For Catherine Deneuve, A Chilly Family 'Christmas' Her five-decade career continues with a dark comedy about a deeply dysfunctional family, gathered for the holidays with baggage in tow. Deneuve talks to Jacki Lyden about her career, her daughter and aging — gracefully, of course.
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For Catherine Deneuve, A Chilly Family 'Christmas'

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For Catherine Deneuve, A Chilly Family 'Christmas'

For Catherine Deneuve, A Chilly Family 'Christmas'

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In 1967, she stunned audiences in the erotic masterpiece, "Belle de Jour." She played 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." My colleague, Jacki Lyden, recently spoke with the grandes dames of French cinema, Catherine Deneuve. She has a new film out this weekend. Here's Jacki.

JACKI LYDEN: Catherine Deneuve has never stopped acting or reinventing herself, be she voluptuary or outcast. Last year, she provided the Iranian mother's voice in the animated film "Persepolis." In her new movie, she also plays a mother, the kind who devours her young. She's imperious, she's adored by her husband, and she's sick.

Ms. CATHERINE DENEUVE (French Actress): She doesn't act like someone ill. When she presents herself, she says, you know, I'm the one with the cancer. She's very warm and alive and horrible.

LYDEN: That's right, horrible in a matriarchal 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 unwraps it. In one scene, her character, Junon, sits smoking with her son, Henri, the black sheep of the family. He's been banished for years, but it turns out that he's the one child whose bone marrow matches hers.

(Soundbite of "A Christmas Tale")

Ms. CATHERINE DENEUVE (As Junon): Tu m'aimes toujours pas, eh?

Mr. MATHIEU AMALRIC (As Henri): Je t'ai jamais aimee.

Ms. DENEUVE (As Junon): Moi non plus.

LYDEN: So, Junon is saying, you still don't love me? And her son, Henri, replies, I never loved you. And with a little laugh she says, me neither. Now, I found her chilly but not unsympathetic. What do you make of her reception?

Ms. DENEUVE: Well, I think it's very funny. A woman who will allow herself to say to her son, I don't love you, (unintelligible) I don't love you either. I think it means that, and it means also the contrary.

LYDEN: Mm hmm, so maybe she really does love him?

Ms. DENEUVE: Of course, and of course he loves her. I mean, he's going to do a transplant which is very painful in the end. He's not forced to give the bone marrow. It's not as if he had no choice, you know.

So, you can dislike someone and give your bone marrow. That's possible. You can love someone, also, and maybe refuse to give the bone marrow because you're scared, I don't know. All situations are possible. But this thing that people reacting very much is the fact, more than anything, that Junon said to her son, I don't like you.

LYDEN: Uh hmm.

Ms. DENEUVE: And it's something sometimes you can think, you know, for a few seconds when you have an argument with one of your family, but never for long. It's forbidden to have such thoughts. You can think about it, but you cannot say it and formulate it as we do in the film.

LYDEN: Junon is not particularly close to the younger women in this movie, and what's interesting - we were talking about parenting a moment ago. You're acting in this film with your own daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, that you had with the actor Marcello Mastroianni. This is the second time that you've acted with her.

She was the teenage Marjane in "Persepolis," which came out last year. Marjane comes of age during the Islamic Revolution and really struggles to find her identity. She loves rock and roll. And we have a clip of your daughter in that movie. Let's just listen. She's singing, "Eye Of the Tiger."

Ms. DENEUVE: Oh, that's funny. I love that.

(Soundbite of "Persepolis")

Ms. CHIARA MASTROIANNI (As Marjane): (Singing) And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night. And he's watching us all with the eye of the tiger...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DENEUVE: It's very funny, you know. And she had to learn the song, and she had to sing it very badly. And as a reward, there is the record - you know, the film and the record - the original music of the film, she sang this song so well. It's wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DENEUVE: Exactly the opposite, but because to sing it like that, you have to learn it before.

LYDEN: I am sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: It takes a certain talent to carry it off half a bucket.

Ms. DENEUVE: She sings very well.

LYDEN: I believe you.

Ms. DENEUVE: It's very funny to hear the real song.

LYDEN: Do you and Chiara, your daughter, do you talk about acting?

Ms. DENEUVE: Not much. We have so much to talk about. Acting is very difficult to talk with. I talk more about acting with the - maybe with some director if I'm very close, you know, sometimes.

LYDEN: Uh hmm.

Ms. DENEUVE: But it's not something - I think it's easy to talk about acting when you are in theater because you rehearse - you are together with all the actors. Acting in films is a very special, very different experience. I think it's very - it's a very lonely thing.

LYDEN: I want to talk to you about being a screen actress because that's what you are. I don't know if you've ever been much on the stage.

Ms. DENEUVE: No, I'm all screen.

LYDEN: And you have grown up on the screen. You have been on screen for five decades. You have long been known, and deservedly so, as one of the world's most beautiful women, been the public face of the French Republic as Marianne, featured on French currency. What is the process like for you of allowing yourself to become a woman of age, to turn the pages of life on screen?

Ms. DENEUVE: It's, of course, much more difficult for a woman on screen than for a woman in life because you're always put back to images from the past, fame of the past. You have, on television, all (unintelligible) and all that, so it's more difficult. It's more cruel.

But I think it's very cruel anyway to grow old for a woman no matter what happens. I think it's much more painful to grow older in America than in Europe, much, much more. There are things you have to give up, things you have to get used to. But that's - it's like life, you know.

We know that growing old is not - it's not growing old, the problem. It's going to somewhere we know it's going to be the end. You know, that's what it means. I suppose, if it was to be old forever, I don't think there would be any problem, you know. It's just that it's the beginning of the countdown, in a way.

SEABROOK: Actress Catherine Deneuve speaking with my colleague, Jacki Lyden. Her new film is "A Christmas Tale." You can watch Junon's family at its very worst and hear more from Catherine Deneuve in stories from the NPR archives at our website,

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