To be able to know what he’s feeling. Or to guess. Because pleasing him is my way of pleasing myself. Even in little things,” the lightly accented French voice whispers. So what if she ends up, “You don’t have to ask for it. He knows what you want. Chanel.” The love affair with Catherine Deneuve—as far as a 60 sec. TV commercial can take it—is on. She is also a face of frozen poetry and grace in magazine pages, brushing a flaçon of—well, there it is again: that same perfume.
But most memorably, she is the heroine of a score of movies, mostly seen in art houses, including Belle de Jour and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, an ethereal yet often ravaged presence playing opposite such leading men as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Marcello Mastroianni and Omar Sharif. She is, by general acclaim, “the most successful French film actress of her generation.” And she just might be the most beautiful woman in the world.
Of course Catherine Deneuve has her critics. Is her icy beauty that believable? Critic Stanley Kauffmann once growled, “Her face is not much more expressive than her navel.” Director Roman Polanski, who cast her as a homicidal maniac in Repulsion, characterized her as a “professional virgin.” Omar Sharif, her costar in Mayerling, advises: “In the beginning she seems pure, but look at her again and you’ll see that she can be an angel, or a devil.”
None of these judgments, projected on her bland, yet classically exquisite features, seem to bother Deneuve. The daughter of successful theatrical parents, she had a proper—if spoiled—Parisian upbringing. Her older sister, Fraçoise Dorléac (who died in an auto accident in 1967), was already on her way to stardom when Catherine, who took her mother’s name, was screen-tested at 17.
From then on, her career has been a classic mixture of professional accomplishment and uninhibited, unconventional living. French director Roger Vadim, who directed her first success, Le Vice et La Vertu, also fathered her first child, Christian, now 11, between his marriages to Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda. Deneuve then married the English photographer David Bailey, whose trendy madness inspired Blow-Up, only to be divorced five years later. For the last several years Deneuve, now 30, has been making two movies a year, and this fall will return to Hollywood to star opposite Burt Reynolds in City of Angels. Between films she lives quietly in Paris with Italian movie idol Marcello Mastroianni, 50. Their daughter, Chiara, is now 2.
Recently Rudi Chelminski of PEOPLE talked with Catherine Deneuve in her Paris apartment.
You’ve been named among the most beautiful women in the world. How does this affect your everyday life?
All the doors automatically open for a beautiful woman. I know it’s very fashionable for good-looking ladies to say how hard it is to be beautiful, but that’s not true, there are times when it depresses and bothers me to see just how easy things are made for a beautiful woman. I am much more conscious of it now that I’m 30 than I was when I was younger. When I’m in a rush, or when I have a problem, people react differently for me. As I say, the doors open, there seem to be no limits—it’s unbelievable. It’s really the great injustice in the life of a woman, all this because nature has been kinder to one than to another. We all fall into the trap. Just the other day I found myself worrying about my little girl, she’s 2 now, but she started walking very late—so of course I was afraid that her legs would be affected. I discovered problems for her that I never would have thought about for my son.
One critic said that in Belle de Jour, you proved that underwear is sexier than skin. Where does beauty reside? Does the face tell all?
Obviously a good part of the character and the personality show on the face. But like the moon, there’s always a part you’ll never see. That you can only guess at, by little flashes, by smiles, by your own intuition.
For your Chanel perfume ads, the photographer Richard Avedon obviously cast you in a special way. Do you recognize yourself in this role?
Ah, yes—the elegant Frenchwoman, reserved and proper, a little serious, a little cold. I certainly don’t consider myself as cold, though. I can see that my face might give that impression. If I am reserved at times, it’s because I am shy. If I had to define myself, I would say I’m very impulsive and direct but also depressive—very much up and down.
One of your directors discerned a quality in you which he described as “lightly masochistic,” and in some roles you are cast as a woman whom men delight in debasing, like Belle de Jour in which you played a housewife who becomes a daytime prostitute. Would you comment?
