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All Hail the Ice Queen: Catherine Deneuve at 65

Can it be true? Is Catherine Deneuve, who, along with cheese and the Statue of Liberty, is one of France’s greatest gifts to the world, actually turning 65? In more than 100 movies spanning 50 years, she’s seen it all, done it all, and has looked gorgeous the entire time. On this anniversaire important, let’s honor Madame with a look back at some of her best and most interesting work. Why not rent a few of the films you haven’t seen? A little wine, a little cheese, a little Deneuve… sounds like a great way to spend a weekend.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Beautiful young Geneviève runs an umbrella shop with her mother in Cherbourg and falls madly in love with mechanic Guy, an unsuitable match because he’s working-class and hasn’t yet done his military service. She gets pregnant before he ships out, but by the time he returns, she has dumped him for a prosperous older businessman. And by the way, all this is sung like an operetta. You’ve never seen anything quite like it, and the 20-year old Catherine is radiant.

Deneuve is less radiant as Carol, a Belgian working in London as a manicurist and living with her sister. Sadly, Carol is sort of nuts, and left alone in the dank apartment to ruminate on life and men, she starts to go completely crazy, and with Roman Polanski in the director’s chair, crazy can get pretty crazy.

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort
A second Jacques Demy confection following Cherbourg, it’s another megadose of colorful singing and dancing in the streets, with Deneuve’s real-life sister co-starring as her fictional sister. Even Gene Kelly puts in an appearance. The little love stories throughout are incidental. Just keep your eye on Deneuve and the décor.

Belle De Jour
How about something completely different? Here’s Deneuve as a masochistic hooker. Severine is comfortably married to a surgeon, but his clinical lovemaking leaves her cold, and she ventures out in search of action, finding it in an upscale cathouse across town where the more abusive the clientele are, the more she likes it. You’ll never look at a buggy whip the same way again. Working only the afternoon shift, she earns the nickname of Belle De Jour.

Mississippi Mermaid
In this strange melodrama directed by Francois Truffaut, Jean Paul Belmondo plays a Reunion Island resident who orders a mail order bride, but when Julie (Deneuve) arrives, she doesn’t look like her picture, not that any sane man would complain. Still, something isn’t right, and when he finds her missing and his bank account cleared out, he chases her halfway around the world to the French Riviera, where Julie has become Marion. Call it French-flavored Hitchcock.

The Last Metro
In Nazi-occupied Paris, Marion tries to keep her Jewish husband’s theater afloat while he disappears to save his own life. Enjoy the suspense and the atmosphere, and enjoy Deneuve. Edging toward 40, she looks as good as ever.

The Hunger
Deneuve. Sarandon. Bowie. Sex. Vampires. What else is there to say?

Scene of the Crime
The real star of this tense drama is a 13-year-old boy who has the bad luck to run into an escaped convict who demands the boy find him money… or else. The delivery of the cash goes badly, and soon the French woods are full of dangerous criminals and all sorts of craziness. Deneuve plays the boy’s mother, who is dealing with separation from her husband while planning her son’s first communion. Pushed to the breaking point when danger arrives at her door, she makes some surprising decisions. It’s slick stuff.

Deneuve is positively regal as the proprietress of a plantation in French Indochina who presides over its collapse as the final years of Vietnamese colonialization wind down. It’s all atmosphere: palm fronds, mosquito nets, teak furniture, and silk gowns. Throw in a love triangle that pits mother against daughter, and you’ve got quite a film. Roger Ebert says it best. ‘Through this film, Deneuve drifts like an angel. She is as beautiful as ever, in the role of a lifetime — she spans decades, yet never ages.’

This grim drama gives us the gracefully aging and terribly dignified Deneuve as a French/Russian émigré lured back to Russia with her husband and family by Stalin in 1946 only to face a sort of house arrest since old Joe didn’t take kindly to those who abandoned ship during the war. (Most who came back were executed.) Sent to Kiev, the family suffers for years and constantly looks for a way out of their predicament.

Dancer in the Dark
Like Las Vegas, this Lars von Trier epic should be seen by everyone once and by no one twice. The unspeakably tragic downfall of Selma (Bjork) is almost unbearable to watch, especially when she breaks out in weirdly happy musical numbers, sometimes accompanied by her best friend, played by Deneuve. (Her first musical in 33 years!) Kudos all around to a cast that needed plenty of courage to endure von Trier’s sadism.

8 Women
The patriarch of a large French family has been murdered, and one of the eight women in his home must be the murderess, but which one? This farce, set in the ’50s, feels more like a door-slamming screwball stage comedy than a film, but that makes it all the more fun. Watch as Deneuve tries to maintain her dignity as chaos erupts all around here. It’s a feast of feminine fun.

Make sure you get the French version of this innovative animated film about an Iranian girl’s coming of age during the Islamic revolution. Deneuve plays the girl’s mother, who urges her to leave Iran to study abroad. Even though you don’t see Deneuve, you’ll recognize her voice right away. It’s a fascinating film, and you’ll soon forget you’re watching a cartoon.

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