Theatre of Complicity

Film still for Theatre of Complicity

Our series of performers continues with France's most beguiling enigma, a "beautiful apparition" whose ability simply to 'be' on screen disguises the artistry that's made her the best of her era, says Geoffrey Nowell-Smith.

Catherine Deneuve is the greatest film actress of her generation – and probably (as Orson Welles used to say in those old Carlsberg ads, leaving one plenty of room for disbelief) the best film actress since Lillian Gish, though only time will tell. Yet at ?rst sight there's nothing much to her, in terms either of her appearance or of her performance. She is beautiful, yes, with ?rm features, upright posture, large dark eyes and thick blonde hair, sometimes worn up but more often sprawling loosely over her shoulders. But this is not the beauty of Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn, or even of many starlets who never made the grade. In motion she has nothing distinctive – no Monroe wiggle, no loose-limbed Bardot walk, no characteristic gesture equivalent to Bette Davis' contemptuous toss of the head or Danielle Darrieux's sceptical raising of the eyebrows. Nor will she be remembered for great dramatic performances like Arletty in Les Enfants du paradis or Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar. Since she rarely plays melodrama, there is nothing in the style of Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas, nor does she do much comedy (the recent Eight Women is an exception), nor villainesses, so she can't be compared with Stanwyck in Ball of Fire or Double Indemnity either.

So Deneuve is an actress with limitations, partly self-imposed. But it's worth taking note of what these limitations are, and what they mean. Both comedy and melodrama are, in their way, forms of theatre or theatricality. They involve the actor and director stretching out across the screen to engage the audience; a little signal ?ashes up: look, we are shaping this scene to make you laugh or cry. This is not Deneuve's style. She is an actress who always remains behind the screen, drawing the spectator towards her rather than projecting outwards, let alone inviting complicity. She has never done any stage work and has regularly expressed an unwillingness to do any – or even to act with directors who like to employ stage actors and generate stagy performances. Asked by the writer Francis Wyndham in 1968 to name an actor and a performance she particularly admired and would like to aspire to, she chose Roland Young in Leo McCarey's Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) – a remarkably understated way of expressing a preference for understatement as the acme of the actor's craft.

In the same Sunday Times interview, made during the shooting of Alain Cavalier's 1968 La Chamade, in which she stars opposite Michel Piccoli, an actor of a very different type, Wyndham wrote that Deneuve seemed to be "feeling her way towards a style and a technique so transparent that it hardly counts as 'acting' at all." If in 1968 she was still feeling her way in that direction, by now – and indeed for the past 20 years – she has de?nitively arrived.

To see how much Deneuve can convey without appearing in any obvious way to 'act', it is worth looking at the opening scene of François Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid (La Sirène du Mississipi, 1969). Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo) has gone down to the port of Réunion to meet the boat carrying his mail-order bride Julie, holding her slightly dowdy photograph. Not ?nding her among the disembarking passengers, he retreats to a piece of nondescript land overlooking the port. He hears a woman's voice behind him, and turns round. "Don't you recognise me, Monsieur Mahé?" she asks. He doesn't, but the audience does. Facing him is a beautiful apparition: Deneuve, clad in a large sun hat and a Saint-Laurent two-piece and carrying a wicker cage with a small bird in it. She is not like the photograph, nor like anyone one would expect to ?nd in such a drab landscape. The drama to come is set out entirely in a brief sequence of shots in which the camera comes close enough, just, to look at the movement of her eyes as she speaks. She is not the real Julie, so much is clear. But it is equally clear that Louis is bowled off his feet and any doubts he may have about the trick being played on him will be set aside. Indeed, until she absconds with all his money, he pays no attention to those doubts, and even then is shocked into action more by her disappearance than by his ?nancial loss.

Needless to say, it is only in retrospect that the audience will match the upcoming plot events with this opening apparition. But the scene has presented us with the sort of image only a true star can produce, with no apparent effort on her part and not much (or so it seems) on the part of the director.

Contrast this with another famous ?rst appearance, and one which at ?rst sight seems equally effortless: the arrival of Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) at the Salina summer palace in Visconti's The Leopard (1963). Cardinale's stride down the corridor of the palace is commanding, her beauty palpable, and it is instantly clear that this plebeian upstart has captured the heart not only of Tancredi (Alain Delon) but also of his uncle Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster). But the scene is highly contrived. Cardinale appears at the end of the corridor, head slightly bowed. She takes a little gulp to compose herself, lifts her chin, and steps forward. As she enters the room in which the Salina family is awaiting her there is a series of reaction shots showing different family members taking her in. Cardinale acts, under precise direction. Visconti is a consummate director of actors and here he has taken an actress of limited range and coaxed her into a performance that can match those of Lancaster and Delon.

