Catherine Deneuve, the great lady of French cinema

This film, yet so beautiful, so important to me, will become an unhappy memory, and I won’t be able to watch it again for years.

Catherine Deneuve, in “Elle” in 2002

If Catherine Deneuve has always said that she started the cinema a little by chance, her sister Françoise Dorléac, she has never hidden her ambitions as an actress. In 1966 in L’Express, the 24-year-old explained: “You understand, I want to be a star. Don’t laugh, I want to be a star, I want the top or nothing. It will never be high enough for my taste. I am unsatisfied by nature, when I have reached what at the moment I imagine to be the top, I will find that it is still very low.”

It was she who had convinced Catherine, then aged 16, to play the role of her sister in “Les Portes Clament” by Michel Fermaud and Jacques Poitrenaud in 1960. In order not to overshadow this sister with ambitions larger than hers, Catherine had also decided very quickly in her career to take Deneuve, the surname of their mother, as her stage name.

When “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” triumphed at Cannes in 1964, Catherine Deneuve was torn between the success of the film and the disappointment of her sister, also on the Croisette to defend “The Soft Skin”. A feature film by Truffaut which would also compete for the Palme, but which was very poorly received by critics.

And even if Françoise collects the triumph of her youngest, the two sisters decide never to turn together again, in order to avoid being put in competition by the media and the critics. A promise that they will not keep when they are offered in 1966 to play twin sisters in the musical comedy by Jacques Demy, associated once again with the composer Michel Legrand.

“Les demoiselles de Rochefort” features Delphine and Solange, 25-year-old twins. The first gives dance lessons, the second music theory lessons. They live off music and dream of meeting true love. As for “The umbrellas of Cherbourg”, the voices of the actresses are here dubbed.

>> To see: the trailer for the film “Les demoiselles de Rochefort” by Jacques Demy

To prepare for their roles, the two sisters go to London, take dance lessons and practice putting the lyrics in playback on the songs already recorded. Moments that rekindle their bond. “I have extraordinary memories of this shoot, especially because of Françoise (…) Demy’s film allowed us to reunite. In addition, as we are twins in the film, this relationship helped to immerse us in the atmosphere of our adolescence”, Catherine Deneuve wrote in 1996 in her book “She was called Françoise…”.

A carefree and light film, a tribute to the American musical, “Les demoiselles de Rochefort” was released in March 1967 and became an international success thanks to the English dubbing.

On June 26 of that same year, Françoise Dorléac must go to London for the screening of the film. As she drives way too fast towards Nice airport, her car veers off the road and catches fire. The 25-year-old dies in the accident.

Catherine is devastated by the loss of her sister. During the years that followed, she chained projects that did not mark her filmography, but which prevented her from sinking. The actress will take a long time before she can even talk about her beloved sister in public.

At the time of Françoise’s death, Catherine Deneuve had been married since 1965 to the English photographer David Bailey. The couple is established in London, but little by little, the actress and her husband move away. At the end of this year 1967, Catherine Deneuve decides to stay permanently in Paris and leaves her husband. The divorce will be pronounced in 1972.

Actress Catherine Deneuve and her husband, British photographer David Bailey. [AFP]

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Catherine Deneuve, the great lady of French cinema