LOS ANGELES — At 67, Catherine Deneuve is still beautiful. She is still elegant. And she is still ... French.
News of her beauty and elegance preceded her, even before she joined me in the garden of a Sunset Strip hotel. She had just completed a news conference with a group of foreign journalists, who were pouring out of the room with unsolicited gushing and fawning. “She is so beautiful,” one after another said to no one in particular. “She is so elegant.”
When the actress walked into the sunlight, the beauty and elegance immediately took a back seat to the French. She pulled out a long thin European cigarette, and she seemed a bit annoyed to learn that the state of California had just banned smoking in many outdoor areas. Finally, an assistant pointed to a shaded area with two chairs, where the legendary actress could satisfy her desire for a smoke.
As soon as she sat down and lit up, a waiter brought a pre-ordered soft drink, but the actress raised an eyebrow and reminded him gently but firmly that she didn’t want ice. The waiter apologized and offered to bring another glass, but Deneuve waved him off. She reached into the glass and dramatically tossed the offending cubes into a nearby shrub.
This combination of icy beauty and a willingness to act raw and real have been a hallmark of Deneuve for more than four decades, since the time of director Luis Bunuel’s “Belle De Jour” and Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion,” two 1960s-era films that turned Deneuve into an iconic figure, not only in French cinema but in Hollywood as well.
Although her movie reputation in America was secure mainly among people who like to read subtitles in the dark, it was her commercials for the perfume Chanel No. 5 (“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”) that made her face and sultry voice a star on this side of the Atlantic.
Many might assume, given her age and her absence from those commercials, that she has retired from public life, but the reality is that she has worked steadily for all these decades, and now brings another starring role to our shores.
In “Potiche,” Deneuve plays the long-suffering wife of an insufferable businessman who is taken ill during contentious contract negotiations with his striking workers. Although it is billed as a comedy, the impact is serious as her character assumes the reins of her husband’s umbrella factory and transforms from bored, frumpy housewife to dynamic executive.
But we’re not going to lie to you — it is a bit unsettling for someone accustomed to seeing the Catherine Deneuve of those early films to watch her in an unflattering jogging suit in the movie’s opening scene.
We talked to the mother of two (a son with director Roger Vadim and a daughter with actor Marcello Mastroianni) and grandmother of four about getting older and how it has affected her career. (And she even weighed in on Charlie Sheen.)
Q. Do you understand that a good part of the American audience will probably assume this is a comeback role, not realizing that you have worked steadily for years?
A. No, I don’t think that at all. I have had films over here every few years. Frankly, I don’t think too much about that.
Q. Why do you continue to work so hard?
A. I don’t work hard. I do films because I love making films. I work hard when I’m not making films. Sometimes, that part of my life seems like work.
Q. Like what?
A. Like talking about films, and talking about your personal life. I would much rather live my life than talk about it (laughs). Talking about my life seems like work.
Q. Promoting films is part of the game, isn’t it?
A. It is, but it’s not the part I like.
Q. Did you always dislike this part of the moviemaking process?
A. Yes. I thought the film should speak for itself. They put enough money in advertising the film. I don’t see the need in actors talking about it. I don’t think that’s interesting.
Q. People don’t want to hear about the film; they want to hear about you.
A. But I don’t want to talk about me (laughs). That’s the problem for me.
Q. Were you comfortable with that icy blonde image that followed you in the early part of your career?
A. I don’t think I started out that way, but once I did those commercials for Chanel in the States, I became more famous for that than for my films. The French films that came to America didn’t get the publicity that those commercials got. But I didn’t mind that image. I thought it was a very nice image.
Q. You didn’t mind that you were more famous for the commercials than the films?
A. I think it’s fair. You’re in magazines every month, and French films arrive only once or twice a year. You can’t compete with that.
Q. When you started out in film, you got so big so fast. Was that a burden for a young woman?
A. It was so fast, and it was a burden because I didn’t know how to handle it. But I realized very quickly that I didn’t want my career interfering with my private life. That attitude makes it easier to get through it.
Q. You were just trying to have some privacy, but didn’t that attitude only fuel the cool, icy blonde image?
A. Exactly. But that’s the way I chose to live so I couldn’t complain.
Q. Can you imagine what it would be like to be as big as you were, but in today’s paparazzi and tabloid world?
A. Some of that went on when I was younger, but I can’t imagine what it must be like today, when you can photograph anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Q. They even take photos of the children of celebrities.
A. Not in France. Children are protected in France against that kind of intrusion.
Q. Were you hounded much when you were younger?
A. Oh yes. I had to fight back to protect myself. I went to trial many times. There are laws to protect privacy in France.
Q. Would you start a career now knowing how it might intrude on your privacy?
A. I probably wouldn’t know better if I were just starting out. But if I knew what I know now, I would be frightened, so I’m not sure I would do it. It’s not good for your life, and it’s not good for your films. How can it be good for your films if your image is out there all the time? I look at CNN every morning and see Charlie Sheen’s face. His life is like a show. I don’t see how he can ever go back to being an actor after all this publicity about his private life. It’s incredible to see his face one moment, and then Libya the next.
Q. May I ask you an unfair question?
A. Of course, but I can’t promise I’ll answer it (laughs).
Q. Have you ever wondered how your acting career might have gone if you had not been so beautiful?
A. Oh, it would have been very different. I know how much I owe to my physical appearance. When I started, I was very young, and I know I wasn’t chosen for my ability. When you are 16, you are not chosen for your ability. It’s about how you look. But it’s not just the face. It’s about the emotion that comes out of the face.
Q. When you looked in the mirror, did you understand what other people were seeing?
A. No, no. I am from a family of good-looking girls, so it was not that big a thing to me. We were not taught to think about our looks. It was not something I’m proud of; it’s something that was given to me.
Q. Do you think the French handle aging better than Americans?
A. Certainly. There is not the obsession with aging in France.
Q. So, you had no problem getting older?
A. Of course I had a problem. I had a problem as a woman, as an actress, as someone looking for good scripts. But I’ve been lucky because I’ve always had people writing scripts just for me.
Q. It never affected your career?
A. Perhaps around 40. That was a turning point. But I started to produce films, and the acting roles came back. It’s OK now. I am at peace.