In early September 2022, the Venice Film Festival awarded Catherine Deneuve a Golden Lion for her entire career. The opportunity to dive back into the filmography of the actress. This month, the Magduciné has chosen to focus on its fruitful collaboration between Jacques Demy.
Free Galathée from Pygmalion
Cinema is a collective art. This statement might seem like a truism as it seems obvious to us. If a cinematographic work cannot do without the know-how of the technical and artistic team, its existence (and its success) also depend, to a large extent, on the meeting between the filmmaker and his actor. If American cinema carries with it a large number of iconic duos – Robert de Niro and Martin Scorsese, Bill Murray and Wes Anderson, the list is long and could be declined for hours – the same observation is essential in France. We could cite among others Gerard Depardieu and Maurice Pialat or Pierre Arditi and Alain Resnais.
You will probably find that these enumerations have nothing to do with the subject of the article. You would be both right and wrong. While it is generally accepted to praise the (male) tandems that saw the birth of the seventh art, the converse is not entirely true when the actor is an actress. She is often perceived as the “muse” of a director. This discourse leads to a slightly erroneous, if not downright problematic, perception, since it minimizes the work of the actress, confined to the “passive” role of simple inspiration, accrediting, in passing, the idea that the existence of the film must (exclusively ) to the imagination of one man. Cinema is a collective art that should not suffer from any kind of stereotypical (and misogynistic) projections. An actress can be a muse and be considered a stakeholder in artistic creation (just like an actor) you might say.
The collaboration between Jacques Demy and Catherine Deneuve illustrates this paradox very well. Magnified, taken to the confines of cinematic lands with wild inventiveness, the actress is, however, never fetishized by the filmmaker. The story between the director and the actress begins in the early 60s. Jacques Demy is one of the young wolves of French cinema. If he has not yet shown his fangs, the filmmaker is on the lookout.
He has just completed his first feature film. Lola (1961), a musical comedy about a lovesick coach (Anouk Aimée). A great admirer of Max Ophüls and Vincente Minelli, Jacques Demy had the idea of making a musical drama in color which would be called Beautiful of love. If the project, renamed Umbrellas of Cherbourgwill be long and difficult to set up, giving it time to turn The Bay of Angels (1962), it nevertheless succeeded in seeing the light of day the following year. The choice of Catherine Deneuve immediately imposed itself on the filmmaker who had noticed her the previous year in The woman’s man (Jacques-Gérard Cornu, 1960). Whether Umbrellas of Cherbourg definitively establishes the critical success Jacques Demy, it also imposes Catherine Deneuve in the hearts of the public.
Catherine Deneuve and Jacques Demy or the art of counterbalancing stereotypes
Catherine Deneuve’s career is not limited to the work of Jacques Demy. However, his name today seems to be inseparable from the filmmaker. The latter owes, in fact, to the actress his greatest public and critical successes.
Of the Umbrellas of CherbourgCatherine Deneuve agrees to play a risky role. It is not clear today where the scandal lies in this tangy pop musical. The story, however, has all the ingredients to shock the bourgeois. The spoken word that characterizes the film proves to be a formidable effective strategy for evoking the things that annoy. The garish Cherbourg with its contagious good humor should not deceive us. In the background, the war in Algeria is raging, taking with it the recklessness of youth. Geneviève discovers that reality is not all rosy. The latter understands that love is not always enough in the face of the imponderables imposed by society.
Fresh out of the film, the actress is back on filming. A prosperous period then began, punctuated by remarkable incursions among the greatest European filmmakers of the time. The actress embodies characters of complex women, in turn neurotic (RepulsionRoman Polanski, 1965), sexually frustrated (beautiful dayLuis Buñuel, 1967) or indifferent (The Mississippi MermaidFrancois Truffaut, 1969). The actress sees herself, however, very attached to the label of cold and austere actress. This image that she has knowingly cultivated is, nevertheless, constantly counterbalanced. This is where Jacques Demy comes in again.
