Wardrobe Department: Catherine Deneuve
Wardrobe Dept. is a new regular Metrograph column in which writers take a front row look at fashion in film, paying close attention to iconic and outlandish costumes, star players, and those pulling strings behind the scenes. For the inaugural entry, Colleen Kelsey honors the radical style of Catherine Deneuve.
Donkey Skin plays at Metrograph from April 21.
Catherine Deneuve photographed by Helmut Newton, 1976
Throughout the 1970s, one of the decade’s most perverse imagemakers conjured a blonde from the void. In a series of television advertisements that Helmut Newton directed for Chanel N°5, Catherine Deneuve is posed, front-lit and nearly enveloped by shadow, against hollow black of impossible depth. She speaks in the dissociative, nothing abstractions used to sell bottles of perfume, though the subject is herself—her feelings, whims, and behaviors, airily rendered and often awkward. Still, these arch appraisals of mystery, flirting, loneliness, and privacy, even if drafted to provide an ersatz intimacy with the US market, are miles from the ingénue line-reads I encounter in airport duty-free. It’s the face, the blonde, the Frenchness. What’s missing is a cigarette.
N°5 was originally formulated to deepen the carnal headiness of rose, jasmine, and other voluptuous florals against notes mimicking the soapy freshness of bare skin. Today’s noses may chafe at the stark, pillbox powderiness of its unmistakable aldehydic composition, but the result, in 1921, was undoubtedly sexual; as the century progressed, it mellowed to exportable elegance. The scent is not so much a definitive olfactory entity than it is an articulation of femininity, animated through a succession of avatars: among them, Deneuve might just have the most potent iconography. Her association with N°5 (known colloquially in the fragrance industry as le monstre, due to its eternal popularity and mammoth bite of market share) was an era’s diktat on French eroticism, just as Serge Gainsbourg’s coarse, unshaven jolie-laide and ham-handled whisky enshrined a nation’s louche approach to masculine virility.
In the first suite of scrapbook-style glossy photographs marking two sections of The Private Diaries of Catherine Deneuve: Close Up and Personal (2007), the actor captions a momentous occasion, celebrated in a snap cardigan and an updo as high and wide as a cream puff: “Going to a screening with my parents; I’ve gone blonde.” Blondeness is as intrinsic to Catherine Deneuve, the movie star, as the discretion and restrained fury of her performances. Even on the (rare) occasion Deneuve isn’t blonde in a film, it floats on her shoulders, an inescapable veil. While icy, vacillating over the years from snowy platinum to honey to strains of earthy amber, it is not the quicksilver nimbus peroxide of an American in Hollywood, the kind of chemical blonde we see glinting in the foil Mylar balloons of Andy Warhol’s 47th Street Factory, reflecting off the Chrysler building, or emanating from the ornaments of a tinsel-dripping Christmas tree.
Catherine Deneuve for Chanel N°5, directed by Helmut Newton, 1973
Deneuve was never a Hitchcock blonde, though she knew which one she wanted to be: Marnie. Less coiffed than Grace Kelly or Kim Novak, but as acutely evasive, her blonde rejects the engineered, the technological. Immaculate as a sheet of raw silk, it is lately maintained by celebrity hairstylist Christophe Robin, who once operated out of a salon at Le Meurice in Paris and welcomed Faye Dunaway, Vanessa Paradis, and Tilda Swinton after Deneuve became a regular in the chair. Carlos de los Llanos subtitled his 1978 documentary, Catherine Deneuve by Chance, “A Certain Blondeness,” his goal to probe behind the veneer of the opaque hauteur characterizations propagated by the films of Luis Buñuel, François Truffaut, Jacques Demy, Roman Polanski, and Jean-Pierre Melville, and in the flash of photographs by Newton, backstage at the couture, walking out of nightclubs, or on the street. The actor, as adamant about the privacy of her personal life as she is the audacity of her roles, rebuffed the categorization of “star” without irony, telling de los Llanos: “That’s something that doesn’t exist, not in Europe. The term is connected with a certain era of film in Hollywood … where women were these truly amazing creatures. Dressed in satin, white mink, a very luxurious and sophisticated image.”
