Scent of a woman

Grand seductress Catherine Deneuve talks about taking chances, working with Bjvrk and starring in the new musical "Dancer in the Dark."

Published September 29, 2000 6:22PM (EDT)

Catherine Deneuve smells delicious. Seated directly across from me at a small table, she is even more attractive in person than on film. You must forgive me if in the presence of an actress who's mesmerized audiences worldwide for over 30 years in more than 90 films including "Belle de Jour," "The Last Mètro," "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and so on, all I can initially think about is that she smells like a ripe piece of exotic fruit.

Hell, I'm only a man.

"You like it?" she asks with a smile, as if her fragrance has had the proper effect -- disarming any male reporter who comes too close to her. "A friend got it for me in Paris at a very small place where they sell only five perfumes. This one is called 'Mediterranean Lily.'"

As Deneuve settles into her chair with a cup of coffee and a smoke (a pack of long, very thin cigarettes that I've never seen in the States), it strikes me suddenly that, Mediterranean lilies aside, this French empress of cinema is dressed like someone's rich grandmother.

Her blouse is a loud gold print on navy, worn out over a pair of dark blue slacks, and she carries a gaudy purse with large, green turquoise rocks strung together for a handle. Completing the picture are matching earrings and a ring made of large pieces of the same green turquoise set in gold. You can almost see her walking some little terrier while window-shopping for jewelry on Rodeo Drive, those tinted, orange-rimmed glasses protecting her from the sun.

On the other hand, not many grandmothers look like this. At 57, she may no longer be as stick-thin as she was in her early days as an icy blond in flicks like Roman Polanski's "Repulsion," but she retains the sculpted nose, the glowing skin and the intelligent, searching eyes. In fact, she's more alluring in her present, earthy incarnation. There's something especially sensual about this Deneuve, the Deneuve of "Indochine," "Ma Saison Prifirie," "Les Voleurs" and the magnificent "Place Vendtme" (recently released in the U.S.), in which she portrays a boozy, vulnerable widow out to reassert herself in her deceased husband's diamond trade.

Watching Deneuve in "Place Vendtme" drinking leftover glasses of wine in a restaurant with the fervor of a hardcore dipsomaniac, I'm smitten by her robust, Gallic decadence. Here, her age only enhances the appeal -- like some French Mrs. Robinson who could melt you with a glance if she wished. Even her supporting role as Kathy, Bjvrk's frumpy buddy in Lars Von Trier's maudlin melodrama "Dancer in the Dark," (the movie she's here to discuss) had me reeling and lovesick. In "Dancer," Deneuve is both maternal and full of voluptuous carnality.

"I guess that's what I'm doing now, mother and best-friend roles," says Deneuve, reading my thoughts as I ask her about the parts she's offered these days. "The last one I did in France, I have an affair with the husband of my daughter. Of course, I feel fortunate to be in Europe where there are such roles. I think it's very difficult to grow old anywhere in America. It's such a struggle to be in shape. It's your philosophy of living, you know? If you're not young, you don't exist anymore. There's no respect for people who can say more with their faces and the way they look. Maybe New York is different. Where are you going to go when you grow old?" she asks me. "You Americans from L.A.?"

Well, I'm ready to go to France any day. I could tell 'em Catherine sent me. Though I don't think the French will be too wild about it. I doubt I'll age as well as Deneuve. As to the suggestion that she's gotten "better" as she's gotten older, Deneuve gently demurs.

"It has nothing to do with experience. It's like flying. The more you fly, the more you know and the more scared you are. Because you know all that can happen. At the beginning you sort of fly away. But little things start to happen and you know that more can happen. Maybe something worse. And then you're aware of all the people around and what they do and how they do it. I feel more confident sometimes because I know a little more. But when you've been in films for a long time, they expect so much of you. Then there has to be more because you have to surprise them. People want to be surprised."

Deneuve continues to surprise us because she continues to challenge herself. Throughout her life, she's worked with innovative masters of cinema such as Luis Buquel, Frangois Truffaut, Roman Polanski, Jacques Demy, Andre Techine and now Lars Von Trier. It's made her strong, at least in the eyes of others. One of the adjectives journalists use often about her is "courageous." Girard Depardieu, her costar in Truffaut's "The Last Mètro," once famously described Deneuve as "the man I would most like to be." And David Morse, who plays the police officer Bjvrk's Selma kills in "Dancer," said that watching an international star like Deneuve "get down and dirty" with other actors on the set was particularly energizing.

"I think taking a chance is the only way for an actor to work," Deneuve tells me. "Otherwise, you start repeating what you know. Of course, you can stay on that level, but that's never the way I wanted to be."

Certainly jumping off the cliff into the chaos of a Lars Von Trier film, with its 100 video cameras, its melodrama and, in this case, its attempt to revive a moribund genre -- the movie musical -- would be taking a risk for anyone. Fortunately, it was up to Bjvrk to carry the film as a Czech immigrant going blind while trying to save her son from the same ailment. Deneuve offered both Bjvrk's character and Bjvrk herself emotional support. Indeed, she's the one reassuring presence throughout a film filled with darkness and extreme emotions -- the voice of reason, a source of matter-of-fact wisdom.

When I spoke with Bjvrk about the film, she told me, "Because I'd never done this before, I'd go to her and ask her, 'Is it supposed to be like this?' And she was sort of like, 'I wouldn't have done it this way, but you're absolutely excellent so don't you worry about a thing.' That made me more confident and a lot braver."

But Deneuve downplays any advice she may have given Bjvrk, stating that she simply tried to be reassuring. To Deneuve, Bjvrk is a "very special" artist, one who knows "who she is and what she wants." They did become friends on the set, she says. Yet because they lead very different lives in different countries, they're not the sort of friends who call each other all the time. Rather, they keep in touch and talk periodically. "But that is very private," says Deneuve.

And what about the enigmatic and controversial Von Trier? Did Deneuve really ask to be in one of his films, as all the European papers claim?

"Von Trier is a very unusual and intimidating director for people -- like Buquel when he did 'L'Age D'Or,'" says Deneuve. "I think people who are different are always disturbing to others. We all like order more or less. Persons who make you think differently and see differently are not very reassuring."

"I'm asked generally two questions," she continues. "'Is it true that Bjvrk and Lars fought?' And, 'So you called Lars to get a part in the film?' I say no to both. I didn't call Lars, I wrote him a letter after I saw 'Breaking the Waves.' I found it incredibly touching and was very moved. That was the first time I've ever written a director. I didn't know he was preparing a movie. He responded with a very nice letter saying he was making a musical, and that he had just seen 'Umbrellas of Cherbourg' (the Demy film with Deneuve in which the dialogue is sung). He asked if I would consider this part of Bjvrk's friend. The project was so special and interesting that I said yes."

Deneuve seems pleased with the result. She calls the process of making the film "fun -- a very nice shooting" overall. And of course the film received the Golden Palm at Cannes for Von Trier and the best actress award for Bjvrk. Even though critics have given "Dancer" mixed notices, Deneuve remains an icon to them, a legend who is enhanced with every role. But Deneuve herself has nothing but scorn for such hyperbole.

"I find it a little boring when they use such words as 'icon' and 'legend,'" she tells me, her eyes flashing as she removes her round, tinted glasses for the first time. "It's a way of putting me away on a pedestal, to watch me. But that's not real -- that's only when you don't know me. I always try to break that image."

By Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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