On April 2nd, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will honor Catherine Denueve at the 39th Annual Chaplin Award Gala. In conjuction with the event, we reprint Arnaud Desplechin's interview with Catherine Deneuve from the November/December 2008 issue.
CD: Is this going to be serious?
AD: It’s for Film Comment. It’s a bit like an American Cahiers du Cinéma.
CD: I don’t read Les Cahiers. I buy it but I don’t read it. Those magazines are for people who reflect on cinema, who think cinema. They’re not made for people like me. In truth, I don’t read about films much.
AD: I’ve been reading Les Cahiers since I was 16.
CD: For me there are two things: action and reflection. And I find that I’m more into action. I’m a slow reader, so I would rather spend that time watching a film.
AD: But when you started out, didn’t this dream of being in films materialize through conversations? So many of the people you worked with in your first films are linked to the New Wave: Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Roger Vadim, Georges Delerue, Raoul Coutard… Didn’t they love to talk about film?
CD: Yes, but they were more into joking than talking seriously. They were like me, more into action.
AD: Did you go to the Cinématèque Française?
CD: Sometimes. One of the first films I ever went to see was The Naked Jungle. I didn’t start going to the cinema until had a cinephile boyfriend when I was 15, around the time I made Les Portes Claquent . Seeing Ivan the Terrible had a tremendous effect on me.
AD: Was that at the Cinématèque?
CD: No. It was on the Left Bank and for me, that was like traveling to a foreign country. My boyfriend lived on the Left Bank and so we went to see it in a theater on Rue de Rennes, I seem to remember.
AD: That was the Arlequin, a theater owned by the Communist Party.
CD: Yes, the Arlequin. My boyfriend was quite young, very communist, very conscientious objector, all of those things.
AD: Before that, you didn’t go to the cinema very often?
CD: Very little. We didn’t go out mush as a family.
AD: Despite both your parents being actors?
CD: My father was in the theater and was a voice artist, but we didn’t live in that milieu at all. My mother brought us up very normally and very seriously, and cinema was not part of our family life.
AD: What were you more into—actors or directors?
CD: It’s always been the film primarily. Actors have never had a hold on me, strangely enough—with the exception of Marilyn Monroe. I fell into film by coincidence. My sister started off working in theater, the classical route. My first ever part was alongside her, with me playing her sister. For that reason I always felt a little bit in the margins, until I met Jacques Demy. That’s when I realized that cinema could be something else, when I started a [professional] relationship with someone who really wanted me, for this particular film—when it stopped being a coincidence. Demy had seen me in a film called Ladies Man [60)], with Danielle Darrieux.
AD: He offered you the part in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg  long before the film got made. Filming had to be postponed.
CD: Yes, because I was pregnant.
AD: But it’s only after Umbrellas that cinema became your passion?
CD: Yes. I think it being a musical counted for a lot. We made it with very little and I think that served the film. We had to be very, very resourceful. I ended up spending a lot of time with Jacques. I was present at all the recordings. After that, I worked with the film score. And then I was pregnant, so he postponed filming. We shot it two months after I gave birth.
AD: Beyond the work of an actress, you were around for a lot of the directing.
CD: Absolutely, because the preparation made up half the film. Umbrellas existed before it was even shot. When we heard the music, we were all incredibly moved, even though there were no images yet. Jacques was very demanding but also very shy, and he liked to laugh. I recognized myself completely in his way of working. The making of the film was pretty nonsensical and I liked that: everything seemed extraordinary. And I felt that Jacques considered me indispensible. I realized that cinema had the potential to be like that: encounters between people who want to do unusual things. The film confirmed that the most important thing was to do the things you want to do with people you trust and whose ideas don’t seem too conventional. If the film hadn’t done well, I think it would have been a different story.
AD: Do you know what you would have wanted to do if it hadn’t worked out this way?
CD: I probably wouldn’t have done anything at all. I would have married my boyfriend, who had gone to war in Algeria, had children—and been divorced three years later, that’s for sure! I think I would have liked to have been an architect or an archaeologist.
AD: Often in cinema a character only earns the right to be a hero if his or her feelings are absolute. Trivial feelings must be kept hidden. I am deeply moved that nothing about Geneviève is hidden. She’s pregnant, she’s young, she hates her lover because she’s bored. It’s the trivial nature of her emotions that astounds me. Another actress and another director would have demanded of the character that she be “absolute.” To me she proves herself “relative,” and that’s much more moving.
CD: That’s Demy all over! It’s a whole way of filming, like gazing at the situation from a particular height.
AD: How do you think Kazan would have filmed the trivial—but not idiotic—heroine?
