Deneuve And The White Mask

Deneuve's star image, as one might imagine, is diametrically opposed to Moreau's. This is why the films each actress made with Bunuel move in opposite directions: the premise of Le Journal d'une femme de chambre is inverted three years later in Belle de jour, where Deneuve plays a white woman who turns Red (see below). Where Moreau is compared to streams and storms, metaphors of frigidity and whiteness have always accompanied Deneuve. She is the cold beauty, the ice maiden, the snow queen. While Moreau and Simone Signoret have repeatedly played tarts, Deneuve has been relendessly typecast as the elegant and expressionless bourgeois woman. As Télérama magazine notes, even when her characters are thrust into difficult or destabilising situations - the prostitution of Belle de jour (1967), the wartime tensions of Le Dernier Métro (1980) - Deneuve remains essentially the same, impassive, beautiful, untouched: 'Avec toujours, quelle que soit la situation, le cheveu impeccable, k maquillage parfait, l'élégance indiscutable'?* Her restrained acting style and conventional appearance have been condemned as 'l'embourgeoisement du jeu de l'acteur'?9 Clad in Yves Saint-Laurent, seemingly ageless in her beauty, always blonde (though this is not her natural colour), Deneuve seems the perfect incarnation of the white woman. In this regard, she presents a clear contrast not just with Moreau, but with her older sister, the warm, red-headed, expressive Françoise Dorléac, with whom she starred as twins in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) shordy before Dorléac's death.40 Deneuve and Dorléac were indeed twins, in the sense that they functioned as two sides of the same coin, as two

37* 'The horrible head blazes, still bleeding, sprinkling beard and hair with dark crimson cinders'. Compare the association between blood, sex and the female body in Les Valseuses (1974) where, after sex, Moreau's character shoots herself in the vagina and bleeds to death.

38* 'Whatever the situation, her hair is always impeccable, her make-up perfect, her elegance beyond question', M. Amar, 'Le jeu discret de la bourgeoise', Télérama, 2262 (19 May 1993), p.40.

39* 'the embourgeoisement of acting style', ibid., p.40.

40- For a comparison of the two, see M. Anderson, 'A la Recherche de la Soeur Perdue: The Stardom of Françoise Dorléac', Studies in French Cinema, 2:1 (2002), pp.14-22.

related abstractions, the white woman and the Red. Hence their reported comment that lA nous deux, nous ferions une femme parfaite'}1

This division of women into binaries - the corporeal and the ethereal, the Red and the white - also informs Deneuve's individual star image. In Belle de jour the division is between the conscious and the unconscious. Deneuve plays Séverine, an elegant bourgeois wife who dreams of giving free reign to her masochistic desires. She submits to her unconscious and becomes a prostitute, working in the daytime to satisfy herself sexually, but Deneuve's image is not radically challenged - her appearance, her acting style, her hair, are all unscathed. Bunuel's purist, restrained film style maintains an envelope of coldness and distance around her cool performance. There is no hysterical evocation of Deneuve/Séverine's sexuality in Belle de jour to match that of Moreau/Célestine in Le Journal d'une femme de chambre. The closest we get are the fantasy sequences in which Deneuve, dressed in white, is brutalised with whips or pelted with mud. However, although this would seem to suggest the dirtying of Deneuve's clean image, the effect is shortlived. Even here, in the realm of the unconscious, Deneuve's acting style is typically minimalist and impassive. Her perfect, stainless persona emerges paradoxically even more elegant from the mire of taboo desires: 'en avilissant son image, [Bunuel] la magnifie encore phis'. A similar logic lies behind Truffaut's casting of Deneuve as the femme fatale Marion in La Sirène du Mississippi (1969). Despite her delinquent past, her criminal associations and her incessant manipulation of her husband, Marion is ultimately encoded as the idealised white woman. The cold radiance of Deneuve's persona wins through, so that even the private detective who is tracking Marion has to admit that all who see her are struck by 1 la pureté de son visage'.13

