Rather than trip over hyperbole in introducing the actress who, for five decades, has been the most famous Frenchwoman in the world, it’s best to let Catherine Deneuve, quoted here from a January 28, 1966, Life cover story on the “Film Beauties of Europe,” speak for herself: “I owe my start in movies entirely to my face and body. I don’t think I had any devastating gift for acting. But my craving and my ambition are getting out of hand.”
Deneuve’s frank self-assessment ran three months after the stateside release of Roman Polanski’s psychosis-study Repulsion, which, along with her latest, François Ozon’s ’70s-kitsch orgy Potiche, kicks off BAM’s 25-film tribute to the legend. That sum is a little less than one-quarter of the actress’s prodigious output in a career that began in 1957. Born the third of four daughters to actor parents in Paris in 1943, Deneuve started performing in movies “almost by accident,” as she notes in 2006’s Close Up and Personal: The Private Diaries of Catherine Deneuve, largely thanks to her beloved older sister Françoise Dorléac, with whom she co-starred in an early film, The Door Slams (1960). Jacques Demy, impressed by the teenaged Deneuve in her second movie, offered her the role that made her an international star at age 20: the proper jeune fille Geneviève in his sui generis, all-sung The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), both a lollipop-hued musical celebrating the everyday and a chamber opera darkened by war and the loss of ideals. Deneuve, in pastel cardigans and hair ribbons, leaves us sobbing as she says goodbye to her boyfriend, called to fight in Algeria; when they see each other six years later at a snow-blanketed Esso station, the actress, now sporting the intricately engineered bouffant and all-black ensemble of a joyless bourgeoise, destroys us all over again, her character’s youthful exuberance completely supplanted by adult resignation.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg marked the first of four movies Deneuve made with Demy; indeed, most of the titles in BAM’s series are by filmmakers the actress has worked with at least twice (“I have to get the impression that the director is really the author of the film,” Deneuve told me in an interview three years ago, explaining how she chooses projects). During the 10-year period bookended by Umbrellas and her extended cameo in silly provocateur Marco Ferreri’s wearying Don’t Touch the White Woman (1974), Deneuve specialized in debasement (has any other actress been slapped onscreen so frequently?). But not all her defilements are equal: The near-gratuitous humiliation in Jean Aurel’s dismissible Manon 70 (1968)—in which Deneuve pleads with Sami Frey in the tub, “Swear that I’m the first woman you ever raped”—can’t compare with the adroit debauchery and byzantine psychosexual fantasies in her films with Buñuel, Belle de Jour (1967) and Tristana (1970). As the former’s Séverine, a deeply disenchanted Parisian wife in an unconsummated marriage, Deneuve, finding liberation through the 2-to-5 shift at a brothel, is frequently trussed up and mussed up while sporting the smartest Yves Saint Laurent finery. Her porcelain beauty endures even more bizarre disfigurement in Tristana: Playing the eponymous parentless innocent, Deneuve loses both her virtue and a leg as her lecherous, hypocritical guardian seduces her.
If Deneuve’s signature roles with Buñuel pivot on inscrutability (just as her character Carole, plummeting into glacial catatonia, does in Repulsion) and largely define the first part of her remarkable career, her films with André Téchiné, with whom she began working in 1981, mark the second. Essentially, Deneuve transitioned from being an exquisite blank slate onto whom all sorts of perversions could be projected to something far more complex: an actual person. In My Favorite Season (1993)—the third of six films Deneuve and Téchiné, her most frequent collaborator, have done thus far—the actress plays Emilie, a woman growing estranged from her husband, with whom she shares a law practice, and her two late-teenaged children (including her real-life daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, in her screen debut). Emilie is understandably distracted: Her mother is becoming frailer, and she and her younger, erratic brain-surgeon brother, played by Daniel Auteuil, share the guilt of failing to care for her adequately. It’s one of Deneuve’s best, most undersung performances, a perfect distillation of a woman torn between the desire to relinquish all family obligations and the desperate need to hold her kin close—a template of sorts for the indomitable matriarch she plays in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008).
But the most unforgettable of Deneuve’s family ventures is Demy’s Umbrellas follow-up, the American-musical homage The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), in which she co-stars with adored big sis Dorléac in their most celebrated pairing. (The film’s ebullience is dampened by off-screen tragedy: Dorléac died, at age 25, in a car accident just a few months after Rochefort’s release.) Playing twins who dream of ditching the port town of the title for artistic glory in Paris, Dorléac and Deneuve are Dorothy Shaw and Lorelei Lee reimagined as mod, bewigged, bust-less, Euro-sylphs. Whether it’s the summer light or the joy she felt in working with Dorléac, Deneuve has never looked more radiant—especially when gazing into the eyes of the sibling who pushed her onto the path that, 54 years later, still shows no end.