CD: Funny you should mention Kazan because when I saw Umbrellas a few years ago, it struck me: it’s exactly the same ending as in Splendor in the Grass, a film I adore. It’s one of the maddest, most audacious films on the subject of love. And the end scene is exactly the same as in Umbrellas. It was so moving to see that resemblance.
AD: When I consider all of your films, I see a unique quality that I don’t see in other actors. What I see is the mark of an auteur. Beyond the excellence of your acting, what all your films seem to share is your gaze, your point of view.
CD: Yes, you’re right. That’s what it is: a gaze. I think I’ve always leaned toward that. Perhaps because I never went to acting school and never worked with actors. I only ever met them on film sets—I never really had any actor friends, apart from my sister. I was always on the director’s side, or the screenwriter’s. I didn’t choose to, it just happened.
AD: You spoke earlier about your passion for Marilyn. Later, you dyed your hair blonde. That gesture fascinates me.
CD: That was a gesture of love.
AD: Did you take your mother’s name in the same way, as a declaration of independence?
CD: I didn’t take it! My mother said, “You’re going to take my maiden name.” I said “Yes, okay.” It was out of the question for me to have the same name as Françoise. Or at least, that’s what my family said at the time. Françoise had studied at the Conservatoire, she worked in theater.
I didn’t see it as a permanent thing. I didn’t think I would keep working in film. My head was completely elsewhere. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have agreed to that decision! I love my mother dearly but I don’t like her maiden name, it’s hard to pronounce… I prefer my real name.
AD: You were quite young when you met Kast, Varda, Demy, Chabrol. Surrounded by all those people—I’m also thinking of Polanski and Rappeneau—did cinema seem like a battlefield in the war between Ancient and Modern?
CD: No, I had no sense that all that was going on, because my life was very separate from that environment. I have always kept my love life very private—to the best of my ability—and I have always chosen the films I wanted to make. Those were two separate worlds that never mixed. Ultimately, the film scene was not at all a part of my life. But cinema helped me grow up, that’s for sure. I was really very ignorant of a lot of things. It’s hard to imagine how being part of a large family changes your relationship to the world outside. Because a large family is at the same time very protective and very closed. It’s when I realized this that I got the longing to leave. I found it a little worrying, so I left home when I was quite young.
AD: Did the experience of making Repulsion  in London with Polanski during the pop revolution have a stronger effect on you than the war of the Moderns, in France?
CD: It’s funny because three of us were French: Roman, who, despite being Polish, spoke French all the time, Gérard Brach, and me. We really were the Three Musketeers. Everybody else on set was British. Roman knew exactly how to be respected by the crew, he was no pushover. But because we spoke French, we experienced the making of that film a little from the sidelines, in a rather unique atmosphere. We were a core within the team.
AD: Like the film you made with Demy, Repulsion demands a closeness between the director and the actor.
CD: Yes, I felt very, very close to Roman. That’s the film I feel I helped make. The producers were used to producing porn. It was a small budget film and for them, nothing of great consequence… The experience with Roman was very important to me.
AD: It’s a frightening role. When I think of your roles in Belle de Jour , Tristana , Liza … You have to be brave to go there! If we look at your career…
CD: For me, there’s no such thing as a career.
AD: Another actor would have accepted the role because it is scandalous. But what strikes me in your performance is that you take on the role because you believe that it is not that scandalous after all. Or that scandal is an inherent part of life.
CD: Yes, absolutely, it’s true. It seemed interesting and normal to me. I remember meeting a journalist in Los Angeles, when Téchiné’s Thieves  came out, who said to me, “You don’t know how lucky you actresses are in Europe. An American actress could never agree to play a lesbian in a film, after a certain age and at a certain point in her life or career. It’s too risky.” I admit that I have always zigzagged. You know, it really depends on what films are being offered to you. It’s not always that interesting.
Maybe people are more accepting of my choices, whereas for somebody else they would say “How strange that she did that.” The door that opened to me after Belle de Jour was such that a lot of things could pass through it. Belle de Jour is a film that got bigger with time. It did well when it was released, but only later did it become a mythical, almost cult film. And that character became something of a symbol, a strange heroine. And because I played her, people made assumptions about me.
AD: I confess that I prefer Tristana…
CD: I definitely prefer Tristana to Belle de Jour.
AD: Your performance is stupendous. The leaps that the character makes from grief to innocence to joy to despair. And then bitterness. It’s quite a journey.
CD: Yes, the experience of making that film was rather unique. And it’s rare to play a character that goes through so many emotional states.
