It’s been almost six decades since 24-year-old Catherine Deneuve and her older sister Françoise Dorléac played twins in The Young Girls of Rochefort.
The film, also starring a young Gene Kelly, would be the last for the sisters, Deneuve gaining international prominence while Françoise’s life and career would be frozen in time.
Born into a family of actors, Deneuve, now 79, made her debut in the 1957 French film The Twilight Girls. It was in 1960 when she starred in the romantic musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a role that emphasized her Gallic chic and purity, that she was launched into stardom. This was the first of many Jacques Demy films that Deneuve would appear.
Her dramatic potential captured the interest of the legendary director-producer, Roman Polanski, who cast her in a leading role in the psychological thriller, Repulsion. Her magnificent portrayal of Carol, a homicidal schizophrenic, earned Deneuve a lifelong reputation as the “ice maiden,” which was cemented in her next role in Belle de Jour, an award-winning role where she played a bourgeoise housewife, also a hobbyist prostitute.
The mother of one, she had a son in 1963 with French screenwriter Roger Vadim and was given the opportunity to star with her big sister, older by one year, in the 1967 musical The Young Girls of Rochefort. Closely bonded, the two sisters looked alike so playing twins in the film wasn’t too much of a stretch.
It was only three months after the release of Rochefort that Françoise, 25 at the time, was killed in a car crash, a moment that Deneuve says is her worst.
“The day I lost my sister, I lost my joy of living…it is the most painful thing that I have experienced,” she said in an interview with Paris Match, a weekly French magazine.
The loss of her sister wasn’t slowing down Deneuve, a femme fatale wrapped in Yves St Laurent, the icon of sixties glamor.
Known as the face of French film, Deneuve has a portfolio of more than 120 films in 60 years. Explaining how the industry has changed, Deneuve said, “Human nature is a very wide thing. There are roles that are more in relation to people of my generation. When you grow older in life, it’s the same thing. You have an experience and a type of character that you cannot play if you are 30, let’s say.” She continued, “It’s difficult to find a good path. You can grow older better in Europe than in America, that’s for sure. But women seem to be younger than they were 50 years ago. It’s the evolution of human beings, ah? 40 years ago, when you see a 50-year-old woman, she looked her age. Today, much less.”
Despite her global popularity, the actor, singer, and model performed in mostly French films and only has a handful of English roles.
Deneuve explained her decision to support mainly French cinema, “I feel very French, but I speak Italian and English, so I feel very European. But I don’t feel close to English people, for example. It’s not that far away geographically, but I don’t feel close to English people because it’s such a different sensibility, such different characters.” She added, “We are so different. I feel closer to Spanish or Italian people than to English people. Because of the nature of the Latin character compared to an Anglo-Saxon character. We have different educations… we are very different.”
Some of her English-speaking roles include 1969’s The April Fools with Jack Lemmon in 1969, Hustle in 1973 with Burt Reynolds, 1977’s March or Die with Gene Hackman, and then in 1983’s cult classic, The Hunger, where she played a lesbian vampire alongside David Bowie and Susan Sarandon.
In 1972, Deneuve divorced David Bailey, a British photographer whom she met at a Playboy shoot, and married in 1965 with wedding guests that included Rolling Stones’ frontman, Mick Jagger. From 1970 to 1974, she was with the icon of Italian films, Marcello Mastroianni whom she had a daughter in 1972.
In 1980–in a pairing that made magic happen for French cinema–Deneuve had an award-nominated performance in The Last Metro, with another prolific French actor, Gérard Depardieu, the first of 15 films in the two would appear.
Speaking of Depardieu, Deneuve said the two have similar work habits, “We are both more instinctive actors. We like to arrive on set and work out what to do in the moment rather than rehearse beforehand.”
In the 1990s, Deneuve earned an Oscar nomination, and a César Award (the national film award in France), for her performance in the French period drama, Indochine. The 1992 film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
The 2000s brought Deneuve into a series of new performances, like the award-winning musical drama Dancer in the Dark, where she stars alongside the eccentric Icelandic singer, Björk, and later in 2010, Potiche, a screen she shared for the eighth time with Depardieu.
After appearing in 2019’s The Truth with Ethan Hawk and Juliette Binoche, Deneuve was filming the French film, Peaceful, when she was hospitalized after having a stroke. Though the family said it was a “very limited” ischemic stroke, production of the movie was stalled until July 2020 when the then 76-year-old was able to return. A smoker since she was 16, Deneuve finally gave it up after the stroke, which kept her in the hospital for one month.
Honored with a lifetime achievement award at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, the French icon, who celebrates her 80th birthday this year, is still going strong and we hope to see her in many more movies!
Catherine Deneuve is such a legend and we are so fortunate to have her share her talents with us! What are your favorite foreign films with Deneuve?