On Love and Catherine Deneuve
by Rachel Veroff
In the 1967 French film, Belle de Jour, there is a scene where Catherine Deneuve, age 23 (in both the movie and in real life), approaches an address on the rue Jean de Saumur, in Paris—a clandestine address, which she desires to enter. She is belted up in a rigid, sporty Yves Saint Laurent coat, her copious blond tresses tucked tightly up and out of sight, beneath a knitted cap so elegant, no woman in history has ever dared to repeat the style, I am certain, for fear of looking like a clown in comparison. She is exquisite, iconic; Catherine Deneuve. She does not ring the doorbell immediately.
Instead, she gazes with illegible grace into a shop window nearby, walks fretfully around the block, and pauses on a park bench to dab a single tear drop of torment away from her placid, dazzling eye. Then, she puts on dark sunglasses. The mysterious building she cannot stop herself from entering contains a high-end brothel. Deneuve’s character, Séverine, is happily married—to a doctor, no less—but sex work offers an outlet for fantasy and excitement that she cannot resist. So she enters, and undresses.
Belle de Jour is a great movie because it’s really two movies: the one you see, and the one you think you see. On the one hand, it is a sensual phantasm. It lingers in your memory as highly erotic—full of fetish and artful bondage. On the other hand, the actual scenes portrayed are mild, like the one described above. Deneuve’s daydreams are racier than her reality, and there is not much nudity at all. If you go through still by still, you will find that the film’s most transgressive fantasies only wink at you from behind the surface of a glossy commercial spread. It is a bourgeois comedy of manners, a cautionary tale for bored housewives. The heroine remains opaque throughout—even in the G-rated bedroom scenes with her own husband. And yet, somehow, you have been made to see things that are not really there. This is the essence of surrealism. It is one of Luis Buñuel’s finest films.
When I was in college, I watched a lot of French avant-garde flicks like this one. And when I graduated, it was the same sense of allure and intrigue that compelled me to go to Paris myself. By sheer force of my own youthful moxie and enthusiasm, I obtained a part-time job and a tiny cupboard of an apartment on the Left Bank, in the quiet 13th arrondissement. I spent a lot of my time in this neighborhood simply wandering up avenues, taking in the blue-gray buildings and stately gardens. The lack of right angles on street corners in Paris disoriented me, but I never felt lost. Rather, just like in French language, I enjoyed the dreamy sensation of never quite being sure where the street I had chosen would take me—I never quite knew if I had understood the double entendre. My curiosity, though, was insatiable.
On one such stroll, I discovered the Cité Jean de Saumur, the address of the fictional maison close where Deneuve spent many secret afternoons in Belle de Jour. The plaque was hidden at the end of a gray, cobblestoned cul-de-sac, only five minutes from my own small apartment. This coincidence pleased me—in the same way that it pleased me to sit in cafés where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were known to write. I imagined that the scattered leaves on the ground were the same as the ones that Deneuve had clipped over in those impeccable, gold-buckled designer shoes. This is more obvious to me now than it was at the time, but: I was living in my own surreal movie.
One night during my first year in Paris, I was invited to a nightclub called Silencio. The club was located in a refurbished cave, glittering with shadows and gold, below the Rue Montmartre, in the center of the city. The place was said to be exclusive. At least, that’s what my friend Max-Henri told me. It was owned by David Lynch, a surrealist filmmaker in his own right. Lynch’s movies are famously influenced by late-sixties art cinema, and, that night, I noted how this influence transferred to lounge décor and bar lighting, too. The club had a smoke-and-mirrors vibe.
While Max-Henri was busy talking to other friends, I fell into conversation with a young-looking guy who appeared to be by himself. He was probably a few years younger than me, with a brooding, feline quality about his way of lurking in the corner. I was a corner-lurker, too, and was delighted (like I always was that year) to find someone who seemed amused by my attempts at French—or at least willing to humor me.
“This place is like a Luis Buñuel movie,” I declared, in what was (regrettably) a terrible accent.
“Ah, oui,” he smiled in the dark. “Belle de Jour. It’s a good film.”
