From Perversion to Purity: The Stardom of Catherine Deneuve

Lisa Downing and Sue Harris, eds.,
From Perversion to Purity: The Stardom of Catherine Deneuve.
Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-7190-7338-0
Au$152.00 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Manchester University Press. Available from Footprint Books)

I have a cherished memory of Paris from what I suppose must have been the winter of 1998. Turning a corner one afternoon, I found myself, astonishingly, face-to-face with Catherine Deneuve! She was standing on the curb surrounded by a small film crew, hailing an invisible taxi for a close-up that was being taken over and over again (I gleaned from the clapper that the film was Philippe Garrel’s Le Vent de la nuit[France/Italy/Switzerland 1999). I joined a crowd of fascinated onlookers. There was Catherine Deneuve, one moment lending her face to an image taking substance, the next submitting disinterestedly and without moving so much as a finger to the attentions of her assistants, who at the end of each take held a blanket around her shoulders and a lit cigarette to her lips. She inhaled. She exhaled. Only the smoke moved as it left her nostrils and twisted with the fog of her breath. We watched the motionless spectacle of Deneuve, quite simply impressed.

The volume at hand, a collection of ten essays and an introduction dedicated to the “well-known actress,”[1] her films, and her iconicity in fashion and cultural life is similarly impressed and fascinated by Catherine Deneuve, particularly, I think, with respect to her ineffable movement in and out of her cinematic image. This fascination is how I would describe what is most interesting about the project, if for no other reason than that it confronts us with the question of why this movement should compel even in its most unremarkable trajectories (from close-up to cigarette break, for example).

To be frank, this is not exactly the explicit point of the book. The conceit of the book as a whole, and the rubric under which the various essays have been collected, is the notion of an essential continuum in Deneuve’s onscreen persona “from perversion to purity,” as the title suggests. This theme is carried through even in the jacket design, which juxtaposes on the front cover two glamour shots respectively representative of Deneuve the saint and Deneuve the salope. The inner flaps are minimally emblazoned with the word “perversion” at front and “purity” at back (in an odd orange and black motif that to my eye is more evocative of Halloween than of Yves Saint Laurent). It seems as if the editors have taken a cue from Ginette Vincendeau here, whose prior study characterizing Deneuve as both “ice maiden” and “living divinity” is duly cited by nearly every contributor to the present volume. But we need hardly be concerned with the attribution of the idea. It is really almost a matter of stating the obvious and, while doing so supplies a welcome occasion for readings of films from the full span of Deneuve’s career, the minor and obscure alongside the major and well-known, one at times has the impression that the theme has introduced too much uniformity and predictability to the collection. Call me perverse, but I found myself wishing for an essay that would defy this narrative of Deneuve’s stardom, however implausibly.

Depending on one’s perspective, the fact that the individual contributions are generally content not to confront that narrative, much less one another, will stand as proof that the book is prudently and unassailably conceived, or else, and in equal measure, that it is unpolemical and unprovocative as a whole. Nonetheless, while the individual chapters are obliged to repeat the purity/perversion theme that brings them together with at least a nod, they do for the most part also have other preoccupations.

To be fair, the book’s introduction by editors Downing and Harris poses a more sophisticated framework for the undertaking than I have suggested, casting it as a response to the general preoccupation of “star studies” with Hollywood and to the lack of book-length work on individual European stars. The editors also explain that the single-star methodological approach has the benefit of permitting a reckoning with stardom not confined by the “national cinema” framework that they see as the limitation of studies such as Vincendeau’s (Stars and Stardom in French Cinema, Continuum, 2000), among others. Specifically, they are interested in the capacity of this approach to address four different ways in which the star signifies: “inside and outside” of her own national cinema; “within and between” her creative partnerships with different directors; as the object of both mainstream and subcultural appreciation; and between her onscreen and offscreen personae (p. 8). The operative principle across these coordinates of analysis, and in respect to the aforementioned duality of Deneuve’s image itself, is that movement (within and between, inside and outside) has a dislocating and doubling effect that produces value, if not fascination. The essays generally fulfill the promise of finding such impressive moments in these various movements of Deneuve, although considering that the book is imagined in part as an intervention against a national cinema approach, the international character of her stardom might have been explored in a more systematic way. There are informative chapters by Pauline Small on the Italian films and by Peter William Evans on the Spanish flavor of her work with Buñuel, and her image in America is often taken into consideration. But it is telling, for example, that Fiona Handyside, in an otherwise terrific essay on Deneuve the fashion icon, characterizes countries like “America, the UK, Australia, Portugal and Spain” as “far flung” points in this global circulation (p. 165). One has to assume that Deneuve has been flung much farther than first world Anglophone and Western European (Romance-language) markets, but this is not the book to confirm this assumption.