Despite the humility, to consider Deneuve simply as a working actor is absurd. In 1985, she would be anointed the face of the Marianne—the female personification of the Republic—with her angular likeness printed on postage stamps, and carved into busts on display in town halls and other bureaucratic sites across France: the nationalistic equivalent of what N°5 granted a decade before. Now, over 60 years into her career, the refinement of Deneuve’s craft continues to draw us in, but the edifice of her offscreen persona perpetuates the intrigue. (Hirokazu Kore-eda made use of this mythology in his 2019 film The Truth, starring Deneuve as a long-fêted French actress on the verge of publishing her own tell-all.) Modern celebrity takes all kinds, but who else could conceivably mix with Jane Birkin and Pete Doherty front row at Hedi Slimane’s Céline, or stun the crowds at last month’s Louis Vuitton RTW show, tortoiseshell shades on and vape in hand?
In de los Llanos’s footage, Deneuve casts off a line about her own “limited ambition,” a marker of the laissez-faire attitude of the preternaturally talented. (Isn’t Michelle Pfeiffer always talking about how she thinks she’s a fraud?) After cementing major fame as the singing Technicolor heroine of Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Deneuve embarked on a body of work that would soon encompass a sublime assortment of disconcerting oddities, using her unnerving beauty as stealth cover to animate sexual fantasists, shameless grifters, coddled princesses, bourgeois masochists, and the psychotic and homicidal all as fascinating psychological specimens. The control Deneuve wields squares them at a singular register: cool, contained, and flagrantly subversive.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Many of Deneuve’s sharpest interpretations are of women who leave most of their thoughts unsaid, subsumed in interior turbulence. In Agnès Varda’s dystopian The Creatures (1966), Deneueve is a cheerfully blank housewife married to Michel Piccoli, a science fiction writer, living on the island of Noirmoutier off the Atlantic coast. Mute after a car accident and cloistered at home, her character communicates the simplest of phrases with a handy whiteboard, only to regain speech after giving birth to a son. Just a year before that, in Polanski’s Repulsion, she delivered a feat of manic claustrophobia, playing a young manicurist negotiating repressed sexual trauma cracking up in a London apartment with a bloated corpse and rotting rabbit head.
Deneuve would act with Piccoli again in Belle de Jour (1967), her first collaboration with Buñuel, who was moving into the satirical richness of his late French period. The film was released when she was 23, and it crystallized the impression of Deneuve as frigid and untouchable. She handles the trancelike performance—of a naïve newlywed who affirms her sexual proclivities by working in an upscale Parisian brothel—with surgical deftness. Her Séverine smiles nervously and navigates her fashionably furnished apartment with stunted, dollish idleness, sleeping apart from her husband in a twin bed. She is so ill at ease with her body, and clumsy; the lightness of a tennis racket is unwieldy in her hands. But she is convincing as a fetishist even before joining Madame Anaïs at 11 cité Jean de Saumur, her fastidiously buttoned suits, oil-slick patent coats and supple fur-trimmed leather telegraphing a desire for sensorial extremes.
Pealing carriage bells and high-pitched mewing cats transition between Séverine’s waking and dreaming lives, cueing her masochistic fantasies, most of which take place in stretches of remote countryside. In the first, she is tied to a tree branch, stripped, and whipped; in another, she is bound with rope again, her draped chiton dress and face, pelted with mud, inspiring ecstasy. The indelible image of her in an austere black shift dress with white collar and cuffs, designed by Yves Saint Laurent, encapsulates the sublimation of one life for another. The film had an incalculable effect on the Milanese fashion designer Miuccia Prada—another architect of double-personality-type women—who told The New Yorker’s Judith Thurman in 2012, “I’m always happiest when dressed almost like a nun.”
