"It was Truffaut," noted Laura Barton in a profile for the Guardian last year, "who said she had to be unlocked; that there was in her 'something that was ready to give but also refused to unbutton.'" Give, though, she has — enough at least to prompt Stephen Holden to ask in the New York Times, "What would French film culture look like without its queen, Catherine Deneuve, steering the ship of state?" The question opens his overview of this year's Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance. The series opens tonight with François Ozon's Potiche, which in turn, opens another series at BAMcinématek, entitled simply Deneuve and running through March 31, and screens midway through LACMA's series, Beautiful Dreamer: The Early Films of Catherine Deneuve (tomorrow through March 12).
The Observer's Philip French notes that Deneuve "became a star as the simple shopgirl in the bitter-sweet sung-through musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), directed by Jacques Demy, with whom she made two more films, most notably another musical, the homage to MGM Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), with [her older sister, Françoise] Dorléac (who was killed in a car accident the following year) as her twin sister… But her screen persona as 'the ice maiden' — a cold, remote erotic object which dreams are made on — was shaped by Roman Polanski's Grand Guignol masterpiece Repulsion (1965), her first English language film, as a beautiful Belgian girl going homicidally insane in Kensington. It was reinforced by Buñuel's Belle de jour (1967) playing the haut-bourgeois housewife who achieves sexual satisfaction working in a Parisian brothel, and reached a peak as the seductive destroyer in her second Buñuel film Tristana (1970). The acerbic American critic Manny Farber called her 'Catherine Deadnerve,' and Pauline Kael said, 'Deneuve, with her icy yet mysterious perfection, is the French Grace Kelly.'"
Previewing the BAM series for the Voice, Melissa Anderson writes: "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)."
Back to Stephen Holden: "In Potiche, set in 1977, Ms Deneuve plays Suzanne Pujol, the placid wife of a comically monstrous corporate tyrant (Fabrice Luchini), who takes charge of her husband's umbrella factory and negotiates its labor disputes after he has had a heart attack. The movie isn't much deeper or sharper than its closest American counterpart, 9 to 5. But it turns a mischievous satiric eye on the fashions, hairstyles and pop music of the period. Above all, it is a triumphant star vehicle for Ms Deneuve, on whom Mr Ozon lavishes the kind of adoration a haute couturier would devote to his ideal model. In addition to scattering knowing references to her movies, Potiche casts her opposite that other Gallic paragon, Gérard Depardieu, who plays Suzanne's Communist ex-lover and sometime adviser."
Update: "So arch you can practically hear its back breaking, Potiche finds François Ozon following up the psychologically incisive Hideaway by reverting to his campy 8 Women ways," writes Nick Schager at the House Next Door. "Ozon's cozy Lite-Brite period aesthetics are part and parcel of the material's aggressive lightheartedness. Yet with his tale never rising above tepid cutesiness, the tone struck is less amusingly frothy than irritatingly precious, a situation not redeemed even by a typically charming Deneuve performance of imposing stateliness and playful, sexy insolence."
Update, 3/4: A sample from Justin Stewart's overview for the L: "Of Michel Piccoli's frequent Deneuve pairings, 1968's Heartbeat is a highlight. He plays a loving but old husband who resigns himself to stoical cuckoldry when wife Lucille (Deneuve) turns her attention to young Antoine (Roger Van Hool), younger, sloppier, and anti-materialist. She exchanges a maid and packed wardrobes for Antoine's shabby-cozy, book-cluttered efficiency flat. Briefly employed, she justifies her preference for idleness with a Faulkner quote. Director Alain Cavalier frequently cuts around crucial action straight to its aftereffects, keeping the mood off-kilter, and making it impossible to make a clear judgment of Lucille's moral choices. Its one of the series' lesser-seen revelations, like Manoel de Oliveira's bipolar A Talking Picture, in which Deneuve's regal bearing and celebrity, like the movie's entire buildup, is used to devastating, rug-pulling effect in the end."
Update, 3/5: "When I think of Deneuve," writes Dan Callahan at the House, "I think of Tristana going out on her balcony, baring her teeth in a deathly smile and opening her robe to show her nude body to a boy who is in love with her. I also think of her, of course, in her white underwear in Belle de Jour, having second thoughts on her first day until bordello madam Anais (Geneviève Page) advises her john to use some light force, whereupon Deneuve goes from frigid trophy wife to unleashed sexual wanton within a few fraught moments. 'She needs a firm hand,' remarks Madame Anais, and this dryly delivered line of dialogue has followed Deneuve over the whole of her hard-working career as both movie goddess and film actress." He was at BAM the other night for an onstage Q&A and found her "playful, charming and helplessly drawn between come-hither and keep-your-distance, which is her most distinctive mode on screen. Asked about the difference between herself on film and in life, she smiled and said, 'You know more about me than you think!'"
Update, 3/20: Rebecca Keegan talks with Deneuve for the Los Angeles Times.
Update, 3/27: Slate's Troy Patterson notes that the retrospective will be traveling around the country, "and if you live anywhere near Chicago or Boston or half a dozen other cities, you should seize the chance to see her projected on the big screen, as God and George Méliès intended, in her roles as a fairy-tale royal (in Jacques Demy's Donkey Skin) and a mail-order enigma (in François Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid) and — archetypally — a bored bourgeois housewife."
RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA
The series runs through March 13 and, as mentioned, Holden runs through the highlights, including another film in which Deneuve is "prominently featured," Eric Lartigau's The Big Picture, "among the strongest selections of the series… Romain Duris plays a wealthy young businessman who accidentally kills his wife's lover, a photographer, then conceals the crime, trades identities with the dead man and flees to Eastern Europe. If you were pitching it to a studio, you might describe it as The Talented Mr Ripley for the age of Google, in its suggestion of just how hard it is nowadays to disappear."
Few are more eager to rendezvous with this series each year than James van Maanen, who presents a paragraph-long preview of each of the features, including for example, From One Film to Another, and "exceedingly interesting documentary" in which Claude Lelouch looks back on his oeuvre, title by title. Meantime, Joe Bendel enthusiastically recommends Lelouch's "triumphant" What Love May Bring: "Part sweeping historical and part WWII memory play, Love is in many ways Lelouch's deliberate career summation."
The FSLC has put together a schedule of in-person appearances by a good number of directors with films in the series.
Updates, 3/4: Henry Stewart for the L on Benoît Jacquot's Deep in the Woods: "[T]his peculiar road movie-courtroom drama is often set on the back trails of rural 19th Century France — it meanders through isolated villages like Xena stripped of kitsch — but also features characters whose minds are lost in the deep recesses of human ignorance, naivete and superstition… Woods explores the mysteries of female subjugation, set when distaff sexual desire was still mystical and strange" but "also captures the moment in history when women snapped out of the spell of oppression into which they'd been helplessly cast. Humanity eventually emerged from the woods." 3/5: For Jesse Cataldo, writing at the House, "the transition from a nightmare wilderness back to the staid wooden houses of a 19th-century village makes the film's ending seem muted. A cross-examination and courtroom scene, which function as knowingly pathetic attempts to explain what we've witnessed, are not inexplicable, but are dreary and jarring, a practical conclusion to a film which begs for a much bigger ending."
Jesse Cataldo at the House Next Door on Catherine Breillat's The Sleeping Beauty: "While not attempting the fevered dizziness of David Lynch's dream worlds, Breillat's at times feels equally dense, casting cave trolls and ice queens as markers for a picaresque struggle that encompasses themes of loss, growth, and death. Her work has been tinged by a newfound mortality focus following a 2004 stroke, and that fixation seems especially strong here; the sleeping beauty's 100-year sentence in dreamland is a not only a blessed opportunity to work out adolescent angst, but a reminder of how short her actual life will seem in comparison." More from Miriam Bale in the L: "While there is obvious pleasure in seeing snow-bound tipis and lace veils made of spider webs, by the time the first midget appears even those with the highest whimsy thresholds are likely to have found tolerances worn thin. The images irritate as they pile up at a manic but wispy pace. Where is this going? And where is the Breillat film in this edgy saccharine mess?" 3/5: For Dan Sallitt, The Sleeping Beauty is "a major work even by her high standards… Breillat is after bigger game than fairy tales or even dreams... Her wide-ranging, tender interest in the contradictory twists of the human psyche is fully engaged by the unrestricted subject matter - and she has never made a film that demonstrates more clearly her great gift for operating on multiple levels of abstraction, a game that for her has always meant breaking the cage of narrative closure instead of seeing us safely to solid ground."
Update, 3/5: For Erica Abeel, writing for indieWIRE, "nagging questions dog this Rendez-Vous. Billed as 'the best in contemporary French film,' why is the quality so uneven, with the number of middling films expanding each year like Gérard Depardieu's middle? Is this annual showcase tailored to cater to the mid-cult tastes of a graying audience?" Among the highlights she writes up: Potiche, Philippe Le Guay's Service Entrance (more from Simon Abrams in Slant and Leslie Stonebraker in the New York Press), Bertrand Tavernier's The Princess of Montpensier, Rene Fere's Mozart's Sister, Alain Corneau's "wickedly entertaining" Love Crime and Coline Serreau's "essential doc" Think Global, Act Rural.
Update, 3/7: "Série Noire, Alain Corneau's seedy 1979 adaptation of Jim Thompson's A Hell of a Woman, is considered by aficionados of Thompson's work to be one of the best movies based on the bleak novelist's work." Simon Abrams at the House: "Certainly, when compared to something like Michael Winterbottom's recent adaptation of The Killer Inside Me, Corneau's film stands apart, though largely because of its atonal sense of humor."
Updates, 3/27: Acquarello presents her notes from the series.
Simon Abrams at the House Next Door: "With The Queen of Hearts, autodidact Valerie Donzelli proves that she can make a better Tiny Furniture than Lena Dunham, though that really isn't saying much. Donzelli wrote, directed, and starred in Queen of Hearts, a comedy that wears its love of screwball comedies, Godard, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on its sleeve, but never really advances beyond a comfortable narrative of self-defeating self-loathing."
Also: "There's nothing inherently wrong with the fact that Top Floor, Left Wing makes light of a hostage situation involving Muslim terrorists. What's wrong with writer-director Angelo Cianci's half-leaden, half-hysterical (and not in a funny way) farce is the way he takes the wrong things seriously and pokes fun of nothing worth laughing at."
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