Those caveats out of the way, what remains to be said should recommend the book to interested readers. As noted, the coverage of films is good. There are extensive discussions of Deneuve’s creative associations with directors, including Roman Polanski, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Demy, Marco Ferreri, and André Téchiné. Among them, the essays on Polanski (Downing) and Téchiné (Bill Marshall) are particularly successful at putting Deneuve into productive interplay with the respective auteurs. Downing does this by reading Polanski’s Repulsion (UK 1965) through debates over the misogyny of its representation of neurotic femininity, arguing that Polanski had a role in “constructing” the star image of the young Deneuve in such a way as to put her into confrontation with the sexual politics of the era. I’m not sure that Downing convinces me of Polanski’s feminism, but she does show how the film oriented its star provocatively at the beginning of her career, and how the star in turn opens the film up to the kind of generous reading that Downing gives it. Marshall for his part looks to Deneuve’s films with Téchiné and observes with subtlety the way in which these play on the movement between character and star persona. He sees in Téchiné’s multi-layered and open narratives a sensitivity to a process of “becoming Deneuve” that conscripts not only the clichés of the “flattened” star image (“fire and ice”), but also the deep, “virtual” dimensions of her persona and performance. It is this virtuality of Deneuve, Marshall argues, that is of interest to Téchiné, and which exercises a transformative influence common to this set of films.

Other essays adopt a decade or era as the unit of measure to appraise the movements of Deneuve. Bridget Birchall looks to the 1970s and the ways in which the contradictions between the public feminism of Deneuve offscreen and the “contained” sexual liberalism characteristic of her onscreen roles in films such as Courage fuyons (France 1979) and A nous deux (France/Canada 1979) reflect the contradictions in the “political culture” of the era. Sue Harris looks to Deneuve’s national “heritage films” of the 1980s and 1990s (Le Dernier metro[France 1982]; Fort Saganne [France 1984]; Indochine [France 1992]) and to her official cultural promotion as the embodiment of ‘La Marianne,’ maternal figure of French republicanism, to explore how her image assumes national symbolic valences. And Christina Johnston addresses the ageing of Denueve as a mature actress in films from the late 1990s (Le Vent de la nuitDancer in the Dark [Denmark/France/Sweden, 2000]; Belle maman [France 1999]).

The volume closes on a strong note with two very good and very entertaining essays. Andrew Asibong writes marvelously of “lesbian sadomasochism” in films such as The Hunger (UK 1983), 8 femmes (France/Italy 2002), and even Belle de jour (1967, in which film Pierre Clémenti is said to play Deneuve’s “male girlfriend” p. 152). These films, Asibong argues, “prick,” “deconstruct,” and “denaturalize” Deneuve’s “aristocratic” screen persona much in the way that sadomasochism is said to “unglue” power relations through parody and artifice. While it seems to me that these “lesbian transformations” are only one among several “abuses” of Deneuve’s star image that might be said to exercise such a deconstructive effect upon her myth, Asibong is in a position to illustrate this particular angle quite opulently thanks to the efforts of directors Tony Scott and François Ozon. Of course he is careful to qualify, in a general admonishment of “Deneuvian lesbian studies” for looking only to the obvious cases, that lesbianism is a recurrent theme within Deneuve’s stardom as a whole, and one that carries a political charge (p. 147). Handyside, finally, is also interested in the challenge of Deneuve’s screen roles to her glamorous star image, which she sees played out in the contrast between the “poor, ugly, ill, dowdy or grotesque” characters she often portrays in her films and the “beautiful, glamorous, rich and desirable” couture image (p. 166) cultivated in her official role as a promoter of perfumes and as a long-time “friend” and patron of Yves Saint Laurent. Handyside cleverly sees in this contrast between film persona and fashion icon a reversal of the conventional Hollywood star formula, in which celebrities are often glamorous onscreen and subjected to scandalous gossip and ugly speculation as public figures.

Deneuve, by contrast, is representative of a situation in which “the image of French women, that they are sophisticated, glamorous and chic, has proved far more exportable than their films” (p. 169). Handyside argues that Deneuve is ultimately able to “degrade” her image in her films (excluding of course what she calls, in an auteurist perversion, her “Yves Saint Laurent films” p. 167) because of the unimpeachability of her offscreen persona, and goes so far as to portray this cinematic self-degradation as a form of “relief” from the unrelenting glamour of her persona as a fashion icon.
What is clear from all of this is just how dynamically Deneuve signifies, even when she does not move at all. While the book might have been more adventurously conceived, fans should appreciate the opportunity for reflection, and will be delighted by the best of what it has to offer.

Ryan Cook,
Yale University, USA.


[1]  “Je ne suis pas une star, je suis une actrice bien connue.” p. 168.

Created on: Saturday, 14 March 2009

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Ryan Cook

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Ryan Cook

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