She was great right out of the gate. One of the unique things about her career (and she has few peers here) is that she has regularly been regaled as one of the most beautiful women in the world, and her beauty is something she uses and works with and understands, but her interests do not lie in exploiting her looks. Or, she doesn’t “trade” on her looks. The looks exist, and she understands them. She does not fight against them in order to be taken seriously. The looks are in service to HER, as opposed to the other way around. (Mitchell and I were discussing this yesterday and Deneuve’s similarity to Gena Rowlands in that regard. Both women clearly know they are stunning, and yet their choices reveal where their interests really lie. Both of them could have had one kind of career. The “pretty girl” career. Neither of them did.)
Deneuve, like Rowlands, continues to act. She continues to play interesting characters. She is still a mega-watt star in her 70s. She is in rare company. Rowlands. Barbra Streisand. Deneuve’s presence in anything is an EVENT. She is a pioneer for elderly actresses (in particular, beautiful elderly actresses). Plenty of character actresses appear in stuff until they drop dead. But that’s different. Beauty comes with its own gifts and traps, rewards and curses.
1964’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg was an international smash-hit and it made Deneuve a star.
Before that though, before she knew she would be world-famous (not that that matters, it’s just interesting context), she went to London to film Repulsion, directed by Roman Polanski. The film is Polanski at his best, and Deneuve at her very best. (It’s worth it to listen to their shared commentary track. Fascinating.) Her performance as the wordless manicurist strolling through swinging London like a somnambulist, as cracks open up (literally) at her feet, is a high watermark, not just for Deneuve, but for all actresses. I cannot tell you how many times I reference Repulsion in my head when I see another actress try (and usually fail) to create a sense of blankness, dissociation, depersonalization. They should watch Repulsion and LEARN. The performance is tremendously terrifying, and both Polanski and Deneuve have enormous compassion for this troubled young woman, soft-spoken to the point of whispering, who “zones out” in the middle of the day, in the middle of giving a manicure, who begins to see the world as threatening, with leering men on every corner. At night, harrowing fantasies of sexual assault keep her company. She puts on lipstick to get ready for them.
The performance is a tour de force.
Happy birthday, Catherine Deneuve.