‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ was her first major role. She was about 21. She plays Genevieve, the daughter of a widow. The two together run an umbrella shop. Genevieve has fallen in love with a young handsome man called Guy who, the morning after they consummate their relationship, has to leave for military service and is off the scene for a good deal of time. Genevieve is pregnant and, according to her mother, she needs a husband. This man will be a rich jewel merchant. It is difficult to know whether or not she is happily married. But the beautiful idea of Romeo and Juliet being created earlier has now dissipated. You do get the feeling of something ideal and romantic being destroyed.
When Guy comes home after finishing his service, there is no Genevieve and her mother and their umbrella shop. Bitter, he turns to drink and prostitutes, before settling on the love of his mother’s young nurse. His mother subsequently dies, and Guy’s life changes for the better when he discovers this unexpected love for Madeleine.
At the end of the film there is a beautifully wrought scene in which Guy and Genevieve see each other again after a long period of absence. She comes unwittingly to his petrol station. His wife and his little boy, Francois, depart to go out shopping. They are clearly content, a beautiful restful peace exists between them. Genevieve is outside. She has her little girl, Francoise, and her expensive fur and shiny black car. There is something wistful, regretful perhaps, in her demeanour. It is a sad moment when they talk again, guarded and a little distant. It makes us think about what could have been if their stars aligned better. We are reminded about how beautiful and romantic they were together.
Catherine Deneuve is spectacularly beautiful, pale and tall and blonde and girlish and innocent initially, and at the end of the film experienced and wistful. It is a good performance in a great film. She dominates each frame and the director, Jaques Demy, uses close up reasonably regularly to please his audience. In one scene, imagining marriage, Genevieve sits in her umbrella shop like a princess, resplendent with crown, and she is utterly absorbing. I like her as the young, impressionable, flighty and breathless young woman- less as the proud, wealthy aristocrat with the high fur collar.
A year or so later Catherine Deneuve plays Carol, a French woman living in London, in a black and white Polanski ‘horror’ film called ‘Repulsion’, menacing and unsettling- an incredible departure. Polanski, like Demy before him, loves looking at Deneuve. She spends most of the film in a partially see through nightie. In one scene she lays sprawled on the floor on her stomach, a sheet covering only the top half of her body to her hips.
Carol has a mental illness that becomes more severe as the film goes on. A photograph featured at the start and at the end of the film (it reminds me of a shot of a photograph in ‘The Shining’), is suggestive of a disturbance of some kind. As a young girl she has the look of unspeakable terror- some alien force seems to have interfered with her universe from a very young age. As the film plays out, we begin to think the force may have been a malevolent male, such is Carol’s abhorrence of all males, from the creepy, predatory landlord who sees his chance when she is completely vulnerable; to the flashy and egocentric ‘brother-in-law’ who flirts with her and unsettles her with his leering attitude, to the generally ‘nice’ wannabe boyfriend who is desperate to kiss Carol and is absolutely frustrated at her lack of response.
Carol kills men. She is absolutely psychotic. Even the smell of a used singlet or the sight of a shaving brush is enough to make her nauseous. And no-one, unsurprisingly, quite understands her. She has awful dreams of being violated in her own bed. Polanski springs these events on us unsuspectingly. The walls crack at regular intervals, a reflection of her deteriorating mind. ‘Repulsion’ is a good film, but not a great one. Polanski made it as a ‘bridge’ film like the Coen brothers sometimes do- to make money to finance something better and more heartfelt. Nevertheless it is still, in 2012, intriguing and unsettling viewing. And the homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ is huge, at times maybe even plagiarism. See the opening credits as an example, and the work in the enigmatic bathroom.
‘Repulsion’ is interesting from a Catherine Denueve point of view because Carol is such a departure from sweet Genevieve. Polanski continues the voyeuristic mode of Demy- even more so- but Carol is such a dark, troubled figure, almost as if Deneuve was crying out not to be typecast in what some would see earlier as a whimsical musical. There’s nothing gothic about ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’- but ‘Repulsion’, mostly set in a disturbing unit where all manner of evil takes place, is pure London Gothic. He has always had good ideas for apartment interiors.
So with ‘Cherbourg’, in ‘63/’64, then ‘Repulsion’ in ’65, Catherine Deneuve appears in ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort’ (’67), infectious, fun, even more of a musical, and seemingly pure whimsy. Gone is dark Carol, and we have a return to a Genevieve of a kind, however a bit more wordly-wise without the sadness. Deneuve this time is Delphine, acting with her real life soon to be deceased sister, Francoise Dorleac, being chased across the main square of Rochefort and teaching ballet and singing charming songs. This time, instead of an umbrella shop, mother runs a café where different characters drop on at will. It is Demy again, and lots and lots of singing and music, although this time the words are spoken. There is love and heartbreak as you would expect, but the tone is decidedly more relaxed and fun than ‘Cherbourg’, and as a result more easily forgettable.
Remarkably, Deneuve’s very next film was ‘Belle De Jour’, also ’67, and this time all whimsy has gone with her role as Severine Serizy, a prostitute by day as her unknowing surgeon husband is at work. Severine’s subconscious is filled with dreams about sadomasochism and bondage, while in her wakened hours she is unable to partake in physical intimacy with her husband- only, (very reluctantly at first it must be admitted) - with her clients at the brothel. This film deals with dark secrets, gangsters, murder, and it has to be said, the kind of leering men that inhabited ‘Repulsion’. But Severine is a very different creature to Carol and the other people she inhabits in her films around this time. There is something mysterious and hidden about her. Luis Bunuel, as director, treats her in a different way to these other directors. But she is still a kind of image of worship for those around her, and undoubtedly so for her audience as well. Some of the brothel scenes are quite frank, and Severine wears fashionable underwear in these scenes. Far more than the other films, fashion seems to be at the forefront. She wears fabulous dresses and fabulous shoes and accessories. A beautiful black hat. I’m not personally into fashion, but I am guessing that this film has had a huge impact on what was seen as chic and fashionable around the world. As far as the plot is concerned, it interested me less than these other films, although it was, it seems, meticulously made.
So bravo for Catherine Deneuve for taking so many risks and taking on so many challenges. And bravo to her directors for having the foresight to see her as something complicated, much more than a princess in an umbrella shop or a dancer and music teacher being chased across French boulevards. I don’t think she is or was ever a Liv Ullman or even perhaps a Jane Fonda, but interesting nevertheless and mesmerising for many close-up on the screen.