What strikes me about Belle de Jour is how much women like it. Women identify enormously with the character I played because I think that within women there is this attraction, even if it’s only mental, for humiliation and baseness and secret debauch. In many, many women there is a need to get themselves into degrading situations.
You have also confessed to the feeling of having a bit of the beast within yourself?
It’s true, there is a sort of demon that every now and then makes you want to destroy things, just like that. Sometimes I feel like letting myself go, like getting myself into trouble. Everyone’s got a little spider knitting its web inside. Sometimes it wakes up and sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, you want to break things.
You say that in your life you have “lived mostly by instinct”?
I have never accepted conventions very much. You see, I have always followed the path I wanted to. I’ve always done just about what I wanted. I left home when I felt like it, I got married when I felt like it, and I had kids when I felt like it.
How has this affected your relationship with the men you have lived with, such as the director Roger Vadim, the father of your son, Christian, 11, and now Marcello Mastroianni, the father of your 2-year-old daughter Chiara?
I have never allowed myself to be a prisoner. Whenever I felt I was being imprisoned, I left. By nature I am rather independent, but I also have the means to handle it, since I started working when I was very young, I believe, unfortunately, that liberty for women begins with material independence. Too many women hold back from really saying what they want to say, because they’re not independent. There’s the question of money, and the kids and the marriage.
What, then, do you find wrong with conventional marriage?
There is too much false security and possession behind marriage. Too much “I want to know this, I want to know that.” I detest and find absolutely inhuman this thing of belonging to someone. A relationship should be by free choice, there should always be the chance to change your mind. Then you know the person is with you because he wants to be, not because he has to. One day or another, everyone’s got to ask himself that question.
Would you say, then, that you are flatly against marriage?
I don’t say I’m against marriage for everyone. I only say I don’t recognize it as an institution. Today people get divorced more and more easily. Well, from the moment you admit divorce, can you tell me what purpose marriage serves? If you’re allowed to break it up that easily, then it’s pure hypocrisy to have it in the first place.
You have a reputation for elegance. Do you dress for men or women?
Of course I enjoy knowing that I am pleasing to men, but women really dress for other women, much more than for men. Women have a much more critical eye. There’s always a sort of challenge there that you don’t have with men. Men are much more naive. They will look at the body through the dress, but a woman will look closely, and see much more.
And what do you find memorable about a man?
The look in the eye, the regard, and all sorts of little secret things you’d like to keep for yourself that the others don’t see. The funny little details.
You were convinced to pose nude for Playboy, and there have been fleeting glimpses of nudity in some of your films. How do you feel about that?
I’ve never been really nude in a film. I’m afraid that’s one of the domains where I’m still not liberated and won’t be. Nudity is such an intimate thing. I’ve never seen myself as a sex object. Most of my films have been a bit intellectual. I’ve never felt as if I had been used in them.
And yet you have said your favorite actress is Marilyn Monroe who was renowned as a sex object?
I have an admiration for Marilyn Monroe that—no, it’s more than admiration. I have a love for that woman. For me she represents the highest point of femininity. There’s something childish and sincere and overwhelming with her, I never saw anyone who gave off so much charm and warmth and tenderness and femininity all at once.
Then you admired her sex appeal?
It was sex appeal without vulgarity, not sexual sex, if you see what I mean. It was very abstract. You had the feeling she could fall asleep and no one would take advantage of her.
You think, then, Marilyn Monroe had appeal for women as well as for men?
I think women adore Marilyn, because she never represented a threat for them. She never frightened women the way that Marlene Dietrich did, for example. Marlene wasn’t sympathetic to women. You sensed that she could come with her sophistication and her Germanic determination and take your man away. She was the vamp. Marilyn was never the vamp. She was more like a real person.
Often in your films you are cast as a blasé, cynical woman, fed up with men, longing to escape. In real life, how do you feel about your life in France?
I think that French women are surely happier and more satisfied than in other countries. There is a certain ease about them, a thing of personal satisfaction. Why? It must be because of the men. Could there be any other reason? Because, you know, until proof to the contrary, a woman’s happiness comes from the harmony of her relationship with a man. Yes, even today.