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The undisputed queen of French cinema flew in to Australia on a brief promotional visit for the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival (March 2008) and revealed she not only didn’t like nude scenes, she doesn’t even like to see sex on the screen, because these scenes are hardly ever erotic, she explained to Andrew L. Urban.

What’s she really like, this Catherine Deneuve, queen of French cinema, whose libido churning presence from Belle de Jour in 1967 to 8 Women in 2001 (and beyond) has burned a patch in the hearts of cinema lovers the world over. That’s the question in my mind while waiting for her arrival in Sydney’s stylish Sofitel Wentworth hotel. She is delayed by the flu; arriving from Paris via Singapore, the little bug that began in Paris has become nasty. She is the guest of the 2008 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, and star of the Festival’s Australian premiere of Après Lui (After Him).

"age has not wearied her"

Late but calm and collected after a brief rest, she faces the waiting cameras with that familiar, elegant half smile. In a lightweight, long sleeved brown V neck top and cream skirt with a streetscape pattern, she is unadorned except for two large rings, a white square on the right hand, an orange circle on the left. No earrings, no necklace. Understated, groomed, coiffed. She is 64 and a grandmother, but age has not wearied her, and if she’s had ‘anything done’ it’s minimal and invisible. (She doesn’t think actors should over indulge in Botox treatments.) The sensuous mouth and liquid eyes, half hidden behind small, egg-shaped tinted glasses, are as seductive as ever. But, even with red nail polish on surprisingly modest nails and small hands, it’s an understated presence. She exudes a classic, muted quality – but with great hair - as she sips a medicinal herbal tea.

Her English is excellent, and after a few remarks about the film, Après Lui (in which she plays the grief stricken mother, Camille), I ask her view of English language roles. “My view is very French,” she says emphatically – but with humour. “I’m not prepared to go and live in America and you have to be there to be considered … I haven’t been offered any scripts I liked.”

This excludes the first English language role she was ever offered, it turns out by the director we all wished she had worked with: “I met with Alfred Hitchcock and we were discussing a role in a thriller, but he died before we could do it.”

As for her views on France under new President Sarkozy, is it a better place, Deneuve refuses to answer. “I don’t answer questions about French politicians … it could be taken and spread everywhere and misrepresented; it’s not for me to make such judgements in public.” Later, she expands on this, saying in any case, Sarkozy has only been in power a few months; it’s too early to tell. She also notes that in America actors often get involved in politics, “but in America it’s different; campaigns are very expensive and politicians have to raise a lot of money …I think it’s a decision for everyone to make for themselves [whether to be publicly involved in politics].”

"love scenes are not very erotic in films"

A bit like nude scenes, which Deneuve says are “very difficult … you are very vulnerable, and when you take your clothes off it’s as if you’re not the actor any more. And nude scenes are usually not very well shot … there are exceptions,” she adds, singling out Viggo Mortensen’s nude bathhouse wrestling scene in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, “which is extraordinary for how it is shot.” She also dislikes love scenes; “I don’t like the sound of kisses … love scenes are not very erotic in films.” Again, she singles out an exception, the rather robust love scene in Fatih Akin’s Head On as being “cinematic … it is perfectly in keeping with the film and the characters.”

In a private lounge on the 5th floor of the Sofitel, she drinks water with honey and she squeezes lemon wedges into it. By amazing coincidence, the soft brown if the lounge matches her own colour scheme.

We discuss the unique demands of filmmaking, where, as she points out, “the challenge is concentration, as we actors work so little compared to the time spent on set.” Each take is a few moments, but it’s a concentrated few moments.

She manages on set by sleeping. “I can have a 10 minute nap or a half hour …” She can also listen to music, which she does everywhere she goes. She finds cooking relaxing, but she only cooks at her country house, never in Paris, where she doesn’t entertain. “But I can give you some good addresses [of excellent restaurants] …” She also loves gardening, another relaxing pastime, and she grows both plants and vegetables in a large garden that needs “a lot of weeding”.

With over 100 films to her credit, there is not always much time for weeding, but she does recall a brief period of semi-crisis. “I was 40 and I had doubts about the future. I was not getting offered any good roles and the scripts were weak … I was wondering what I should do … I thought maybe something in production, but not directing. I’ve never wanted to direct.”

"Being a successful actress is not always as easy as you may think."

There was nothing dramatic that changed, but soon she was offered better roles and better scripts. “Being a successful actress is not always as easy as you may think. You are supposed to have a lot of choice, but that’s not always so simple.”

The immediate future, however, is rosy. She is about to make yet another film (La Fille de R.E.R.) with one of her favourite directors, André Techine, who is a few months older than Deneuve, and therefore has a career trajectory that parallels hers, although they didn’t work together until 1981 (Hotel des Amériques). By then, Deneuve had worked with the greatest names in French cinema, including Jacques Demi, Roger Vadim (with whom she had a son), Claude Chabrol, Louis Bunuel, Claude Lelouch and Francois Truffaut to name a few. (She also had a daughter with Italian superstar Marcello Mastroanni, but her only official marriage was a 7 year stint with photographer David Bailey.)

She really enjoyed making the musical murder mystery, 8 Women (2001) with director Francois Ozon [and seven other French actresses, but she says they had fun and there was no bitching], and agrees wholeheartedly that there wasn’t enough singing in it. “Actors love to sing,” she says. “You get to push your voice louder, and something physical happens when you sing.” She has sung with various people, including Joe Cocker, Gerard Depardieu and in 1981 made an album with Serge Gainsbourg. Yet, ironically, her singing (and the others in the cast) in her breakthrough film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, was dubbed.

I’m almost at the stage where I can ask her to sing something but the flu is a restraining influence – and besides, she has to go and do her film festival thing. Maybe next time.

Published: March 27, 2008

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Catherine Deneuve in Sydney
Photo courtesy David Morgan

Andrew L. Urban meets Catherine Deneuve

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
(1964 - DVD release March 2008)
Deneuve’s breakthrough film.

The Young Girls of Rochefort
(1967 – DVD release March 2008)

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