We talked for some minutes about the actress, Catherine Deneuve. She was born in Paris in 1943, to a family of stage actors. Her sister was the actress Françoise Dorléac, who died in a car crash in 1967—the same year Deneuve’s own career took off. She has appeared in films by François Truffaut, Roman Polanski, Roger Vadim and Lars von Trier. She modeled nude for Playboy twice, and in the 1980s her face was the national symbol for France, as well as the perfume Chanel No. 5. She was the muse of Yves Saint Laurent and Richard Avedon, and she had a generously French amount of famous lovers (that is to say, many). But it was Luis Buñuel who taught her the blank, icy personae she would be most remembered for. Deneuve’s beauty is aloof, mysterious. The young man and I both agreed that she is mesmerizing to watch on camera.
While we were talking, his eyes were trained on the entrance to the club, where two older men in business suits had recently descended from outside.
“But you do not find this film misogyne? Belle de Jour?” he asked.
“Misogynist?” I had to confess that I’d always been more preoccupied by how the movie was uniquely French. But the kid had a point. Deneuve’s character does not fare well from her decision to work as a prostitute. Between a jealous client who grows violent, and another who threatens to expose her secret, the various men in Deneuve’s life find cruel ways to punish her for chasing her thrills (and earning an income outside of her marriage, though money does not seem to be her primary motive in the movie).
Before I could answer, a body passed uncomfortably close to us on its way to the bathroom. It was one of the business suits. The man even brushed the kid’s sleeve as he passed, rustling a crisp 100 euro bill discreetly at waist level. And suddenly it dawned on me: the boy—who could not have been more than 19 years old—was there to turn tricks. I don’t know what it was that tipped me off, exactly. It may have been the nondescript velour material of the his zippered jacket, or it may have been the way he looked the other direction and ran a jumpy hand through his hair, after than man walked by. But all of a sudden, the shocking depths of my own naivety bubbled up and splashed embarrassment in my face. I had never met an actual sex worker before. Not to my knowledge.
“Excuse me, I must go to the bathroom,” the boy said.
“Wait,” I stuttered, my maternal instincts kicking in. “Did that man just proposition you?”
I was only a foolish American, but it really bothered me that he was about to go in there. The men’s toilet at Silencio was not an art film—this was real life! Maybe the kid was in trouble with money, or with drugs, or with his parents. Maybe he was just young and stupid, and didn’t know what he was doing. He reminded me of my own little brother, who still lived at home with my parents.
Of course, my questions made the kid awkward. He gestured for me to go back to my own friends, which I did reluctantly. He slipped into the shadows of the back room, and I did not see him again that night. I remained incensed on his behalf, though. By the time I was on my second or third drink, I was still thinking about how the boy needed to be rescued. But my friends insisted it was none of my business.
“You know nothing about him,” Max-Henri shrugged. “Let him be.”
After a while, I stopped looking for the boy’s dark face in the crowd. I only saw him again one time, three or four months later, for a fleeting moment on the Rue de Sèvres. I was standing outside the gates of the college, Sciences Po, about to attend a lecture there. I saw him from across the courtyard, and he saw me too. He was smartly dressed and carrying a school satchel. We locked eyes for a moment, and I thought of calling out his name, which I was a little surprised to remember was Paul. But before I could, he turned and disappeared beneath an archway.
In Belle de Jour, the sense of double-life, of fantasy, progresses until you are no longer sure which scenes are real and which are imagined. Deneuve’s character may have been molested as a child (this is suggested in a brief, dreamlike flashback). As an adult, she seems uneasy about the lust she inspires in men. She holds herself back from her husband, turning all of her passions inward instead. She fantasizes about being dragged out of a carriage, tied to a tree, whipped and pelted with mud. In another scene, a client asks her to lie down in a coffin, while bells and cat meows can be heard off-screen. She lets herself become a blank slate that men—and viewers—are invited to project their most perverse desires on.
In many ways, Deneuve’s role can be read as a metaphor for the working conditions of actresses in general—especially in the late 1960s. In the era of Alfred Hitchcock, who tortured more than one of his starlets with obsessive and stalkerish behavior, and Bernardo Bertolucci, who staged an actual rape scene during the filming of Last Tango in Paris, Belle de Jour paints a psychologically blurred and worrisome portrait of a woman whose only escape from domestic life is to offer herself up, again and again, to the fantasies of her employers.