It would be a mistake, however, to view Deneuve's ability to look as if she is simply being as a mere gift of nature. To seem to be doing nothing while in fact doing precisely what it takes to attract and hold an audience's attention is no doubt partly a gift, but it is also a prized quality which many schools of acting have set out to develop. Deneuve seems to have acquired it without being taught, but it is still something that takes skill to master. An actor who has it can be used more ?exibly than one who has to be seen to do something in order to make an effect. Not only that, but the actor who is forced will often come up with a gesture that is semiotically too precise and meaningful in a one-sided way. To express one meaning can be to exclude others; not to express leaves meaning open. What André Bazin called the intrinsic "ambiguity of the real" makes its presence felt more effectively when the actor acts in such a way as to allow meaning to emerge rather than be forcibly expressed.

Many of her collaborators have paid tribute to Deneuve's ability to suggest without seeming to express. "She has a mysterious quality," Truffaut wrote after directing her in Mississippi Mermaid, adding that she "brings ambiguity to any situation and any screenplay, for she seems to be concealing a great many secret thoughts... We sense there are things lurking behind the surface." Michel Piccoli con?rms this. When I asked him recently what Deneuve's secret is, he replied: "Her secret? Precisely that. Catherine is very secret."

This suggestion of hidden depth comes across in good and bad films alike. In Cavalier's La Chamade, where she is clearly not at ease in her role, she nevertheless conjures up a marvellous moment. She has just made love for the ?rst time to her handsome but rather uninteresting lover. Cavalier cuts to a shot of her face resting on a pillow, blonde tresses ?owing. Her only movement is a roll of her enormous eyes, whose meaning is utterly indeterminate. Many thoughts might be going through the character's mind, and Deneuve conveys this, but what they are only the character knows, and she conveys that too.

Demure but decisive

Deneuve was born Catherine Fabienne Dorléac on 22 October 1943, into a family of girls. Both her parents were actors, though her mother gave up her stage career when her children were born. Catherine's immediately elder sibling was Françoise Dorléac, and when Catherine followed her sister into films she took her mother's maiden name. Early family photos of Françoise and Catherine show two brown-haired little girls, both pretty but not ravishingly so, with Françoise animated and Catherine reserved – and that is how the siblings have gone down in legend, except that both became very beautiful and Catherine turned herself into a blonde in her teens and has remained so. Their performances together in Jacques Demy's Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) con?rm the notion of contrasting temperaments to some extent, but a sharper contrast would be that between Catherine as the demure but decisive teenager in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964) and Françoise as the capricious and sensual Nicole in Truffaut's Silken Skin (La Peau douce, 1964).

Françoise became an actress at an early age, on both stage and screen, and Catherine followed her into cinema to play second string to her sister in The Door Slams (Les Portes claquent) in 1960. The directors of the incipient New Wave had no use for the leggy teenager, preferring more characterful women such as Marie Dubois, Bernadette Lafont or Jeanne Moreau. Deneuve did, however, have two crucial encounters with New Wave directors, the results of which were to pull her in opposite directions.

The ?rst was with Roger Vadim, who wanted to turn her into a star after the model of his previous wives Brigitte Bardot and Annette Stroyberg. In 1962 Vadim wrote a role for her in a film called Satan Leads the Dance (...Et Satan conduit le bal) directed by Grisha Dabat, and himself directed her in Le Vice et la vertu, based on the Marquis de Sade's Juliette, ou les malheurs de la vertu. These films left her with the reputation of an actress who was prepared to undress and be knocked around a bit, not a masochist but an available victim of sadism. Besides this questionable reputation, Vadim also left her with a child – Christian Vadim, now an actor.

Her other encounter was with a young aspirant director called Jacques Demy, at the time preparing his low-budget debut feature Lola (1961). According to Deneuve, Demy came to her with a totally ridiculous and unfeasible idea for a film that would be orchestrally scored and sung and danced throughout and in which he thought she might star – one day. Three years later, this idea became reality in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It was a huge success, and Deneuve had a new, soaring reputation.