Belle de Jour (1967)
Saint Laurent was a friend and a crucial collaborator, outfitting Deneuve for many of her other roles, including as a con-artist mail-order bride in Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969) and for Tony Scott’s pulpy, blue-scrimmed vampire debut, The Hunger (1983), where the centuries-old Miriam Blaylock trawls Manhattan’s goth clubs in dark glasses and sternum-baring black looking to feed alongside her husband (David Bowie, obviously). In the daylight, she seduces in round-shouldered ’40s suiting, a specialty of the couturier. (Off-camera, Deneuve was one of the first to wear Saint Laurent’s “Le Smoking” tuxedo after its debut in 1966.) His wardrobes provided a foundation of rarefied consistency, which must have been security to Deneuve, while also offering a mutable identity.
Cut to a haughty woman dressed in pristine white Saint Laurent resort wear—the kind made for sun, but not sea or dirt—who jumps ship from a sailboat to be rid of her tedious friends. She lands on a Mediterranean island populated by one man (Marcello Mastroianni), an artist in retreat from the civilized world, and his dog, Melampo, living in a domed structure. There’s frisson almost immediately, as he removes a splinter from her injured foot with his teeth, carrying her across the island on his shoulders. Intent on wholly possessing him, she plots to kill Melampo—and does, wearing his collar, walking around on all fours, licking, barking, and assuming the submissive. In Italian, Marco Ferreri’s Liza (1972) is entitled La cagna—the bitch, and it’s one of Deneuve’s most reprobate roles. Pregnant with her and Mastroianni’s daughter, Chiara, during filming, she even recorded the barking audio for the dog in addition to herself during sound looping—an odd echo of her barking in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) decades later, and her line, “I don’t want to play the dog,” an improvisation.
According to Truffaut, “With Catherine, there’s a very important element of dreams and a secret life. No matter what role you give her, you have the impression that there’s the role on the screen and then other thoughts that are not expressed. You always think that. She is an actress, I don’t know how else to say it, of dreams, of a dual personality.” With a dexterity in manipulating the fantasy arena of surface appearances, waking dreams, and the schisms of the subconscious, it’s fitting that Deneuve would appear, in 1970, in two nightmarish fairy tales—both concerning motherless daughters grappling with incestuous daddies. Aided by her godmother (Delphine Seyrig), the princess in Demy’s surreal Donkey Skin escapes the prospect of marrying her father, the king, after the death of the queen (also Deneuve, slyly), by leaving under cover of darkness, dressed in the mangy pelt of the castle’s slain gold and gemstone-bearing donkey. In a village far away, she toils at menial tasks, soiled and ostracized, but ends up landing the handsome prince. The second, Tristana, Deneuve’s final collaboration with Buñuel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière—and her self-described favorite—has a different sort of happy ending. In 1920s Toledo, Spain, a pious young orphan is taken in as a ward by Don Lope (Fernando Rey), a lecherous nobleman who insists his role is both father and husband. Even without marriage, he forces her to have sex.
Deneuve plays the young Tristana coltish and goofy, lovingly polishing the silver on her mother’s portrait and fixated on choosing her preference out of pairs: a certain garbanzo bean, a certain street. Don Lope confines her to their rambling, wood-paneled household, and when Tristana falls in love with a painter and moves to Barcelona, the only thing that could inspire her return is the unthinkable, an illness that causes her to lose her leg. Still beautiful, but once again restricted to Don Lope’s domain, Deneuve’s elder Tristana is a commanding presence who succumbs to desperation, then defiant bitterness and spite. The black mantilla she wears to their eventual wedding barely camouflages her disgust; as Deneuve once told Arnaud Desplechin in an interview, she applied her own make-up for Tristana’s final scenes, opting for a ghostly white powder to create a particularly severe pallor. When the time comes for Tristana to enact her revenge, she regrets nothing. I can’t help but recall her first appearance after the credits, slowly advancing across the frame under the diaphanous curtain of a black veil: a smoldering dirge for the rest of her life.
Colleen Kelsey is a writer living in New York City.
Catherine Deneuve and Yves Saint Laurent, 1966