A New York Times profile from 2006 points out that we will never know if Deneuve herself sees the film this way. The fact that she has allowed herself to be filmed and photographed so frequently in the 50 years since Belle de Jour suggests that she’s more or less comfortable with being looked at. She does not seem rattled by what academic types would call “the male gaze.” But still, she did star in this film that has (let’s be honest) a deeply misogynist undercurrent. She allowed Buñuel to direct her how he wanted—to shape her into the cold seductress: porcelain-perfect, debauched and yet still dignified. The very model of a woman that men are drawn to and hate at the same time. Isn’t it common, in real life, to hear about prostitutes who get beat up, or worse, by their clients?
“I felt they showed more of me than they said they were going to,” Deneuve confessed in an interview in 2004, about the making of the film. “There were moments when I felt totally used. I was very unhappy.”
But this did not stop her from working with Buñuel again, three years later, on his Spanish film Tristana. The pair made some truly remarkable art together. Today, Belle de Jour is considered a highlight of Buñuel’s career, along with his other triumphs in surrealism: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Un Chien Andalou. In a sense, it does not matter that he may have exploited his actors. In the 1994 book, Buñuel, biographer John Baxter points out that the filmmaker did not initially want to work with Deneuve, and he only gave her the same advice he gave all actors: “Don’t do anything. Above all, don’t… perform.” In spite of this, Buñuel managed to coax performances out of Deneuve that were wonderfully vulnerable, and shocking, and sad.
Buñuel’s intelligence as a director can be observed in the scene from Belle de Jour in which a mysterious client at the brothel presents the prostitutes with a closed box. When the man opens the box to show its contents, two of the girls turn away in horror, but not Deneuve. Her eyes light up. As viewers, we never learn what was inside the box, and even Buñuel himself does not know. “I can’t count the number of times people have asked me what was in the box,” Buñuel has stated. “It’s senseless. I usually reply, ‘Whatever you want there to be.’” And so again: our fantasies as a passive audience eclipse the reality of the film.
For Deneuve’s character, the box’s contents leave her sprawled contentedly in the following camera cut, looking more radiantly tousled and relaxed than she does anywhere else in the movie. It is her crest of the wave, so to speak—before the men she meets at work start following her home and crashing down into her personal life. One of them shoots her husband and leaves him crippled—symbolically castrated—shattering all of their chances at happiness forever. In contrast to this real-life violence, Deneuve’s fantasies might be seen as a kind of twisted defense mechanism against those people who would harm her. Maybe they are a sublimation of her own self-hatred. In any case, her last fantasy is the most heartbreaking of all: she dreams that her husband magically heals and forgives her. If there was ever a surefire way for a person to torture herself, it is exactly that.
Jean-Baptiste. I was living in Paris for about a year before I met him, the only man I ever came close to marrying myself. I met him at a dinner party. It was one of those dinners where everyone sits cross-legged around the coffee table and sings along to the radio—blasting Pete Rock and Zaz from dinky portable speakers. We had made couscous and Moroccan stew with whole, hot tomatoes, squash and raisins, and broth we ladled from a large bowl in the middle of the table. I was really happy at that time in my life. My French was getting good, and I liked my friends. I was scraping by on tutoring work and restaurant work, and I was also applying to Master’s programs—Comparative Literature, since I still entertained the delusion that I might be cut out for academic life. I had no intention of ever going back to the United States.
Jean-Baptiste was about my height, with brown hair, a scruffy moustache and owl-rimmed glasses. He had grown up on a farm in Normandy and retained a soft spot for country life. He worked as a software engineer. He owned an impressive collection of Blake and Mortimer comics, and his favorite writer in English was Tom Robbins. Due to a childhood illness, he had one glass eye, and his left leg was shorter than his right, so he wore a special shoe. He had been badly bullied as a kid. He ate pickles out of the jar while standing in front of the refrigerator, and he was fond of bluebirds—les merles bleus. He was one of the sweetest and most generous people I have ever known, and he thought that I was funny. For the 18 months that we were in love, I’d say 12 of those were happy.
