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At 58, Deneuve Is Savoring the Role of Working Actress

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

During the film festival here last week, the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel was lousy with movie stars--so much so that patrons barely bothered to look when one strolled by. And then Catherine Deneuve walked into the room. The same jaded people leaned in her direction like plants following sunlight. She settled in a restaurant bar, lighted a cigarette and ordered a sherbet. She was dressed head to toe in Chanel.

“I am used to being recognized,” she says in a voice that’s almost as familiar as her face.

So are a lot of stars. But Deneuve is a special case. Her likeness is the model for Marianne, symbol of the French Republic on coins and stamps. It’s hard to imagine any American performer achieving that status. In fact, for all of our obsession with celebrity, Americans make a distinction between stardom and something deeper, more representative of the country or culture. How do you live up to that?

“I think it’s very tiring to be Catherine Deneuve each day,” says Francois Ozon, who directed her in his new film “8 Women,” which opened in Los Angeles on Friday after screening at the film festival here earlier this month.. “I wouldn’t like to be Catherine Deneuve each day because she’s an icon for the French cinema, for the French beauty. Day after day would be heavy to be that.”

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In “8 Women,” Deneuve plays the mother of two daughters, one grown (Virginie Ledoyen), one almost (Ludivine Sagnier). Rounding out the cast of characters who live at or are visiting her storybook country house are her sister (Isabelle Huppert), her mother (Danielle Darrieux), her chambermaid (Emmanuelle Beart), her housekeeper (Firmine Richard) and her husband’s sister (Fanny Ardant). There is another occupant, Deneuve’s husband, but when he is found dead, it becomes clear that one of these women did him in. Each has a motive, but it doesn’t really matter. The real point is that under one roof are three generations of French actresses who get to pout, scream, cry, dance, sing (and kiss!).

The movie is a souffle that only Deneuve could hold together. “I realized when I began to work on the script that she had to play the part of Gaby because she is the heart of the film,” says Ozon, who with Marina De Van adapted a little-appreciated French play. “It was a film about character but also about actresses too, and she is the most important French actress for 50 years. When she accepted, it was very easy to build a cast around her.”

In spite of reservations she had about the potentially misogynistic nature of the source material and the selfishness of her character, Deneuve took the part because she is an admirer of Ozon’s work (“Water Drops on Burning Rocks,” “Under the Sand”) and she liked the originality of the concept.

“It was funny to be working with eight actresses in a play like that,” Deneuve says. “Most of the time what I’m offered is a character of my age in relation with people or friends or work, like in life. This was a more original story. He has a very strong personality, and [I thought] he would be able to handle all that.”

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He does and he did, but perhaps not in a way she might have liked, at least according to Ozon. He says she was very easy, uncompetitive, almost maternal with the other actresses, but missed the kind of close working relationship she likes to have with a director.

“She wants to be very close to you, and this was not easy for me because I had eight personalities in front of me,” he says. “I had to be neutral because I didn’t want to give privilege. I think it was a little difficult for Catherine because if we had been alone, it would have been more comfortable for her and for me. She needs, like many actors, to love the character. She didn’t understand the direction of the character because she’s not like this in life.”

Normally this wouldn’t matter, except that in “8 Women” Deneuve is playing a version of herself. Ozon is quite aware of who that person is. He seems to know her life and career in much the same way a schoolboy knows the life and deeds of some grand historical figure. He knows the movies she’s made (among the most famous: “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Repulsion,” “Belle de Jour,” “The Last Metro”) and the directors she’s worked with (Jacques Demy, Luis Bunuel, Francois Truffaut). Now he’s become acquainted with the person behind the postage stamp.

“People have an image of Catherine as very cold, but in life she’s very hot,” he says. “She’s alive. She’s not an icon in life. She knows things, and she’s very clever. I think she’s very shy. She tries to protect herself a lot.”

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This may be, but she does seem comfortable in her own skin. She has a dry sense of humor and a lively interest in things other than herself. She’s most analytical in her assessment of where she is at this point in her career. At 58, she is no longer young, a fact she freely acknowledges, though it’s not the handicap in France that it is in the United States. The French venerate their older actresses.

“In America, it’s not very easy to grow old, eh?” she says. “It must be terrifying to fear something that you cannot fight. It’s something that’s so related to life. Of course there are moments where it’s not that nice. But to be in such denial of maturity is very strange.”

Her personal life is as much a part of her mythology as her professional life is. Deneuve, who is divorced from photographer David Bailey, has two children, Christian Vadim (by director Roger Vadim) and Chiara Mastroianni (by the late actor Marcello Mastroianni). She lives in Paris.

Deneuve says she would love to work with such American directors as Paul Thomas Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch, but she understands there is not much call for middle-aged French actresses in their films. She also understands that it is a challenge for European directors to cast her because she brings so much baggage to a role.

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To that end, she notes that the first 15 minutes of a film are critical in making the audience forget who she is, a task at which some directors have failed. In fact, a few critics contended that is exactly what happened in 2000’s “Dancer in the Dark,” in which director Lars von Trier cast her as a factory worker. But she insists that she was believably blue-collar in that movie (which is different, she adds, than saying she was good in it).

It may be that she continues to work and stay relevant because she has not been paralyzed by stardom and lost touch with her instincts, as sometimes happens to her American counterparts. Imagine an American performer of her magnitude singing, dancing and enjoying a lesbian kiss, as Deneuve does in “8 Women.” As for why she keeps acting, she says, “I need to work because I need to be involved. You meet people, you have projects, you have them develop, it works, it doesn’t work. It’s like walking. It’s a way of living for me.”


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