(Catherine) Deneuvian Depths

Catherine Deneuve is justly celebrated as one of cinema’s most elegant beauties of the last 40 years, and here she gets a box of minor works to set along similar Lionsgate boxes devoted to Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren, all licensed from Studiocanal in France.

The best way to tell the strength of an actor isn’t to watch the works where they’re supported by greatness, but to see what they bring to middling material. Orson Welles and Charles Laughton were often accused of hamming it up, though I think that’s because they naturally worked on a level that showed up the mediocrity around them. They were film-sized when the film around them wasn’t.

Although the films in this set are a mixed bag, they show Deneuve’s talents are more than skin deep. Here she doesn’t have the radiant innocence of her Jacques Demy classics (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Donkey Skin ) or even the perverted innocence that Luis Bunuel projected across the screen of her beauty (Tristana, Belle de Jour ). Rather she materializes already armed with an intelligence and will that’s often threatening to her leading men, and thus they must try to tame her.

Matthias Müller should be alerted. He creates found-footage deconstructions like Home Movies, which assembles footage of threatened women in kitchens from Hollywood melodramas. On the evidence of this set, he could make a similar anthology called Slapping Catherine or perhaps a broader set on French romantic rituals called something like L’Amour Casse la Gueule, proving that lovers can’t keep their hands off each other. More details are below as we explore these Deneuvian depths.

Manon 70 (1968)

Jean Aurel’s Manon 70 belongs to a 1960s mini-trend for updating sexy classics or at least borrowing their titles. It probably began with Roger Vadim’s very good and successful Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960, notable for one breathtaking tracking shot centered on Jeanne Moreau. Then came the anthology Boccaccio ’70, Mario Monicelli’s Casanova ’70, and Radley Metzger’s Carmen Baby and Camille 2000.

Aurel’s entry is a reasonable, stylish addition to the subgenre. Abbé Prevost’s novel about a giddy, self-absorbed, mercenary vixen and pathological liar who spells ruin for the narrator is slightly modified to emphasize the education of Manon’s lover. In the novel, his ruin at the hands of a hussy is a moral defeat. In the film, it doesn’t quite seem so because the hussy is a shamelessly liberated woman — that is, one quite prepared to be as selfish as he.

He begins as a figure of entitlement, old-fashioned and possessive in his jealousies. He spends the whole film flying into belligerent fits and hitting everybody, and this is shown as tiresome, unproductive behavior that he drives himself to as much as Manon’s behavior drives him to it. The lack of a resolution to the story also means a lack of judgmentalism. Our hero finally seems to calm down and develop a sense of humor, his aggressions now conveyed through mischief, as he becomes corrupted to the ways of the 20th Century.

The credits are flashed inside a changing room as fashion models peel off and roll on various articles of clothing; it’s impossible to distinguish voyeurism from consumerism. Then the opening scenes are set in the Tokyo airport, where modernity is indicated by shots of uniformed women speaking in Japanese on monitors. A TV journalist (Sami Frey) spots the fabulicious, short-skirted Deneuve in the waiting room. He upgrades to first class in order to sit nearby and give her the eye, and his handsome youth eventually woos her away from her older companion, whom she dumps without a by-your-leave. Our hero doesn’t take caution from this but soon becomes suspicious when she starts hanging out with some pimpish figure (Jean-Claude Brialy) who claims to be her brother.

This airport sequence is the consumerist pornography of its era. The Sixties, when international flight was becoming chic and affordable, saw a boom in stewardess fantasies (Coffee Tea or Me, Come Fly with Me ) and airport soaps (The V.I.P.s, Airport ), all supposed to be glamorous. The thought of conveying the carefree high life by having characters wait in an airport, or drive down busy streets, would mystify today’s viewers. Mind you, a speedboat in the Mediterranean still works, so it’s a good thing the last act plays out with those accouterments.

There’s also the consumer porn of the bathroom, a running theme in this box set. Here, Deneuve shares a tub with Frey and explains the difference between women and men: a double-standard by which she can give her body to anybody because that’s not love, although she’ll kill him if he strays because men only think with their bodies. This is normally supposed to be a male double-standard, which is perhaps why it galls Frey to the point of raping her in the tub. She frankly and casually calls it rape and makes him promise not to do it again.