Falling in love in a foreign language is totally disorienting. You aren’t just tumbling into another person’s world, but also their way of making thoughts—their culture, their sense of politics and history. You’ll be in a grocery store, picking out a bundle of radishes one minute, and the next you will be debating the etymology of the word, radis, and having your ear bent with a history lesson on the cultural significance of radishes in France. You’ll be in bed, giggling forever about the sounds that cats make in English versus French (in French they ronronner). Then, you’ll be in his mother’s kitchen, shucking oysters for New Year’s Day, and he will correct, not only your method of holding an oyster knife, but also your pronunciation of couteau à huître. You will be in a Catholic church pew, trying to make heads or tails of the Mass, while he fidgets and grumbles in your ear about how his religious upbringing was so tordu. (I think he meant repressive.)
You will be standing on a subway platform, fighting back tears because his ex from school is in town, and he wants to meet her for a coffee. He’ll shout in your face, “Are all Americans this childish?” And suddenly, you will not even know anymore why this was the movie you wanted to be in. Your boyfriend is a stranger, and your Master’s in literature has left you stuck working as an ESL tutor for rich kids—a job that you had not imagined for yourself. It’s weird, the memories that come back to you after a relationship is over. With Jean-Baptiste, my most vivid memories are of making coffee for him in the mornings, and, towards the end, of watching how he was with other people: more charming, more clever. He had stopped being that way with me. Our breakup made me realize how often love is just a triangulation of things you think you really want: the label, the career, the apartment. It all comes down to smoke and mirrors. Or, maybe, the mind games are a simple, elaborate distraction from the unmanageableness of heartbreak itself.
Years later, in New York, I met a woman who had supported the early years of her writing career with sex work. She was vocal about her experiences, and a staunch advocate for sex workers’ rights. She was sharp, confident, articulate, and, like Deneuve, she seemed relatively OK with being in the public eye. I found all of this compelling because I did not feel confident about any of those things myself. Like with the boy in the nightclub, Silencio, I found my imagination bumping up against some internal block about the concept of using sexuality as currency, or discussing my sexuality in public. But I will always remember one comment this woman made, some time after Donald Trump was elected, and people were speculating about the wellbeing of Melania. “I would go back to sex work in a heartbeat,” she said, “before I married for money.”
Me, I had almost married my French boyfriend for the wrong reasons: a visa. I guess this is the painful spot I have been circling around for this entire essay. My situation in the country would have been less precarious if I were attached, but this fact became a cruel and unfair burden on the both of us. He felt pressured to take care of me, and I hated that I needed help. I was in my early twenties and willfully independent. I loved my life in France—desperately. My failure to sustain it was a huge blow to my self-esteem. I lost confidence in myself as a partner, too. As our relationship tottered off course, I felt more and more pressured to perform for him, and for his friends, and for his family. I wanted to become someone else for all of them. Of course, a lot of my anxiety about this came from me alone, but I resented him because of it, too. I was tragically impressionable. I was an idealist, a romantic. Everything I thought I knew about love, I had learned from vintage art films. Ha! When it came to genuine, adult intimacy, I was more lost than anyone I know.
When I first moved back to the United States, many of my memories about France became hazy and unreal. Especially in the jolted-awake present of New York, where everyone speaks English, and the meanings of words are straightforward and simple. My sense of confusion about having left threads undone—and questions unanswered—in my life abroad slipped easily (surprisingly so) below the surface of my conscience. Recently, I found myself watching old TV interviews with Catherine Deneuve. Maybe I was hoping she would have some wisdom to impart. She is 73 now, and still elegant. It’s obvious that she will be remembered as one of those timeless actresses, celebrated as much for her beauty as for her movies.
“I prefer to be associated with Belle de Jour than a lot of other things, frankly,” she told the Guardian in 2009. “I think it’s a great film. I was very lucky to do films like that, at a young age.”
On talk shows Deneuve is poised and well-spoken. But she is not a particularly riveting or insightful conversationalist. I was disappointed to discover this. Her genius is in her gestures. Or, perhaps, the genius was in the camera work. I was lucky to do films like that, she said. Maybe this is the closest advice we will ever hear from her on how best to bear the indignities of womanhood. My own questions—about what to do with a life, once the surreal part is over—linger in the silence of what remains unsaid. I used to think that I would stay living abroad forever. I used to wish that Catherine Deneuve could stay young forever. But ultimately, everything I once believed to be certain has been exposed as just a dream.
Rachel Veroff is a writer from New Mexico now living in New York. Her essays and journalism have appeared in Guernica, The Huffington Post, Mask Magazine, The Tulane Review and Opium Magazine. She is working on a novel.