She was the most beautiful woman I‘d ever seen. For three and a half of my college years at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, her picture was on my wall, a space she shared with Humphrey Bogart, Ray Charles, James Dean, Pieter Bruegel‘s painting “The Harvesters” and El Greco‘s “View of Toledo.” She was Catherine Deneuve, the quintessential French movie star/actress of the last half of the twentieth century, and in the picture (the one just above), she was peeking back over one nude shoulder, pale gold blonde hair a-tumble and softly framing that almost intimidatingly gorgeous face — a face lovely and girlish and a little expectant and, in this black-and-white poster picture, notably unsmiling.
It was an image from Luis Bunuel’s 1967 movie classic Belle de Jour, in which Deneuve played a bourgeois wife, in a happy but dull marriage, who decides to spend her days incognito, as a whore in an elegant Parisian bordello. The movie was a Bunuelian masterpiece about the dark side of romance, full of menace, mystery, perversity and dark secrets — and Deneuve, in the middle of it all, seemed a creature of light floating through darkness, especially at the end, when she finally, enigmatically, smiled.
Deneuve then was quite frequently called the screen’s most beautiful actress, especially after Belle de Jour became an international hit — a success that followed on the heels of her unforgettable appearances in Roman Polanski’s moody British shocker Repulsion and Jacques Demy’s romantic musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (one of the two Deneuve films being released or re-released now). Still in her early 20s — after having commenced her film career as a teenager, discovered by director Roger Vadim (the ex-husband of Brigitte Bardot, and Deneuve’s lover as well) — Deneuve had one of the most strikingly sexy faces of a sexually unbuttoned era.
But she proved a striking actress as well, and her longevity is extraordinary. (Lillian Gish, the champion, acted in movies in eight different decades; Deneuve has worked in seven.) Today, at 70, she is still a star actress, still beautiful. I saw her at a press conference in the journalist’s room at the Cannes Film Festival, when she was 60, and I remember how she entered the room and suddenly seemed to tilt the entire space toward her, pulling in everyone’s rapt attention — the most beautiful woman, I thought then, that I had ever seen, or ever will see.
Why was she on my wall so long? Why is her presence so remarkably enduring? Like other great screen beauties of that era whom I had special crushes on — Liv Ullmann, Leslie Caron, Bibi Andersson, Shirley MacLaine, and Catherine’s elder sister Francoise Dorleac — she had not just stunning looks, but a vibrant personality that was deeply appealing as well. Deneuve has said she knows she owes her career to that youthful slightly icy beauty that Roger Vadim saw and recognized. But she is also one of the great people of the screen because of the deep humanity we now sense beneath the image, because we loved to look at her then, when she was 20, but still love to look at her now, when she is 70 — and because she still creates or reproduces characters on screen that we feel compelled to watch and to think about. I met her finally at that same Cannes fest, as part of a roundtable discussion interview, and I sat next to her, and, for an hour, she beggared the college fantasies instilled by that face in my poster. At the end, I talked to her for a few more moments, and she smiled her smile, the one I never saw on my wall, and I left, happy for that brief moment. God, what a lovely woman!
THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (Four Stars)
France: Jacques Demy, 1964
Deneuve was 20 when she played Genevieve Emery in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and became a golden classic of the French New Wave, and one of the great romantic musicals of, it seems, all time. The movie was written (both libretto and song lyrics) by director Demy, and it has one of the great, marvelous original music and song scores — sometimes ‘50s-’60s jazzy and sometimes showstopper big-balladish — by the French New Wave’s ‘60s composer of choice, the fantastic Michel Legrand. Legrand, with formidable skill, composed a wall-to-wall score in a movie where there is not one line of spoken dialogue, in which every speech, like every aria, is sung, and in which one song in particular, the haunting, yearning, heart-breaking ballad “Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi“ or “I Will Wait for You” became a touchstone of the era, covered by Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Louie Armstrong and many others — and probably broke as many hearts as anything by the Beatles, including “Yesterday.”
Demy’s story is in three acts, with a coda. Act One: Deneuve’s Genevieve is a young girl who works in 1957 in Cherbourg in her mother’s (Anne Vernon’s) umbrella shop. Genevieve has just met a young auto garage mechanic named Guy Fouche (Nino Castelnuovo), with whom she has fallen in love — and whom she wishes to marry, right away. She is sure, and so is Guy. But Mme. Emery, whose umbrellas boutique is in trouble, is almost automatically opposed. A practical businesswoman, she is much happier when Genevieve meets a rich young Parisian jeweler named Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), who can solve their financial difficulties, and who falls as instantaneously in love with Genevieve, as Genevieve did with Guy.
Also working against the lovers are the times. Guy is suddenly drafted by the French Army, then embroiled in Algeria — a conscription that will pull Guy away from Cherbourg and Genevieve and also from his elderly, sick, loving aunt Elise (Mireille Perrey) and Tante Elise‘s other helper, the self-sacrificing Madeleine (Ellen Farmer), who is obviously, but quietly, in love with Guy.
The lovers are dismayed. But determined. The bouncy, jazzy, cool-and-hot rhythms of the opening scenes in Guy‘s garage with his buddies and co-workers (the Legrand music redolent of breezy jazz masters like Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson and Errol Garner and the sublime virtuoso Art Tatum) give way to soaring, lush melodies by Legrand that suggest Bill Evans or Lester Young or Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges doing Gershwin or Porter. (“If it takes forever, I will wait for you. For a thousand summers, I will wait for you…”)
The lovers meet, embrace, weep, sing their hearts out. (So does everyone else.) They will wait forever. But forever is a long time. And things change. (Ah, how they change.) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, while it was made by artists (Demy and Legrand) who love the classic Hollywood musicals of Minnelli and Donen, which usually ended happily, are also cognizant of the sexual realism, darkness and irreverence that came in with the sixties, especially with West Side Story. (Guy’s war in Algeria was obviously intended to recall the 1964 War in Vietnam.) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which begins in the rain (with multiple umbrellas popping up like little colored balls in an overhead shot), ends in the snow, in another garage (an Esso), where the lovers re-meet, unhappily. It is one of the saddest, most bittersweet endings of any movie musical. Ever.