It’s possible to read Manon as a radical free-love harlot who won’t be possessed, someone who will calculatedly break down her man’s prideful conventions. One reason it’s possible to read her this way is the depth which Deneuve’s face invests in her shallow character, and the way Aurel lets many scenes play out in lengthy confrontational two-shots, or else with close-ups on Deneuve, sometimes as she merely listens. He knows on which side his camera is buttered.

The film’s sense of style owes something to the lightly plashing music of Vivaldi, an auditory link between the novel and its cinematic incarnation. Serge Gainsbourg is credited with additional music, which seems to mean a fragment of a pop song in one scene. The transitions use three different devices: fades, dissolves, and a striking kind of wipe like a shutter being pulled across the lens.

Le Sauvage (1975)

In the context of Deneuve’s career, Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Le Sauvage seems calculated to play against her elegant persona. Its purpose is to show that she can play wild and loud, that she can do physical schtick, that she can get soaking wet with her hair clinging to her head, and still look beautiful. In other words, it purports to be a screwball romantic comedy, although it’s more like Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away than Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire.

It begins in Valparaiso, where Deneuve’s heroine runs away from a planned wedding like Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, except she leaves her prospective husband’s bed the night before the ceremony. We have seen that she’s getting married into a family of loud, emotional Italian stereotypes, and the belligerent groom (Luigi Vannucchi) tracks her down and tries to tame her with a few swats.

This might be intended to show that he’s a chauvinist bully, but on the other hand, she says that she hits him, too. And back to the first hand, the hero she falls in love with also has to give her a few good thwacks — though to be fair, this is immediately after she deliberately sinks his sailboat with a pick-ax while they’re both on it. In short, it’s part of Gallic cinematic conventions of this period that love is sometimes communicated via slaps. Come to think of it, she gets slapped by her lover in Manon 70 too, not to mention the rape. And get a load of the scene in Le Choc where Delon smacks her, then she smacks him, then they embrace. Ah, Paris, city of love!

Where were we? Oh yes, Deneuve imposes herself on some hapless stranger (Yves Montand) at the hotel. She keeps showing up after he thinks he’s seen the last of her, and a series of twists lands them both on the same tropical island where he lives as a hermit who grows vegetables and experiments with perfume. This is where the picture finally settles into its primal love-hate man-woman thang, and everything might be okay if not for the outside world. The Italian groom never stops pursuing her, nor does an American nightclub owner (Tony Roberts, best known for Woody Allen films) from whom she stole a Toulouse-Lautrec. Meanwhile, Montand has a distant wealthy wife (Dana Wynter) who also keeps tabs on him.

Even in Hollywood, romantic comedies of this era tended to be more serious than at any other time, and French genre pics in particular tend to waver between several tones, so let’s just say that some things in this picture are intended to be more humorous than others before the final embrace. Rappeneau wrote the script with his wife Elisabeth and Jean Loup Dabadie. Michel Legrand let himself go on the romantic score.

Le Choc (1982)

Le Choc might just as easily have been included in the recent Alain Delon collection. He stars as a hitman, naturally, who is shown plying his trade in a coolly professional manner. This is the old hitman-tries-to-retire gambit and you could take it from there, but Deneuve is the added element and enters the film with some ingenuity. It turns out that paid assassins have business managers to handle their investments, and Delon’s manager has, in a refreshingly screwy yet credible plot detail, invested in a turkey farm near the north coast. Since Delon should get out of town anyway, he goes to check it out and finds Deneuve in residence with a surly husband and a thousand fowl.

A trip from the jungle of the city to the quiet country often signals redemption and renewal in films and so it proves at first when he meets Deneuve. She is, of course, the most stunning turkey farmer imaginable and, what with her husband being such a rude bitter drunk and all (once again, there are good slappers and bad slappers), the heat turns up instantly between her and Delon for about three minutes before the latter’s professional troubles track him to his rural lair and he’s forced to come back for One Last Job.

The scenes of violent action in this picture could be fairly described as ridiculous, as in far-fetched and overdone. However, Delon’s pad in the city is unbelievably cool with some kind of spacious stucco fortress motif, and his shower (gratuitous nude scene, always a plus) is the size of a trailer. More bathroom porn! The vast panoramas of turkeys are also a nice touch, as are moments of character interplay that tend casually to underline everyone’s existential pain.

