For Catherine Deneuve, A Chilly Family 'Christmas'

Catherine Deneuve in 'A Christmas Tale' i

"Warm and alive and horrible": Catherine Deneuve plays the monstrously complex Junon in A Christmas Tale. IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption IFC Films
Catherine Deneuve in 'A Christmas Tale'

"Warm and alive and horrible": Catherine Deneuve plays the monstrously complex Junon in A Christmas Tale.

IFC Films
Catherine Deneuve in 'Belle de Jour' i

Deneuve set screens — and hearts — aflame as a housewife turned prostitute in 1967's Belle de Jour. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Catherine Deneuve in 'Belle de Jour'

Deneuve set screens — and hearts — aflame as a housewife turned prostitute in 1967's Belle de Jour.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Mathieu Almaric and Catherine Deneuve in 'A Christmas Tale' i

Mathieu Almaric plays Junon's black-sheep son, Henri, in A Christmas Tale; their relationship is prickly, to say the least. IFC Films hide caption

itoggle caption IFC Films
Mathieu Almaric and Catherine Deneuve in 'A Christmas Tale'

Mathieu Almaric plays Junon's black-sheep son, Henri, in A Christmas Tale; their relationship is prickly, to say the least.

IFC Films

She's one of the grandes dames of French cinema: Catherine Deneuve. For more than five decades, she has beguiled us with her cool, kindled intelligence.

In 1967, she stunned audiences in the erotic masterpiece Belle de Jour, playing a young housewife whose fantasies led her to a secret life of prostitution.

A quarter-century later, she was an aristocratic landowner in the film Indochine. And last year, she gave voice to the Iranian mother in the animated film Persepolis.

Deneuve has never stopped re-inventing herself, be it as a voluptuary or an outcast. In her latest movie, she plays another mother — the kind who devours her young. She's imperious. She's adored by her husband. And she has leukemia.

"She doesn't act like someone who's ill," Deneuve says of her character, Junon. "When she presents herself, she says, 'I'm the one with the cancer.' She's very warm and alive ... and horrible."

That's right, horrible — in a tantalizing, French kind of way. The movie, A Christmas Tale, is one of those ensemble films where an entire family hauls its emotional baggage home for the holidays and, quelle horreur, unwraps it.

In one scene, Junon sits, smoking, with her son Henri, the black sheep of the family. He's been banished for years — but it turns out he's the one child whose bone marrow matches hers.

"Tu ne m'aimes toujours pas?" she asks Henri — "You still don't love me?"

"I never loved you," he replies. And Junon, in her turn, with a little laugh: "Moi non plus."

"Me either."

Warm and alive or no, it'll be no surprise if some audiences find Junon chilly. Still, she's not unsympathetic.

"It's very funny," Deneuve says, "a woman who will allow herself to say to her son, 'I don't love you.' ... I think it means that, and it means also the contrary."

So maybe Junon really does love Henri?

"Of course," Deneuve says, positively. "And of course he loves her. He's going to do a transplant which is very painful, in the end. ... It's not as if he had no choice."

And yet Junon verbalizes what most of us never could.

"It's forbidden to have such thoughts," Deneuve acknowledges. Or, more truthfully: "It's something sometimes you can think, for a few seconds, when you have an argument ... but never for long. ... You cannot say it, and formulate it as we do in the film."

A Family At Work, A Face Turned Toward The Inescapable

Deneuve appears in A Christmas Tale with her own daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, for the second time — the first was in Persepolis, where Mastroianni voiced the lead role of Marjane "Marji" Satrapi. But the two don't talk much about their craft.

"We have so much [else] to talk about," Deneuve says. Besides which: "Acting is very difficult to talk about. ... Maybe with some director [with whom] I am very close."

It may be easier for stage actors, Deneuve says, because their craft is inherently more collaborative.

"Acting in films is a very special, very different experience," she says. "It's a very lonely thing.

Widely worshiped as one of the world's most beautiful women — she was chosen to be the face of France's Marianne in the 1980s — Deneuve has quite literally grown up, and grown older, on film.

The process of turning life's pages on that vast canvas is "much more difficult ... more cruel," she says. Images from the past present themselves constantly; an actress's youth flashes before her, on television screens, when she least expects it.

"But I think it's very cruel, anyway, to grow older for a woman, no matter what happens," Deneuve says. "It's a very intimate process. There are things you have to give up, things you have to get used to."

And ultimately, Deneuve muses, "We know that it's not growing old, the problem."

"It's [that one is] going to somewhere we know is going to be the end," she says. "That's what it means. If it was to be old forever, I don't think there would be any problem. It's just that it's the beginning of the countdown, in a way."

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