AD: In your diary on the shooting, you mention that during the filming of the balcony scene, Buñuel said, “No psychology.” Because of that scene Hitchcock sent Buñuel a note telling him of his admiration, and that he was jealous of such a shot. A scene that scabrous, that shocking, cannot be explained through psychology.
CD: Sometimes you have to accept that the image is more powerful than you, that the director’s intentions are stronger than you. That’s why the performance was all about being extremely permeable, open, with nothing at the back of your mind. When he told me: “You smile,” the idea was to be as unmoved as possible, whilst smiling, and to stay clear of putting intention behind it. There was enough intention there in the first place!
AD: You’ve worked with a number of directors who were much older than you—Buñuel, Melville, Oliveira. However, scanning your career, I don’t ever get the sense that there were filial relationships, but that it was more of a brotherhood.
CD: I think that comes from my masculine side.
AD: So what about the very reserved, bourgeois actress?
CD: It’s unbelievable! I am shocked when people sum me up as blonde, cold, and solemn. People will cling on to whatever reinforces their own assumptions about a person.
AD: With you there is a naughty side that comes out in your choice of roles and the way you play them. You must know that when you accept a certain role, people will be shocked, that there is a transgression…
CD: I never think of the audience until the film is made! Even after it is made, I always hope that the film and the audience will meet in the middle, but if people don’t like it, even though it bothers me, it doesn’t interfere with the pleasure I had making it. The number of people who speak to me about A Christmas Tale—people who would perhaps never have dared to speak to me before. It’s very strange… There is something jubilant about the character that people really like. That scene with Amalric and me in the garden had people transfixed. It is both insolent and truthful, and what they are saying is in very bad taste—because those are not the kind of words that should be spoken between a mother and son—and it moves them. It’s very interesting.
AD: Film Comment is an American magazine, so I should really be asking you questions about method, the invention of such and such character, how you found a certain gesture. But you once gave an answer that moved me a lot: “My relationship to character is made up of mental things that you should not put words to. To do so would be immodest. The most decisive moment of my work around a character happens as we are shooting. That moment is so tense, so exhausting that once it is over, I need fire doors between the set and me. Back in the dressing room or in the hotel, I shut myself off, because the state I am in on set is too exhausting.”
CD: It’s true that when we are filming, I can concentrate very quickly, but it does tire me out. It throws me into such a state! A trance-like state. So, what I need is either a trick for a calm type of trance or a sleepwalking trick…
AD: Emmanuelle Devos told me once that people often ask: how do you fabricate a character? When, of course, there is a whole preparation beforehand.
CD: Not for me.
AD: But in the end, what lasts, what the audience will see, is the five percent that’s left. That five percent is what happens during the take.
CD: There is no doubt that some things start happening before: some are subconscious, others are conscious. In my case, it happens in flashes. I am incapable of working by myself without a director, without someone to coach me. I have to soak in what will happen on set, that day, the location, the light… I need to know what happens before in the story. To me that is the most important thing: to relate to a character in relation to where we are in the film.
AD: There’s a moment in Dancer in the Dark  with your character sulking in a corner of the theater and you say, “I don’t want to play the dog.” But you start barking anyway. It’s not about submission, but about dialogue.
CD: It would be hard to explain exactly what happened at that moment. Because in truth, I wasn’t supposed to bark. I remembered that I had done the same thing for Liza. It’s me barking when we looped the sounds. I said to [director Marco] Ferreri, “Since I’m playing the bitch, I’ll play the dog as well!” I was pregnant with Chiara when I made that movie… I don’t know what happened with Lars Von Trier. I think you need a lot of trust to be able to do that. You have to be able to think, “I know that if it doesn’t work, he won’t use it.”
What scares me the most when I am with a director and it doesn’t feel right is when I think, “They have no point of view, they don’t know exactly what they’re doing, they won’t be able to judge.” And then I can’t give myself over entirely because I know there’s no one there to catch me. For me, that is the worst. I hold back, when what I really want is to give myself over. And that has nothing to do with age or experience. It’s all about intuition.
AD: Or you need to have enough good taste for two.
CD: If I realize the director and I don’t have the same taste, then I crawl back into my shell. It’s terrible. That’s the danger for actors, generally speaking. Without trust you can’t throw yourself in certain directions. I think it’s more the case for actors than for actresses.
AD: One role of yours that I love, quite scandalous, is in Robert Aldrich’s Hustle .
CD: Oh yes, with Burt Reynolds. They warned me about the director, “He’s a misogynist! He’s very hard on actresses.” That was the first time I was on a set where there were two cameras rolling. I said to Aldrich, “But if this camera position is good for the wide shot, how can it also be good for the close-up?” What he wanted to capture each time was intensity. We got on well.