But the old image was not cast off. In 1965 she had another hit, as the hysterical heroine of Roman Polanski's Repulsion. As in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, this was a very directed performance and she had both to go along with the direction and somehow to transcend it. But whereas in Umbrellas the trick was to achieve an appearance of spontaneity when every move and gesture was choreographed, in Repulsion the problem was one of investing the character of Carol with an inner integrity so she is not entirely de?ned or con?ned by her neurosis. Polanski systematically forced Deneuve to act against the image forged in Umbrellas, abandoning her proud posture and keeping her radiant eyes permanently downcast. Her eyes stare out at the camera during the credits but thereafter the audience hardly sees them until a moment near the close when she seems to have a sudden illumination. But this is not Hollywood and there will be no happy ending. Carol will not walk out of the apartment in which she has imprisoned herself and engage in a new life of sexual fulfilment, though there is a sense that she has for the ?rst time seen deep enough into herself to accept the destiny she has confusedly made for herself.

Deneuve is reticent about directors she does not admire or has not enjoyed working with, but generous about those she likes, and Polanski is one of the latter. So too is Buñuel, with whom she worked twice, ?rst on Belle de Jour in 1967 and then on Tristana three years later. And the story of the making of Belle de Jour shows the extent to which Deneuve, still only 23, had control of what she wanted to do and how she was willing to appear.

Beyond sex

Early in 1966 veteran producers Robert and Raymond Hakim acquired the film rights to a 'decadent' novel by Joseph Kessel entitled Belle de Jour. The heroine was a woman who leads a double life: frigid in her marriage, she is able to satisfy both herself and her clients in a high-class brothel in the afternoons. Deneuve was scouted for the part, but it was initially uncertain who was to direct. According to at least one account, it was Deneuve herself who decided matters by declaring that she would do the part if Luis Buñuel, recently returned to Europe from his Mexican exile, was chosen. The star of Repulsion and the director of Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d'une femme de chambre, 1964) were thus brought together for one of the most shamelessly brilliant films of the decade.

Much of the enduring popularity of Belle de Jour is thanks to its undeniably salacious subject matter. Even in these days of greatly relaxed censorship, it is still quite a shocking film. So it's worth stressing that Buñuel and his scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière actually went to some length to cover over the more lurid aspects of the plot, while putting in their place slight hints of a genuinely disturbing pornographic imagination.

The sexual charge of the film lies in the way Buñuel manages the tension between the surface world of the marriage and the brothel, where everything is normal, even cosy, and the forces that occasionally break through this surface. The most obvious manifestation of these forces is sexual dysfunction and perversion, from impotence to masturbation, masochism and sadism. But it is not the manifestation that counts so much as what lies further back, the deep discom?ture of civilisation in the presence of what it has to deny, the power of the real itself. Hard as the characters try to give their behaviour a civilised veneer, they are obscurely troubled by something they cannot see and which the film cannot show except obliquely. This something is not perversion, which is merely a symptom, but the totality of what is repressed and otherwise alienated from consciousness if civilisation is to continue to exist.

In evoking this mysterious something else, the performance of the actors (and Buñuel's direction of them) is crucial. Geneviève Page as the madam and Michel Piccoli as the urbane but sinister Monsieur Husson give masterly cameos, but the core of the film is Deneuve's performance as Séverine, 'Belle de Jour' herself.

As Michael Wood points out in his bfi Film Classic on the film, Séverine is an enigma, and one compounded by the way Buñuel blurs the boundaries between what 'really' happens and what happens only in her fantasy. But the true enigma is Deneuve herself. Here she is not secretive in the sense of seeming to hide something, but it is as if behind her elegance and charm there is always something hidden away to which even she herself has no access. This quality is most in evidence in her scenes with the young gangster, played by Pierre Clementi. Though it is through him that Séverine discovers sexual love, there is no sense that what she has given him is herself or that she is ful?lled rather than merely satiated by these encounters. Beyond sex there is always something else, felt to be there but not available to be found.