The separation of the self in Deneuve's star image, and the casting off of the Red woman, begins with Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), her star-making performance and a film that dramatises the establishment of her cool, restrained, bourgeois persona. In Demy's confectionary-coloured musical, Deneuve plays Geneviève, a provincial teenager who is transformed at the end of the film into an elegant Parisienne. This process is most apparent in terms of her appearance: originally dressed in cardigans and jumpers, with her hair in a ponytail, Geneviève ultimately appears in a fur coat with coiffed hair and discreet jewels. Even more telling is Deneuve's performance of emotion, and the concomitant representation of her face. On several occasions in the first half of the film, she cries uncontrollably over the call-up and apparent disappearance of her fiancé Guy: in these scenes (including sequences where she is heavily pregnant with Guy's child), Deneuve's face is pink, livid, blotchy. But as Genviève learns to forget Guy and marries Roland instead, so she masters her emotions, and Deneuve's white mask appears. The corporeal

41* 'Between us we would make a perfect woman', 'Deneuve déjà star', Paris Match: Souvenirs (hors série), 1988, p.22.

42« 'by debasing her image, Bunuel just glorifies it even more', F. Ozon, 'Femmes sous influence', Télérama, ZIYI (6 February 2002), p.40. Ozon directs Deneuve in 8 Femmes (see Chapter 11).

woman (getting pregnant, fainting, crying) has been replaced by the star face, flawlessly made up and coolly composed. It is a measure of the control associated with Deneuve as a star that a performance in which she cries in close-up (Ma saison préférée) should be deemed noteworthy as a watershed in her portrayal of emotion44 - thirty years after Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.

The change in Geneviève/Deneuve's face is mirrored by the change in her social status -from unmarried, pregnant shop girl to the wife of a successful diamond merchant. It is Roland, her future husband, who sees the idealised white woman in Geneviève, and compares her to the Sleeping Beauty and the Madonna. After his proposal, we see Geneviève framed between mannequins in bridal veils, signifying the rigidity that she is being asked to adopt. The film further dramatises the separation of the Red woman from the white by means of Jenny, a red-clad prostitute who sleeps with Guy after his return from Algeria and who reveals that her real name is Geneviève. This Red woman symbolises the young, carnal Geneviève who Guy once knew, and who is replaced by the cold bourgeoise of the final sequence. Where once Geneviève cried without restraint at Guy's absence, when she finally meets him again, four years later, her face remains pale and composed. As Guy and Geneviève part once more, the emotion of the moment is signalled not by anything in Deneuve's performance, but in the swirling snow and in the hysterical crescendo of the music. Deneuve drives out of the film a star, the white woman incarnate, with her mask in place.

The mask has served her well. Deneuve has long been celebrated as an eternal beauty, a star out of time. This myth informs not just verbal descriptions of the star, but also photographic images of her face, which maintain the impression by using overexposure to soften her features and, in one instance, by recycling photos taken years earlier.45 Apparendy ageless, Deneuve becomes an ideal, an abstract. Between 1985 and 2000, she was the model for Marianne, embodiment of the French Republic. Her function as an icon of the French nation is also reinforced by her association with the fashion products of Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, and by several performances in which she personifies France - including Fort Saganne (1984) and Indochine (1991). The latter in particular casts her as the motherland: she is France, while her adopted daughter represents the (ex) colony of Vietnam.46 Both of these films evoke a nostalgia for the French colonial empire, and suggest that Deneuve evokes not only spatial distance (she is unattainable, out of reach), but also temporal distance. In 1993, the magazine Le Mensuel du cinéma noted that four of her five most successful films were set in the past.47

45- See the cover of Télérama, 2 August 2000, which replicates an image of Deneuve used on the cover of the same magazine in August 1996.

46- See G. Austin, Contemporary French Cinema, Manchester, MUP, 1996, pp.150-152, and S. Ravi, 'Women, Family and Empire-building: Régis Warnier's Indochine', Studies in French Cinema, 2: 2 (2002), pp.74-82.

47» See Y. Alion, 'Box-office de Catherine Deneuve: La distance du temps', Le Mensuel du cinéma, June 1993, p.17.

