A Celebration of Catherine Deneuve at The Music Box

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 15, 2011 9:00PM

2011_03_deneuve.jpg Jean Paul Belmondo, in Mississippi Mermaid, tells Catherine Deneuve's character: "You're so beautiful it hurts to look at you." That isn't exactly the sort of statement one could assert to be true or not (though many have tried), but after an incredible 50 years captivating audiences onscreen we must admit that if it is, it must hurt so good.

Beginning with a string of international successes in the early 1960s right up through her present reign over French cinema, which can only be approximated for American audiences by invoking the name of Meryl Streep, the prolific Deneuve has assembled an filmography of a breadth and size (over 100 films) rivaled by few actors of her generation. In advance of the opening of her latest film, Francois Ozon's Potiche, the Music Box is offering a mini-retrospective of the French screen icon's career by showcasing five of her most celebrated roles.

Early in her career, Deneuve's pristine beauty was mined for its supposed chilliness, with Luis Buñuel extracting the motherlode in Belle de Jour and Tristana, parading a frigid shard of female sexuality so captivating male directors seemingly could not wait to impale themselves on it. The Music Box screens Belle de Jour, where Deneuve plays a bourgeois housewife in thrall to masochistic sexual fantasies while unable to seek satisfaction in the arms of her frustrated physician husband, eventually turning to recreational prostitution with disastrous consequences.

Volumes of convoluted sexuality were consistently read into Deneuve's glassy stare and blank expression by her male directors. Witness Roman Polanski claiming she looked "like a professional virgin, but sexy." Anyone interested in the playbook Darren Aronofsky began with when he the psychologically compromised terror of Black Swan should be first in line to watch Repulsion, among the best and arguably the most influential film Polanski ever made. Deneuve plays Carole, a meek Belgian manicurist in the singing-est of swinging London with a childlike devotion to her older sister and a very strong repulsion to both sex and men. Polanski's agile black and white chiaroscuro and bag of deft but simple horror movie tricks still pack a punch, which is why they're getting ripped off to this day.

The camera loved Deneuve, and she only got better at her craft. Before long she was unchained from that statuesque, deer-in-the-headlights expression she wore in these early films and successfully evolved from sex symbol to screen fixture to a exalted position as a national treasure (Deneuve was literally the model for the national emblem of France, Marianne, in the 80s). A turning point was surely Truffaut's The Last Metro, where she played a Grande Dame of the stage of the sort she became for the screen. By the time 2002's 8 Women squeezed more renowned French actresses onto the screen than cinematic physics suggests is possible, she had grown definitively into that role.

It was the 40th anniversary of her very first screen triumph, 1964's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, when the impact of chromatic kaleidoscope of Jaques Demy's fanciful musical was fully restored, that we recognized what a superb cinematic performer had been there all along. Umbrellas is a musical in which all the dialogue is sung but in which the singing is not used for emotive or expressive purposes, but rather to tell its sentimental story of the romance between an umbrella-store clerk and a gas station attendant doomed by circumstance. Floating past us among the primary colors of Cherbourg in a movie that is almost impossibly corny, we can now see in the almost impossibly beautiful 20-year-old Deneuve a primary instrument with which 50 years of French cinema were written. In short: much more than a pretty face.

Catherine Deneuve: Portrait of a French Icon at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport Ave. begins Thursday, with 3 screenings of Repulsion. Monday, March 21 features $5 screenings of 8 Women and the Sunday double feature of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Repulsion are available for the price of one ticket. The Thursday, March 24 screening of Potiche is free for the first 100 people showing up with a ticket stub from any previous screening in the festival.