows its female characters (and most notably Marion) to exhibit sexual freedom and independence with none of the ensuing consequences with which conventional film narratives punish “loose” women. The expectation of sexual monogamy for women is largely debunked in The Last Metro, as an early scene portrays an older actress matter-of-factly explaining that every woman has a “numéro deux” man. Marion herself blatantly picks up a man in a Parisian nightclub, and earlier makes reference to several escapades conducted with her husband, involving an elevator tryst and a fashion designer on A Doll’s House. Though devoted to her husband, Marion dislikes the limitations of marriage on a woman’s identity and for this reason chooses to “desert the conjugal cave” of her husband’s hideout in order to pursue her burgeoning love aboveground. When Bernard wishes her “Bon soir, Madame Steiner,” she softly corrects him with “Bon soir, Marion.” As the final scene makes clear, with Marion joining hands with both Lucas and Bernard for their curtain call, her love unapologetically extends to two men. This seems fitting, considering Bernard’s declaration to Marion that “there are two women in [her].”
Yet the film’s characters voice darker observations about Marion, such as the remark made by a lesbian-coded character caught embracing another woman: “Marion is heartless. She’s too tough, she’s too cold.” Lucas, basing the lead character of his newest opus on his wife, describes her as “cruel despite herself.” And in an auto-homage typical of Truffaut, Depardieu repeats a line also uttered by Belmondo in Mississippi Mermaid: “You’re so beautiful it hurts to look at you.” This quality of emotional hardness pervades Deneuve’s performances and can be partially attributed to her intimidating beauty and seemingly unflappable demeanor. As Gérard Depardieu once remarked of Deneuve, “She is the man I would have liked to be.” Deneuve’s character addresses head-on the double standard of her predicament, when Marion complains to Lucas, “When you were running the theater, you had the right to be moody…Why am I expected to be charming and smiling at all times?” Truffaut has said that he was able, in The Last Metro, to satisfy a pledge to himself of “giv[ing] Catherine Deneuve the role of a responsible woman.”
Tony Scott’s highly stylized 1983 cult film The Hunger is a Transylvanian tale of an ageless immortal (Deneuve) whose superior blood offers her lovers an extended lifetime followed by a rapid decline into aging and death. When her current companion (David Bowie) succumbs to his inevitable demise, Deneuve’s Miriam Blaylock seduces earnest scientist Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) into her lavishly appointed web. Fearing mostly for her virtue, Roberts’ boyfriend attempts to rescue her from Miriam’s lair, but not in time to save her from Miriam’s eternal life-giving bite. Yet when Miriam’s crypt of decomposing lovers vengefully turn on her, pulling her into the “eternal darkness” which enslaves them, Sarah rises to the immortal throne.
Deneuve’s Miriam is part vampire, part black widow – reliant on mortals for companionship, she dominates them by feeding on their blood and continues to dominate them by inevitably outliving them. The Hunger contains a disturbing yet fascinating discourse on aging, particularly by way of casting a near-flawless 40-year-old Deneuve in the role of an ageless temptress. The film enshrines youth and beauty by comparing the impeccable Deneuve to the equally exquisite works of art (Florentine busts, Roman statues) which fill her Park Avenue mansion, while juxtaposing increasingly repugnant images of disease and aging.
In one of her early scenes in The Last Metro, which Deneuve made at the age of 37, two young admirers watch her from a distance. “She’s still quite beautiful,” one man says, to which the other replies, “What do you mean, still?” To extend further her dissimilarity to other screen goddesses, Deneuve is an exception in continuing to demand choice roles at an age considered beyond prime by a youth-obsessed film industry. Choosing projects selectively but by no means infrequently, Deneuve challenges the widely held notion that good roles for older actresses are few and far between.
Yet even more fascinating than Deneuve’s ability to navigate a steady course of ever-maturing roles is the witnessed transformation, with age, of her physical appearance. Deneuve has with age metamorphosed not so much into an older version of her youthful etherealness but rather into a new kind of beauty altogether. “Has there ever been an actress in the history of the movies who has changed as little and aged as slowly as Catherine Deneuve?” asked Roger Ebert after meeting her at Cannes in 1995. “To the degree that she had changed, it was simply to ripen, to add experience and sympathy to the raw beauty of a teenager. Her beauty, then and now, is like a blow to the eyes.” (Ebert) This evolving but still stunning beauty is most vividly expressed in the subtle shifting palette of her wondrous face, which with age has taken on a more open expanse befitting the earthier, less impassive humanity of her recent roles.
Also compelled by the theme of aging is director André Téchiné, who skillfully cast Deneuve in My Favorite Season, an understated family drama given weight by the solid performances of its two mature French stars. Estranged siblings Emilie (Deneuve) and Antoine (Daniel Auteuil) share unfulfilled lives and a borderline incestuous bond. When faced with caring for their ailing mother, the two reconcile and find the resolve to seek a life beyond complacency. Three years later, Téchiné again teams Deneuve and Auteuil in Thieves, in a structurally complex re-working of the crime thriller. When a local gangster is killed, his detective brother Alex (Auteuil) reluctantly seeks out the circumstances of his death. Finding himself caught in a web of petty crime and familial deceit, Alex vies with genteel philosophy professor Marie (Deneuve) for the affections of a strong-willed young girl (Laurence Côte). The wistfully melancholic academic portrayed by Deneuve is said to be modeled on Téchiné’s former mentor and friend, Roland Barthes. Téchiné’s collaboration with Deneuve is most interesting for its initiation of two new roles for the actress: mother and lesbian. Playing mother to her real-life daughter Chiara in My Favorite Season, Deneuve’s character overcomes the familial alienation caused by her unresolved childhood. Her potential for maternal warmth is also exhibited in her relationship with the young Juliette in Thieves, most poignantly in a scene of the two taking a bath. Though her relationship with Juliette is undermined by the film’s male characters, who assume that it is Marie’s way of feeling younger, Marie realizes that in Juliette she has found what she’s always looked for in a man. With the terrain forged by Téchiné, in giving the mature Deneuve ever more complex roles, the synthesis of her sexual persona is complete and la grande dame of French cinema stands poised for a fifth decade of stardom.
Durgnat, Raymond, “Tristana,” Film Comment, Vol. 10 No. 5, September/October 1974
Durgnat, Raymond, Luis Buñuel, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977
Ebert, Roger, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 31, 1996
Mellen, Joan, Women and their Sexuality in the New Film, New York: Horizon, 1973
Wilmington, Michael, “Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ Still a Chilling Portrayal of Erotic Panic,” Chicago Tribune, October 3, 1997