The maternal element of Deneuve's persona evoked in Indochine connects with the related image of the 'white countess-nurse'.48 According to Theweleit, the nurse is 'an emblem for the bourgeois woman's renunciation of her female body. The nurse's is a dead body, with no desires and no sexuality'.49 Playing the nurse Hélène in Hôtel des Amériques (1981), Deneuve gives one of her more desperate, brittle performances, as a character who is detached from her present lover (an equally tormented Patrick Dewaere) and haunted by death (her ex-lover's suicide). Although the film charts a doomed romance, neither protagonist is erodcised: Dewaere plays a zombie, and Deneuve is possessed by ghosts.50 The association between symbolic whiteness, 'cool blankness'51 and the renunciation of the body as a form of death, reaches its apogee in Repulsion (1965), where Denueve plays a frigid, neurotic woman driven to murder by her fear of sex. Certainly, films such as Repulsion, Hôtel des Amériques, Drôle d'endroit pour une rencontre (1988) and Les Voleurs (1996), have suggested cracks in Deneuve's mask, flaws and tensions beneath the ice. These seem to have broken though the polished surface of her star image in the late nineties with a revisiting of her sister's death. In December 1996, the television station Canal+ held a 'Deneuve-Dorléac Night', broadcasting several of their films, including Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, and a specially commissioned documentary, Elle s'appelait Françoise, on Dorléac's life. Deneuve broke her long silence on her sister's death (and on her private life in general, which she had long refused to discuss in the press) by contributing to the documentary and to a book of the same tide. The effect was finally to establish an emotional connection between Deneuve and her audience. The star noted that her suffering was understood by her fans, 'qui m'ont envoyé beaucoup de letters pour me raconter leurs propres deuils'.52 Yet, as Deneuve also acknowledged, there remained a sense of restraint, a threshold placed between herself and the public that even grief was unable to dissolve.

Despite the tenacious fixity of her star image, Deneuve has continued the efforts made in the nineties to question and qualify it. In Place Vendôme (1999) she plays an alcoholic, ironically called Marianne, a vulnerable and ageing character who has little of the glamorous serenity usually associated with Deneuve. The eruption of previously unseen depths, of the red stream of bodily fluids, is literalised when at one point her nose begins to bleed uncontrollably. If Place Vendôme replaces the ageless Marianne of the French Republic with a much more corporeal, compromised Marianne, Dancer in the Dark (2000) replaces the image of the cool, bourgeois mother at the end of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg

50* For more on Dewaere's performance in the film, see Chapter 7. Deneuve's more eroticised roles tend to be for Hollywood, where rather than being an icon of whiteness, she is the exotic/erotic other, in films like Hustle (as a sex worker) and The Hunger (as a lesbian vampire). The latter was Instrumental in establishing Deneuve as a lesbian icon, particularly in the USA. This status is playfully alluded to in 8 Femmes (2002), where Deneuve literally fights against lesbian desire (personified by Fanny Ardant) before succumbing to it - lying on the ground, she and Ardant grapple before passionately kissing.

51- This term is used to described Deneuve's performance in Repulsion in Anderson, op. cit., p.17.

52« 'who sent me lots of letters to tell me about their own bereavements', Deneuve cited in J. Garcin, 'La double vie de Catherine Deneuve', Le Nouvel Observateur, 20-26 March 1997, p. 53.

with a working-class avatar in a headscarf. Both films are musicals, but although Deneuve's character, Cathy, does reluctantly dance and sing a little in Dancer in the Dark, she is not the focus of the musical numbers. She is identified less with music than with class (her work in the factory) and with motherhood (her relationship as surrogate mother to both Selma and Gene). This is a rare proletarian role for Deneuve, and allows her to give an unusually warm and emotional performance. It is also a film which, due to the technical conditions under which it was made, does present Deneuve's image in a literally new light. But, like other films she has made in America - Hustle (1975) and The Hunger (1983) - it remains a renegotiation of her star image which does not seem to have fundamentally changed how she is represented and understood in France.53

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  • ralph
    Where i can find woman with a mask in film?
    8 years ago

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