x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Divine Deneuve turns to comedy

At 66, the actress Catherine Deneuve can still command attention.

Catherine Deneuve stars in Potiche.
Catherine Deneuve stars in Potiche.

Catherine Deneuve is full of charm. She became world famous in the late 1960s for her performances in Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) and Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967). Her beauty made her an obvious candidate for the catwalk and magazine editors couldn't get enough of putting her on their covers. Yves Saint Laurent dressed her in several of her most famous movies including Belle de Jour and Tony Scott's 1983 picture The Hunger.

When I meet the French star, she is puffing away on a cigarette in a hotel in Toronto, in town ostensibley to promote her role in François Ozon's Potiche, which is also playing at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

The 66-year-old can also be seen in two other forthcoming films. She has a cameo playing a photographer's mentor in Eric Lartigau's excellent The Big Picture, an adaption of a Douglas Kennedy novel about a lawyer whose life is turned upside down by infidelity; and she appears in the riveting documentary on Yves Saint Laurent, L'amour Fou, directed by Pierre Bergé.

Deneuve has complete command of the room. She has that aura that only a handful of today's stars retain. But she is far from the aloof figure that she was portrayed as in her heyday; seemingly happy to talk about any subject, she is engaging and funny - all attributes she uses to perfection in Ozon's hilarious return to form Potiche.

"Potiche" means trophy wife. Deneuve plays Suzanne Pujol, who has been married to a politician (Fabrice Luchini) for 30 years. In the early scenes, she realises that her husband doesn't care what she thinks. So when the opportunity comes to call on her left-wing ex-boyfriend Babin (Gérard Depardieu) to help her quell a strike against her husband at an umbrella factory, she jumps at it.

"I liked very much to play that kind of character in a comedy," says Deneuve, who speaks English with a very alluring accent. "I think it was very funny, but it was nothing like me, or had anything to do with me in real life. For one thing, I can't imagine being talked at like that by a man without saying goodbye and slamming him in the door."

This raises the question of whether Deneuve has had to slam the door on many men in her life. She responds: "No, because nobody talks to me like that. I couldn't be with any man who speaks to me like that. No, I don't think I would have to slam the door - we wouldn't be in the same room."

It's true, when in the presence of such a star there is a desire to treat her properly. For one thing, in the proudly republican France, Deneuve is the closest thing they've had to royalty in a long time.

To see her on screen with Depardieu is always a delight. They have now acted together in eight movies over 30 years. These include most memorably, François Truffaut's The Last Metro and Andre Techine's Changing Times.

Given their working relationship it's no wonder the actress has only good words to say of her co-star, "I like Gérard very much. I've known him such a long time, you know. He's a wonderful actor, and I really enjoy working with him because he's a very good partner. We have a similar way of working. We are more instinctive actors than people in need of a long time to rehearse together."

This knowledge of each other's working methods meant that Deneuve was able to work on other aspects of her character in pre-production. "I had time instead to work on the costumes, the fittings and the wig and all that stuff, and that really helped, but even then I like to arrive on the day of the shoot and work with my character in the scene."

It's fun to see her take such big risks with her costumes in Potiche.

She is clearly enjoying the choices and says of the wardrobe: "Of course, I had a say in what I wore in the film because I can always say that I don't feel well in it." It goes without saying that this would put a stop to any such item being used. "But I trusted very much the wardrobe lady [Pascaline Chavanne], whom I had worked with before. She worked on 8 Women and has worked a lot of the time with François Ozon. I actually asked her to work on the next film I'm doing because it is a film set in the 1990s, and that is a difficult period to dress because it's not too far back in time and still it's not today. So I didn't have much to worry about with the costumes because she is a very, very talented woman."

Of her own clothing choices, Deneuve says she can be eclectic. "I do like to wear Yves Saint Laurent at home," she says. "Because it's convenient, people always think that when you wear couture clothes it's only evening dresses, but I've been wearing Yves Saint Laurent for a long time, and I have some more casual things. It's funny because some people will say to me, 'I cannot imagine you being in jeans on the weekend,' and I say, 'why not?'"

She loves gardening and in her garden she says she likes to grow trees, bushes and flowers: "I love peonies. I do a few vegetables too, but it is a very big property so I have a lot of work to do, and although I have help, if you have a vegetable patch you have to be in it every day, and the property on the outskirts of Paris is large, so the garden takes a lot of time."

Gardening is one of the many activities she does to keep herself fit. She says: "I'm a very active person and I really need to do it for myself - it's never for work. It's because I'm a very active person in everyday life. I do Pilates. I don't like doing sport too much, so, generally, I go walking with people I like and to be outside."

Yet the need to keep fit hasn't stopped her smoking: "Yes, that is the only thing that is really bad for my health. I try to do what is right and that is the one thing with my health that I haven't really managed to give up yet."

She also loves to spend time with her four grandchildren, ages 20, 13, eight and five months. Deneuve, it seems, has finally unlocked the secret of a perfect work-and-life balance. The results show in her performances on screen: they're enigmatic and full of joy.