Doris Day, French-style

The success of Belle de Jour left Deneuve in an anomalous position. She was seen as either fresh and wholesome, as in Umbrellas or Les Demoiselles – a kind of Doris Day, French-style – or as an emblem of kinky and possibly masochistic sexuality. What she had yet to carry off was a straightforward romantic-dramatic starring role. She attempted this in La Chamade but the result was disappointing. The film was taken from a Françoise Sagan novel with an unpleasantly egotistical heroine surrounded by men who exist only in her distorted vision of them. The adaptation left Deneuve with a role totally unsuited to either her personality or her performing style (her characters may be strong or weak, but egotistical self-assertion is not a feature of any of them). La Chamade is not a bad film, but it was not right for her, nor she for it.

The missing link was ?nally provided by François Truffaut with Mississippi Mermaid in 1969. Truffaut had had an on-set romance with Françoise Dorléac ?ve years earlier; the affair had ended in disappointment for him but worse was to come when Dorléac was killed in a car crash in June 1967. Eighteen months later Truffaut signed Deneuve for his new film and promptly fell in love with her (as he often did with his leading actresses). He was eventually to be disappointed here too, but the relationship seems to have been cathartic for both of them.

Before the film started Truffaut was not only haunted by his memory of Dorléac but was also considerably in awe of her younger sister, whom he found intimidating. Deneuve for her part had lost a beloved sister who was also, however much she might wish to deny it, a rival. Both had something to get over and having an affair was one way of doing it. More importantly, director and star had things to teach each other. From her intimacy with Truffaut Deneuve learned a more extrovert style of performance, not unlike Dorléac's. As often, she played a character who is not entirely what she seems. The gangster's moll Marion masquerades as the tender and demure Julie not just to deceive Louis but because Julie is what she would like to be. But the split between these two characters is open and conscious, and Marion's remorse at her duplicity is there for all to see; it is not a matter of a destructive fantasy repressed below the threshold of consciousness. Meanwhile Deneuve forced Truffaut into a recognition that he was apt to be self-censoring and that the sensualism which was part of his character and which surfaces in his critical writing was often needlessly repressed in his films.

In her own shadow

In the mid-1970s Deneuve's career underwent a sea change. Before then she had always been able to rely on good direction and on more experienced actors from whom she could pick up some of the atmosphere necessary to a good performance of her role. In the absence of either she simply turned in poor performances. But now she found herself expected to carry a film on her own. Though she still worked with some distinguished directors (Truffaut again in The Last Metro in 1980; de Broca in L'Africain in 1983; most recently Manoel de Oliveira in I'm Going Home in 2001) she also acted with mediocre ones, and a time was to come when many of her best directors were of the same age or younger than herself (André Téchiné in three films including Ma saison préférée in 1993; Philippe Garrel in Le Vent de la nuit in 1999). She also found herself, inevitably, playing the part of the 'older woman' opposite young and up-and-coming stars. A new Den-euve emerged, whose mystery was that of maturity and experience which the other characters could look up to, with respect perhaps more than understanding. In Indochine (1992) she is the older woman who loses her lover to her adopted daughter; in Dancer in the Dark (2000) she is a stabilising presence, redoubtably calm in the face of Björk's agitation.

Her image in these later films often re?ected her real-life role during filming. From the late 1960s she kept a diary, now published under the title A l'ombre de moi-même. It was given a lukewarm reception, with frequent quips about how it shouldn't have been called 'In my own shadow' but 'A shadow of myself'. Yet it is a fascinating document, revealing its author as pliant in taking direction but not easily bullied or thrown off course.

The sections on Dancer in the Dark and Indochine are particularly interesting. Deneuve responded eagerly to Björk and did her best – but failed – to like von Trier. On Indochine her most revealing remarks concern director Régis Wargnier, who comes across as a master of how to marshal large forces and give the film the right 'look' but less inspirational in his direction of actors. The film bears this out. Deneuve's performance is commanding but it is as if she had reluctantly seized control of a ship which under its of?cial captain was in danger of sinking. And rather shockingly she overacts – and seems to do so not because she has been asked to but in order to inject some energy into a lifeless scene.

At 61 Catherine Deneuve has kept all her beauty, and much of her secret. Above all she remains an actress who can be anything the spectator wants her to be and yet is irreducibly herself. How precious this is can be judged by imagining her in the place of Nicole Kidman in the much admired advertisement for Chanel directed last year by Baz Luhrmann. (Deneuve also used to be a 'face of Chanel'.) At the end of the ad Kidman seems to repeat a head movement straight from the last scene of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But one thing is different: Kidman catches the camera's eye in a way that invites complicity with the audience. Would Deneuve ever have done that? Would we have wanted her to? Surely not.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012