Catherine Deneuve for “8 Femmes”

Catherine Deneuve remains one of the world’s great movie stars, and has been so for almost half a century. Always looking for something different, Deneuve joins an-female cast in the lavish musical murder mystery 8 Women. Paul Fischer was granted a special audience with this queen of stars during her recent appearance at the Toronto Film Festival.

It is hard to imagine that Catherine Deneuve made her screen debut some 45 years ago. At almost 60, the glamorous Queen of French cinema remains an elegant, ravishing sight. Her thick blonde hair hangs perfectly at her shoulders and most young women today would be envious of how girlish her figure remains. Deneuve epitomises French elegance and stardom, but clearly feels uncomfortable when being defined as ‘star’. “In France we are not really stars, we don’t live like stars or have that kind of life.,” Deneuve insists. “To begin with, we don’t have the same kinds of films they have in Hollywood or the same kinds of budgets, so we don’t have bodyguards or anything like that.” Unlike in Hollywood, she can walk down the street without being bothered “Privacy laws in France are a lot tougher than they are in the States.”

While younger actresses in Hollywood continuously bemoan the lack of decent roles for women, Madame Deneuve has no such problems, having starred in over 100 films. On the lookout for something different, Deneuve found it as Gaby in Francois Ozon’s effervescent murder mystery 8 Women, in which her husband is murdered in the family’s isolated house, and the suspected one of 8 women, from maids to the family’s grand matriarch, to a whining sister and maybe one of the two daughters. What sets this whodunit apart from the norm, is not only that it teams up an ensemble of some of France’s great stars, but it also happens to be a musical. No wonder Deneuve found the project irresistible. “It’s so exciting to be able to sing in a film and a real challenge”, she explains. The actress resisted studying too hard to sing, in preparation for the film, “because [Ozon] wanted us to sing like actresses, not singers but I did get to work with a choreographer.” Working amongst such an ensemble of actresses, including the likes of Fanny Ardant and Isabelle Huppert was fun, says Deneuve, “and we remained very supportive of each other

The daughter of French stage and film actor Maurice Dorlac, Deneuve was born in Paris on October 22, 1943. She made her screen debut at the age of 13, with a role in the 1956 film Les Collegiennes, and went on to make a string of films with directors such as Roger Vadim (with whom she had a child) before getting her breakthrough role in Jaques Demy’s charming musical, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) (1964). It was that film that changed Deneuve’s life, she recalls, when looking back on how her perceptions of acting have changed. “Until then I just wasn’t sure if this is what I should be doing, if at age 20, I really wanted to be an actress.” It was Demy’s film that changed all that, she recalls, by the way “he talked to me, through the kind of relationship we had during production, and we became friends. The kind of impression I then had of that experience, was that everything I had done before hadn’t convinced me that this is what I wanted to do.” That feeling was enhanced by the fact that she never set out to be an actress. “It just happened because I did this film in which I happened to play my sister’s sister; I didn’t decide to be an actress.

The burst of stardom that accompanied her portrayal led to two of her archetypal ice maiden roles, first in Roman Polanski’s terrifying Repulsion in 1965 and then in Bunuel’s 1967 Belle de Jour. Deneuve’s startling portrayal of an icy, sexually adventurous housewife in the latter film helped to establish her as one of the most remarkable and compelling actresses of her generation. She further demonstrated her talent that year in Demy’s Umbrellas musical follow-up, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, which she starred in with her sister. Deneuve has continued to work throughout the many changes of French cinema and works as hard today as she ever did. Her consistency as a successful actress, she says, has to the do with the number of writer/directors working in the industry. “I’ve been quite lucky to work with directors who write their own scripts, so it makes a difference as opposed to just getting a script and not knowing who’s going to do it.” However, she adds, luck has something to do with her longevity.

Over a hundred films later, not only has acting changed since Deneuve began, but “so has the world and the film industry”, but not necessarily for the worse. “I think it was very hard in those earlier days for directors to make films, and technically it was so much more difficult and slow. Today it seems there are more possibilities for people to do films, if they have a kind of energy and personality; the possibilities today are endless.” For Deneuve, acting is about trying new things. “I want to at least give the impression that I’m doing something I haven’t done before,” she says. “I want to feel endangered and scared by a film, as I was doing 8 Women. Once you become established, there is a tendency to be offered things that you have done before, which is always a little bit more conventional than the reality.” The reality is removed from her screen image, that of the cold, ice maiden, a persona that has stuck for years. “There is certainly that need to categorise you despite everything you’ve done. I suppose it’s convenient for everybody.”

Though undeniably one of France’s most alluring stars, Deneuve flirted briefly with Hollywood, appearing in some forgettable films such as The April Fools and Hustle. Never inclined to be completely seduced by Hollywood. “After I did those films I never really got offered anything interesting from Hollywood. I mean I’m not going to do a film in America that I would refuse to do in France. My desire to do an English film is not that big that I would accept anything.” The actress further concedes that working in Hollywood today is prohibitive for her, “because there is simply no room in America for women my age and I love to take risks. In Hollywood, once you’ve attained a certain stature, you have to be careful what roles you play. Someone like Schwarzenegger, for example, would never consider playing a gay man, while for me, working in Europe, I care about what I want to do, first and foremost, because we don’t care as much about box office.”

As famous as she is, Deneuve keeps herself grounded “by leading a normal and busy life with my family and children. Also the way I was brought up was to dream, but still keep my feet on the ground.”