In "A Christmas Tale," French director Arnaud Desplechin's bittersweet deconstruction of the home-for-the-holidays drama, Catherine Deneuve plays the hands-off matriarch Junon, who may not live to say "Joyeux Noel" again. She and her husband (Jean-Paul Roussillon) are used to crises. They lost the first of their three sons in infancy. More recently, their playwright daughter spitefully banished the elder of her two brothers, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), who had produced her plays in a theater he'd bought on debt. And sadly, the blood cancer that killed Junon's baby will now kill her unless she receives a bone marrow transplant.
The 65-year-old Deneuve -- for 40 years, France's most glamorous actress -- is more than usually serene in "A Christmas Tale." It's not that Junon has consciously rejected self-pity, it's that she's constitutionally philosophical. As she seductively nuzzles her rotund hubby while he's on the phone, it's easy to forget she's imperiled. Perhaps she's forgotten it too.
In one of the film's most revelatory scenes, Junon and Henri, visiting for the first time in six years, sit on a garden swing at night. He tells her he doesn't love her, and she reciprocates. But he has the upper hand in their "war," he says, because he's a compatible bone marrow donor.
"The first time you see it, it's quite funny," Deneuve says. "But then it quickly becomes disturbing. At the beginning, when you are told about the family and how the children grew up, you see it's going to be very different to what you're used to seeing and hearing -- which is, no matter what happens, you love your children. I think insulting each other is the way that Junon and Henri communicate, but it probably wasn't like that in the beginning. She says she doesn't love him, but she does. And he loves her."
Her fabled blond hair dyed brown for the film she's currently shooting, Deneuve was wearing a filmy, knee-length brown skirt, a knitted orange top and a sturdy chain around her neck on the day of the interview. Her beauty remains such that it doesn't make one nostalgic for the lovely young women she played in Jacques Demy's musicals "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964) and "The Young Girls of Rochefort" (1967), the housewife who dreams of becoming a whore in Luis Bunuel's "Belle de Jour" (1967) or the seduced schoolgirl who eventually prevails in Bunuel's "Tristana" (1970).
If the 1930s was the apogee of the Hollywood love goddess, her French equivalent, riding the New Wave, triumphed during the 1960s, when Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot, Stephane Audran, Anouk Aimee, and Anna Karina did their best work. Having made her debut proper in 1960, Deneuve completed 28 films during the decade, and her patrician bearing and restraint made her the most Olympian French star of all. Not that she wasn't prepared to degrade her persona -- as when Michel Piccoli pelted her with mud in "Belle de Jour" -- or disturb it, as when she played the unhinged girl in Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965).
She has made 70 more films since then, earning an Oscar nomination for her rejuvenating performance in 1992's "Indochine" and working with such challenging directors as Desplechin, Francois Ozon, Leos Carax, Raul Ruiz and Manoel de Oliveira. En route, she has been married to photographer David Bailey, had a son with the late Roger Vadim and had a daughter, Chiara Mastroianni (cast as Junon's mercurial daughter-in-law in "Christmas Tale"), with the late Marcello Mastroianni.
Given Deneuve's longevity, her wide range of roles and her pianissimo style, it's difficult to pinpoint evolutionary shifts in her career. She cautions that her screen identity, if there is one, is unknowable to American viewers who haven't seen those of her films unreleased in this country. And, she says, the familiar adjectives that are used to describe her image -- "cold," "regal," "aloof" -- are most often used by journalists unaware of the diversity of her work: Characters like her factory worker in Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" (2000) spring to mind. Yet there's no smoke without fire: Witness her controlling (and motorbike-riding) aristocrat in Carax's "Pola X" (1999) and her ageless coquette, queen of the demimonde, in Ruiz's "Time Regained" (2000).
She allows that wryness and unsentimentality have crept into her work. "I've reached the time in my life where filmmakers can give me that kind of attitude," she says, "but that's only part of what I've done." Equanimity serves her best in "A Christmas Tale." As her family gathers and misbehaves, Junon watches calmly from the sidelines, knowing that there's little she can do. Though she admits to Henri that she wasn't a good mother when he and his siblings were young, she has forgiven herself. After a certain point, she implies, children must make their own way in life.
Throughout the interview, Deneuve seems serious and amused simultaneously -- not unlike Junon telling her husband, with a hint of a smile, that she has only a 25% chance of survival. Her imperturbability is partially a defense mechanism, Deneuve says. "She loves her husband very much. You can see that their marriage is as important to them as their children, and that gives her great strength. She knows the good and the bad, the black and the white."