Mysterious and aloof. These are adjectives most commonly used to describe Catherine Deneuve’s beauty, especially in reference to the way it was showcased by two of the world’s greatest directors, Roman Polanski and Luis Bunuel in Repulsion (1965) and Belle De Jour (1967), respectively. These on-screen appearances famously earned her the tag of “ice maiden”. At 70, this iconic French actor still retains that persona. On Wednesday afternoon, flashes of that charm marked her conversation with Anupama Chopra for Film Companion’s masterclass where she was joined by Deepika Padukone.
A day after she received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the opening ceremony of the 16th Mumbai Film Festival (MFF), Deneuve responded to questions with the ease and candour that one acquires after staying in the spotlight for more than half-a-century. There was also the elegance of ageing gracefully, complemented with an air of confidence that comes when stardom is not contingent upon mere physical beauty. “For the last five decades, she has remained the most important French actor as well as a huge star. She is an extraordinary actor who has worked with some extraordinary directors,” said Shyam Benegal, Chairman of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (MAMI) that organises MFF, explaining the decision to honour her.
For Deneuve, who started her film career at the age of 15, however, some of the questions about acting and approaching a role have remained almost the same as before. “Every time you make it feel like the first time,” she said. With age, however, she has learnt to say no and not take up every offer. “It takes time to say ‘no’,” she added. According to her, an actor needs two things to succeed: be a good reader and have a strong intuition. And about the great directors such as Bunuel, François Truffaut, Jacques Demy, Leos Carax and Mario Monicelli she worked with, there is one thing that puts them in the big league: their passion for cinema. “Bunuel also loved to write,” she added.
Deneuve has had her tryst with Hollywood too and did a few movies with big studios. “I was not in my country and not speaking my language. After some time, I decided to return home,” she said. The decision to work in Europe has been good for her career. She does two-three projects every year while her counterparts in Hollywood complain of not getting meaty roles. Living in Europe also allows her to lead a normal life. On MFF’s opening night, she got a glimpse of the adulation that Indian stars enjoy, and sometimes forced to endure. “India is a movie-crazy country,” she said.
However, it’s not just histrionics that catapulted Deneuve to stardom; her beauty was talked about as much. In the ’70s, her face dominated the Chanel No 5 campaign and she has been the muse of fashion designer Yves Saint Lauent. What gave her image a touch of enigma was her famous statement: “Beauty has always been a burden for me”. This was a talking point at the masterclass too. “There is a downside to everything. You have to be composed and put make-up even when you just want to be yourself,” she said. Today, Deneuve’s elegance has replaced sensuousness that made films such as Tristana (1970) an enduring classic. “When you are in the eye of people, ageing gracefully is sort of a natural reaction to that,” she said.
Deneuve has acted in more than 100 films, the latest being In The Courtyard which was screened on Thursday evening at MFF to mark the opening of “Rendezvous with French cinema in India” section. In spite of her long film career, she has not been tempted to branch out to other departments of movie-making. “Several women in France are directing films and several actresses have turned directors too. I am not writing anything. So, I can’t think of giving direction to another person’s vision,” she concluded.