Michel Legrand, like Bernard Herrmann or Elmer Bernstein, is one of the great film composers, so prolific, so technically brilliant and so cinematically attuned that later, in a rare move for a movie composer, he wrote and directed a semi-autobiographical film of his own, called Five Days in June. (It stars Sabine Azema, it’s quite good and it deserves a reissue.) His partner here. Jacques Demy, was one of the prime romantics of the French New Wave of the ’60s, as romantic as Truffaut, but, in the end, more fragile. (Demy died of AIDS at 59.). Demy’s and Legrand’s special touch and special gifts are evident throughout this glowing musical — sad, heartfelt, in love with youth and passion and beauty, despite knowing they will not last, they cannot last, Oh God, why can’t they last?
Demy is sometimes underrated by more cynical, political-minded film intellectuals who prefer Legrand’s acid scores for Godard (Breathless, Bande a Part) to his dreamy scores for Demy (Lola, The Bay of Angels, The Young Girls of Rochefort). And, despite his frequent brilliance, he was not always as great a filmmaker as, say, his genius director-wife Agnes Varda. But, with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, he reached his lyrical peak.
The film has a sometimes over-languorous feel that at times dampens both its joy and its heartache, and it‘s sometimes too obvious that Deneuve, Castelnuovo, Vernon and the others are being dubbed. But it is a gem of its era. It compels and seduces us and leaves us with tears of memory — because of Legrand’s now sprightly, now sad music, because of Demy and cinematographer Jean Rabier’s sparkling, confectionary images, and because of the face of the young Deneuve: quiet, adoring. vulnerable, shining with hope, numb with heartache. The beautiful Catherine doesn’t sing a single note of Legrand’s beautiful songs. (Danielle Licari does.) But when she’s on screen, in the center of all Demy’s lyricized street and shop scenes, she makes a whole city, a whole world, sing around her. Would we wait for her? Forever? Well, as it turned out, we almost have. (French, with English subtitles.)
ON MY WAY (Three Stars)
France: Emmanuelle Bercot, 2012
Deneuve is now 70; and she is still a movie star, still confoundingly beautiful. In On My Way — a moving buoyant, very intelligent road movie by the very talented director-writer-actress Emmanuelle Bercot (Polisse) — Deneuve plays Bettie, a provincial single mother and restaurant owner-manager, who lives with her elderly, bossy mother, and has just been jilted by her longtime adulterous lover. She is shocked, miserable that this jerk dumped her for a girl in her 20s. (We hate this guy, immediately. What an ass!) In the midst of the restaurant bustle, Bettie suddenly, beginning in a long tracking camera shot that follows her through her workplace, takes off and drives away in her car, without telling a soul where she’s going or why — mostly because she doesn’t really know herself .
At first on a search, dying for a cigarette, she ends up on the weathered old farm of a weathered old farmer who rolls one for her, with arthritic fingers, while recounting the sad story of an old lost love. (An incredible scene, though anti-smokers may justly disapprove of Deneuve, a lifelong heavy smoker, for playing this sequence and Bercot for writing it. ) Then she keeps driving, meets other people — bar crowd lady regulars at a boisterous saloon, an egotistical young pickup artist named Marco (Paul Hamy). a kind security guard at a furniture store.
Finally, after problems with both her credit card and her Cell phone,, she is reached by her worried employees (who are facing a business crisis), her mother, and her volatile, resentful daughter Muriel (French pop star Camille). The latter, off on as job interview, recruits Bettie to take care of Bettie‘s young grandson Charly (p1ayed jauntily by Bercot’s son Nemo Schiffmann) and drives off with him to a family gathering. On the way Bettie stops, perhaps a little too coincidentally, at a reunion of old beauty queen winners, to which, as the 1969 Miss Brittany, she was earlier invited.
The film has its flaws and minor lapses — Bercot says there were budgetary problems which prevented her from doing all the location work she wanted — but it’s full of life and heart and personality. The actors, many of whom are non-professionals in their first film appearances, are wonderful — and they’re anchored by the very professional, and very inspired Mlle. Deneuve. It’s a fine film. And though some may dismiss On My Way as a “mere” star vehicle or an imitation ‘70s-style road movie, we should remember that many of the best movies of film history, French or American or otherwise, have been star vehicles. This is a particularly good one, and a particularly good and very affectionately made road movie, by a writer-director, Bercot, who loves her largely non-professional cast, and loves the road and loves her star, Catherine. So do we. So do I.
Catherine Deneuve… I’ve known her, we’ve known her (or known what she shows us on screen) most of our lives. She was once a beautiful young girl and teenaged ingénue, and now she’s a beautiful old woman. Once a universally desirable young actress, she’s now a nearly universally admired star character lady, one of the great ladies of the screen. When she was young, the camera loved her, and it still does. Her early radiance has become the light she shines on the humanity of the very human characters she so movingly plays and so wondrously reveals. It’s as if Brigitte Bardot had grown up to become Meryl Streep. God, how lovely Catherine is. God, how wonderful she is. One smile, one look, and we still will wait for her. Forever. (French, with English subtitles.)