AD: Did you like Truffaut and Belmondo a lot on the set of Mississippi Mermaid ?
CD: It was a unique shoot. François was writing the dialogue as we worked. They would slide next day’s scenes under the hotel room door during the night.
AD: In the script and in his own copy of the book, Truffaut underlined all the clues that help us to understand what stage the couple is at, physically. It’s both very suggestive and very crude.
CD: It’s a very immodest film. At times it was difficult for me. But, yes, those moments are precise: if she feels that he is suspicious, or even if things have gone well and she feels that she can abuse his trust… Yes, it is crude. But her relationship with Belmondo is a difficult one.
AD: He’s wonderful in the film, but French audiences don’t like to see a man playing a feminine part.
CD: Especially not Belmondo! That was the thing. He wanted to work with François, but I think he realized that the film was more for me than for him. Plus, he was engaged to an actress and that didn’t make things any easier. There was a real clash.
AD: The ending in the snow was more or less improvised, wasn’t it?
CD: He really wanted it to be like a cartoon. When we got to Grenoble, he wanted the end to be—that’s when I was the evil queen who poisons Snow White.
AD: I get the impression that The Last Metro  was more formative, had more of an effect on you than Mississippi Mermaid.
CD: Yes. Mississippi Mermaid was much more complicated. On The Last Metro we spent a lot of time together. François would never watch the rushes. I would watch them and he would ask me to describe what I’d seen. We talked a lot about cinema, actors. That was his passion. Films, of course, but above all actors and actresses.
AD: In the piece that Truffaut wrote about you, he said: “Catherine isn’t a flower. A woman, a flower, those are silly. Even less a bouquet. Catherine is a vase, in which the audience places the bouquet.” You yourself described the work you do as “being a blank page” upon which the film is written.
CD: François’s idea of the vase is very true. The blank page… Yes, it’s true, I do prefer to start without any intention at all, rather than arrive with my own idea. I am incapable of deciding what a character is. At the same time, from the moment I accept a part and read the script, I know that things will circle in my mind. Not all the time but it won’t stop entirely. But I am not obsessed, I don’t have any trouble getting out of character at night. There is always a kind of a nervous fatigue which I know is hidden away during the shoot. There are some things that fall into place without me doing anything. I know that now.
AD: Earlier you mentioned sleepwalking. I found another Truffaut quote about you: “Catherine is a ‘slowed down actress,’ she is rather slow.”
AD: Yes. “Actresses who attain mythical status act a little slower than usual.”
CD: Yes, perhaps. It’s still dumbfounding, though. What is annoying is when you have to play something anodyne. Sometimes I watch action movies and I think to myself, “My God they must have gotten so bored! How many times did they have to do that?” I find that terrible. You have to do this, you have to see this, then you have to get into a car… It’s mostly true of action movies.
AD: Yes, but the car, the looks, the boredom—that’s exactly James Stewart in Vertigo! Didn’t you meet Hitchcock for a project?
CD: Yes, I was supposed to make a film with Hitchcock. It was set up north too, just like Torn Curtain, it was going to be a spy story. At the time it was still only a synopsis. I had lunch with him in Paris and he died some months later. I would have loved to work with him.
AD: Right, I am going to start a silly game with you. It’s a quiz. Picasso or Matisse?
CD: I would say Picasso.
AD: Rolling Stones or the Beatles?
CD: Rolling Stones.
AD: Town or country?
CD: Town, but I like the country nonetheless.
AD: Renoir or Bresson?
CD: How cruel to be asking me this! I am going to say Bresson… Oh, Renoir, when I was younger! Now, I would probably say Bresson, I think.
AD: Studio or location?
CD: I do prefer natural settings.
AD: Flaubert or Stendhal?
AD: Pollock or Warhol?
AD: Beethoven or Mozart?
CD: I will say Mozart because I want to stop crying.
AD: Shakespeare or Molière?
AD: That question was too easy, Shakespeare or Strindberg?
CD: That’s a hard one! I will still say Shakespeare.
AD: Too easy, Strindberg or Chekhov? Now I’m being a bastard.
CD: Oh, I love both their worlds so much! I can’t choose.
AD: I have a solution: Nicholas Ray or André Téchiné?
CD: [Laughing, she chants] Téchiné! Téchiné!
AD: Stanislavski or Brecht?
CD: Oh, Brecht!
AD: I conclude with Truffaut and another extract from the same text: “If humanity is divided between exhibitionists and voyeurs, Catherine is a voyeur, therefore closer to life.”