Catherine Fabienne Dorléac was born to be an actress. The daughter of two Parisian stage stars, she started her film career at the ripe old age of 13, working alongside her older sister Francoise on Les Collegiennes. To distinguish herself from her well-known parents and sister, Catherine changed her last name to Deneuve. She definitely distinguished herself.
Her breakthrough role came in Jacques Demy’s Oscar nominated musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). She would re-team with Demy in 1967 to make another musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort (which co-starred her sister Francoise and Gene Kelly). Deneuve and Demy made two more films together, the 1970 musical Donkey Skin and the strange A Slightly Pregnant Man, which co-starred her then lover Marcello Mastroianni.
It was her work in Umbrellas that led to more prominent roles and directors. One of these directors was Roman Polanski, who cast her in the lead of his psychological thriller Repulsion (1965). Luis Bunuel would call next, casting her as the lead in Belle De Jour (1967) and then again in Tristana (1970).
Throughout the 1970s she made some interesting role choices, some good and some very bad. Perhaps this had something to do with having two small children (Chiara Mastroianni and Christian Vadim) and a revolving bedroom door (most notably Mastroianni and Francois Truffaut). The more memorable films of this decade, other than Donkey Skin and Tristana, would have to be Un Flic, Le Sauvage, and Hustle. However, what she became most known for in this decade was her beauty. She was the face of Chanel No. 5 and caused sales for the famous perfume and Yves Saint Laurent’s fashion line to go through the roof. She was even named the most elegant woman in the world by the American press.
She started the 1980s off great by starring in Truffaut’s Oscar nominated The Last Metro (also starring Gerard Depardieu, who has now made 7 films with Deneuve). She made a string of very good French films during this period, most notably Hotel des Ameriques, Le Choc, and Fort Saganne.
In 1992 she gave an Oscar-nominated performance in the Oscar winning Indochine. She followed this film with a series of critically acclaimed films, such as My Favorite Season, Les Voleurs, Place Vendome, Time Regained, and East-West. Though I love her early work from the 1960s when she was in her twenties, the roles she played once she met the half-century mark and beyond are more nuanced and controlled.
Deneuve prepared for the new millennium by writing director Lars von Tier and asking him to consider working with her. When he started working on Dancer in the Dark (2000) with Bjork he contacted Deneuve and the new millennium began with another critically acclaimed film.
Next, Deneuve worked with perhaps the greatest French female casts ever assembled (Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Virginie Ledoyen, and Fanny Ardant) to make the wickedly funny 8 Women. When she turned 60 she decided to play Choderlos de Laclos' sexually charged Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons—she did not look or act like a 60 year-old grandmother. She then made a string of emotionally raw films, such as Kings and Queens, Palais Royal, Changing Times, and Apres Lui. She also made two politically-conscious films, the animated Persepolis (which focuses on the role of women in Iran) and I Want to See (which explores the aftermath of the Israel-Lebanon war). Her most recent performances in A Christmas Tale and Meres et Filles (Hidden Diary) can only be categorized as searing.
Deneuve is now entering her 54th year of acting and she just keeps getting better. She has been nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA, and 10 César’s (the French Oscars); she has won 2 César’s and a number of lifetime achievement awards. In addition, she is the most represented actress (along with character actress Mae Marsh) with 7 films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die book. She has now made over 100 films and acted in four different languages. To me, she is one of the greatest film actresses of all time.