Hôtel des Amériques (1981)

André Techiné’s Hôtel des Amériques has Deneuve getting hit some more, this time by depressive schlub Patrick Dewaere, who made an unfortunately short-lived career playing troubled types. He manages to poison their relationship almost from the beginning as she recovers from the tragic loss of her fiancée. The film is set in Biarritz (whose photography by Bruno Nuytten is the film’s main strength), and at one point Deneuve is made to deliver a self-conscious statement on the city’s personality: different from anywhere else in France, yet not foreign either.

Techiné likes to make films with several characters interacting within some given locale, and there are various subplots here with other people, but the whole is weighed down by Dewaere’s character and our conviction that Deneuve should know better than to waste her time with him. The actors are good; the film’s problems are conceptual.

It’s an alleged, oft-repeated virtue of French films that the characters are so “adult”. Presumably, this is meant in contrast to many Hollywood films where the characters aren’t really characters in the first place. But if Eric Rohmer didn’t exist, it would be hard to find any French films about adults, at least if this signifies maturity. Those films that aren’t bittersweet semi-autobiographical portraits of children are usually infatuated with “l’amour fou”, where characters find it impossible to get over some obsessive, possessive, manic-depressive, aggressive-aggressive fixation, often culminating in literal madness and death, that doesn’t resemble the behavior of adults so much as the arrested adolescence of someone overdosed on Dostoyevsky.

I’m not saying things go that far here, though the viewer continually expects it might, and that’s the point. Dewaere’s character and his abrasive guitar-playing buddy are explicitly depicted as arrested non-adults, perhaps with unspoken homoerotic issues. The director covered some of this territory more convincingly with actual adolescents in Wild Reeds, which along with this film is in an upcoming Lionsgate box devoted to this director.

Fort Saganne (1984)

I’d call it the least satisfying film here, but it runs neck and neck with Alain Corneu’s Fort Saganne, notorious as the most expensive French production up to that time. It too has fine photography by Nuytten and a lush score by Philippe Sarde. It also has Gérard Depardieu looking more young and handsome than even in his previous films. He plays a farmer who joins the Foreign Legion in North Africa (the film was shot in Mauretania) from 1911 until the outbreak of WWI in 1914.

The box says it’s approximately 103 minutes long. Actually, that’s how long it is until Deneuve shows up in the second half of this two-part epic. She’s there for 15 minutes in a segment set in Paris, and it serves as kind of oasis in three hours of sand, wind and camels. Her character appears to set up a dialectic with the colonial point of view represented by Depardieu’s character, since she plays a journalist who writes about him as an unthinking machine who knows not what he serves. But it turns out to be a ploy to lure him to her lair, since she wants him, and she too gets to show off a lovely bathroom.

This film is aiming for David Lean territory but it may be more usefully compared with Gone with the Wind for its unironic nostalgia for the wrong side of history. Of course, the French presence in Africa is shown as knotty and problematic, according to various snippets of dialogue as various characters represent various points of view (with the native characters as secondary types who respect men of action). It’s just that whatever sociopolitical insights could be pried out of Depardieu’s education as he plods from one heroism to another are submerged in the consolation that no matter how ill-advised or pointless service to the state may become, one always has one’s own integrity in a job well-done. The ending feels hollow, which might be intentional, but surely the whole epic isn’t supposed to feel so.

For a lesson in how Foreign Legion balderdash can also yield rich meanings within its adventure, let’s turn back 60 years earlier to Jacques Feyder’s L’Atlantide or Queen of Atlantis, which is in the DVD set called Rediscovering Jacques Feyder. This is another two hours and 40 minutes of sand that might seem to be an apology for the Empire, yet it’s something, fascinatingly, else. French officers become the concubines of the title homely vamp, who somehow lives in the middle of the Sahara and humiliates her husbands while driving them to madness, suicide and murder. It’s not so much about sex or Atlantis as a vivid allegory of Empire itself — an idea that drives westerners to destruction in the desert, the illusion of their own power to conquer and subdue. Not that this has any relevance today.

But that was from a time when entertainments were supposedly innocent of deeper truths, while Corneau in the ’80s had to lumber about with self-conscious observations. As physically handsome as these last two items in the Deneuve box are, it’s the jaunty genre pics that, while taking themselves less seriously as Cinema, offer the most instruction.

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