“Love, love, I love you so much”
After spending two years in the United States where he shot Model Shop (1967), Jacques Demi is already thinking about his next film. The latter would be inspired by French popular culture and, in particular, the fairy tale, a genre dear to the director. The filmmaker has, in fact, chosen to adapt the tale of Charles Perrault Donkey Skin. True to form, the director blasts the codes of the (fairy) tale by offering a resolutely modern reinterpretation of the initial myth. The work openly flirts with the politically incorrect. Peau d’âne relates, indeed, the story of a princess who wants to escape the clutches of a father who is a little too loving. Jacques Demy dares to approach the taboo of incest by disguising it with the pop style that we know him for.
The result is a more serious work than it seems. To flee her father, Donkey Skin has the choice between poverty and marriage. She will choose (of reason) marriage (of love). The freedom of the character is not negotiable, even is downright impossible, having to be embodied (and forgotten) necessarily in the passion of love. Like the Cherbourg umbrellasJacques Demy challenges his audience politically without ever seeming to. The garish colors are – here again – not intended to be figurative. The red-blue binarity present in the film serves as a more global reflection on the few alternatives offered by society to women wishing to emancipate themselves from the patriarchal yoke.
Catherine Deneuve, for her part, modernizes the character of Peau d’âne, far from corresponding to the cliché of the supposedly “passive” princess. Rather than suffer an unwanted situation, Donkey Skin chooses to give up his status (and his father’s love). She retains, however, thanks to her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig), powers that allow her to take her life in hand (and if necessary to force fate a little). Faced with a male desire that wants to be implacable, Demy and Catherine Deneuve prove that cinema can highlight a welcome female sisterhood.
Twin sisters ‘born under the sign of twins’
Whether Donkey Skin instantly became a cult object, another film, made three years earlier by the director, was also to mark the history of the seventh art forever. His name is The Demoiselles de Rochefort. This mythical work has established itself in the pantheon of the most successful musicals. Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and Solange (Françoise Dorléac) Garnier are twin sisters “born under the sign of twins”. Raised alone by their mother (Danielle Darrieux), the latter are in search of true love. Behind this somewhat “ass-ass” canvas hides such a facetious and enjoyable political fable.
Like Donkey Skin, and contrary to what their wishes might suggest, Delphine and Solange are not short of initiatives. When one decides to leave her lover, the other falls under the spell of a soldier on leave. However, there is no question of playing the game of tradition. The two young women impose their choices and preferences on the male characters. Courted by two dancers, the twin sisters agree to be their stage partners on the condition that they take them to Paris. Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorléac embody with panache female characters ignoring the dominant morality. The swirling madness that emanates from this film echoes that found in The most important event since man walked on the moon.
When joy politicizes social issues
Two years later Donkey Skinthe duo Catherine Deneuve-Jacques Demy did it again in the cinema, this time bringing to the screens the story of a man (Marcello Mastroianni) who becomes pregnant. His wife Irène de Fontenoy runs a hairdressing salon which, despite himself, becomes the center of media attention. Unlike their previous films, Catherine Deneuve does not hold the top billing here (at least in appearance).
The actress interprets a role which has nothing of “second”. The filmmaker entrusts him – there again – with a female character far ahead of her time. If the 1970s saw the development of female work, it was still very much in the minority. Irène de Fontenoy works by providing, equally with her spouse, for household expenses. The latter also shows an open-mindedness that cannot boast of all the male protagonists of the film. When she discovers the happy event, she cheerfully accepts it, seeing in it more joyful than distressing news. This displayed progressivism anticipates several current debates, in particular the recognition of paternity of transgender men who have given birth to children.
This atypical and little-known musical comedy from Jacques Demy’s repertoire illustrates the trends observed above. We find there the colorful style that made the trademark of its author, a myriad of unforgettable songs interpreted by Mireille Mathieu and – last but not least – a political subject served by an optimistic and old-fashioned poetry. Jacques Demy politicizes joy by putting it at the service of a reflection that does not bother with taboos. This permanent collusion between political reflection and poetic fantasy owes a lot to the power of incarnation of its main actress. If Catherine Deneuve asserts herself as Jacques Demy’s favorite actress, she never becomes the director’s silent “fetish”. She navigates, on the contrary, with intelligence in a complex universe which allows her to express the full extent of her talent.
Trailer – Donkey Skin :
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Catherine Deneuve and Jacques Demy: A fairy tale against a backdrop of politically engaged cinema | LeMagduCine
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