“What is it like to be hailed as the most beautiful woman in the world?”
“It’s not something I live with, you know. I think it’s something that’s a nice compliment.”
These are the charming words of my most fervent girl crush, Catherine Deneuve. Graceful, elegant and timeless, French actress Deneuve has successfully navigated the waters of the film industry for decades, avoiding the scandal or obscurity that so many others fall prey to.
One of the Nouvelle Vague movement’s shining icons, Deneuve is celebrated for her beauty and versatility. She has starred in everything, from Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de Jour” as a married housewife who turns tricks in the afternoon, to François Truffaut’s “Le Dernier Métro [The Last Metro]” as the wife of a theater director protecting her Jewish husband during the Nazi occupation of Paris.
My personal favorites are her collaborations with director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand, and in particular “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg].” The film is a grand musical experiment. Every line is sung in the manner of an opera, with all the music composed by Legrand. Though the style might imply silly romanticism, “Parapluies” is a bittersweet reflection on when love isn’t, in fact, able to conquer all. It’s sad, wise and completely beautiful.
[Warning: spoilers ahead!] In “Parapluies,” Deneuve stars as Geneviève, a young woman deeply in love with a local garage mechanic, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Her mother, Mme. Emery (Anne Vernon), owns the local umbrella shop and is desperately in need of money. Wealthy diamond merchant Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) walks into their lives and promptly falls for the beautiful Geneviève. Still, Geneviève only has eyes for Guy, but with the conflict in Algeria, he is drafted into the army for two years. Though they promise to love each other forever, she is disheartened when Guy only writes to her once in two months. She then discovers that she is pregnant with Guy’s child. Several months later, Cassard proposes to Geneviève, offering to marry her anyway and raise the child as his own when he learns of her pregnancy.
Guy eventually returns to the town and learns of Geneviève’s marriage and departure from Cherbourg. In his depression, he turns to drink, a habit that gets him fired from the garage. Eventually he is rescued by Madeleine, a woman who cared for his late aunt and who had secretly harbored a love for Guy for many years. The last scene of the film, a chance encounter between Guy and Geneviève, is incredibly poignant and masterfully executed. [Spoilers over.]
Though it can take a little time to accept the lack of spoken dialogue in “Parapluies,” you quickly accept the conceit and embrace the visual and musical splendor of the film. The opening credits, which feature a bird’s eye view of perfectly choreographed pastel bikes and the titular umbrellas on a rainy day in Cherbourg, are frequently acclaimed as some of the best of all time. Brilliantly, title designer Jean Fouchet uses the cobbles of the street as a grid that guides the typography. The main theme, a duet sung by Guy and Geneviève, is among the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. It’s no surprise that “Parapluies” was awarded the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Deneuve, Demy, Legrand and Fouchet were reunited in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, which also starred Gene Kelly as a lost American composer and Deneuve’s superbly talented, ill-fated older sister Françoise Dorléac as her twin. Though less well-known, and a drastic change in tone from “Parapluies,” the film is an effervescent confection of sherbet colors, accompanied by a spectacular score and choreography. In “Demoiselles,” Demy evokes a new world elevated far above the mundane, charming in its absolute romanticism.
Deneuve’s most peculiarly odd, yet delightful, role in a Demy-Legrand production, however, is her titular turn in “Peau D’Âne [Donkey Skin].” To better understand what I mean, I suggest watching “Le Cake D’Amour.” It’s the best-known sequence from the film, in which Peau D’Âne — who is a princess in disguise escaping her father who seeks an incestuous marriage — bakes Love’s Cake for a Prince who has fallen in love with her, and she him. The film is about as strange as it sounds, but with the willful abandonment of reality, it really is rather enjoyable. Charles Perrault’s fairy tale princess might seem too light a role for Deneuve, but she brings an adult sensibility with her sweetness.
Whether playing a donkey skin-clad escapee or a woman in Nazi-occupied France, Deneuve is undeniably dazzling. Now, at 70, she is absolute proof that it is possible to age beautifully even while continuing to churn out new material every year.
“You were blessed then?”