Catherine Deneuve is promoting a movie she says you won't want to see. Why? Because "The Young Girls of Rochefort" is a musical. Made 31 years ago. In French. With English subtitles.
"Musicals are from a different period of time," she explains over coffee at a Manhattan restaurant. "People say they are interested in musicals, that they would like it. But I don't think they will go see it."What's more, her singing was dubbed, and Deneuve volunteers that lip-synching all the musical numbers as impeccably as she does was very painstaking.
"It was like an opera. Nobody was used to working like that. Everyone thinks it was crazy to do a musical," she says, referring to the mood of the late 1960s, when both the United States and France were in social turmoil.
The film is the late director Jacques Demy's testimonial to the splashy Hollywood musicals of yesteryear, so much so that he managed to land Gene Kelly in a supporting role. The film recently opened in New York and Los Angeles and is slowly moving around the country.
Deneuve says Demy was very single-minded about the film. "We shot in the streets with normal people, normal houses. (Musicals) are so not our culture."
Another interesting aspect of the film is that it also stars Deneuve's sister, Francoise Dorleac, who was 27 when she was killed in a car crash shortly after the film's completion.
"She used to say that the two of us together would make one complete woman," Deneuve remembers of her sister, older by two years. "Because we were so different. She was energetic, and I was more reserved.
"There is a film where I can see her because it is a real comedy,`The Man From Rio.' I like to see pieces because I like to hear her voice. The voice gives so much presence to a face. But I don't like so much to see the films. It's quite emotional, quite melancholic. I did a special on her last year for (French) television. So I had to look at a lot of material on her. And actually I was able to do more than what I thought I could."
At 55, Deneuve is striking even without much makeup. Dressed in a black tank dress, a silver cross dangling from her necklace, her blond hair is swept back on top and then falls casually to her shoulders.
Drinking muddy coffee and puffing on a white cigarette as long and thin as a cocktail straw, she radiates an earthy elegance and gives the impression of not really caring much about her looks or anyone else's. It seems fitting that "The Girl From Ipanema" is playing on the restaurant's sound system.
While friendly, she is not necessarily quick to smile, though mention of France's recent World Cup victory perks her up.
"I was in the stadium," Deneuve says of the soccer final, her eyes shining. "When they won I was happy, not for patriotism but just because it was a nice feeling in the country."
In "Rochefort," she also doesn't display the exuberance associated with big-screen musical performances. Instead, as Delphine, a small-town girl searching for true love, Deneuve exudes the same aloof, mysterious aura critics have long assigned to her screen performances, most notably "Repulsion," "Belle de Jour," "The Hunger" and "Indochine," for which she received an Academy Award nomination for best actress.
"The Young Girls of Rochefort" was shot on location in the summer of 1966 in the seaside town of Roche-fort, France. It was restored in 1992 by Demy's widow, Agnes Varda, and is a companion piece to his musical, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," also starring Deneuve.
The songs in "Rochefort" are so lighthearted that the couplets are discernible even to those who don't speak French. That aspect, combined with sunbaked outdoor scenes and wardrobes etched in pink and blue pastels, makes the movie a timeless celluloid swirl of cotton candy.
Besides Kelly, American audiences will recognize Etienne, played by George Chakiris, who won an Oscar for his performance in "West Side Story."
Deneuve says she isn't sure why she was awarded the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year for her life's work.
"There is always something solemn, ceremonial about such things," she reasons, suggesting that such an honor may have come too soon. "It's like you are done with it, you know?"
When asked how she might like to be remembered, Deneuve turns away from a photographer who is taking her portrait. Still seated, she throws her arms open and with a warm, engagingly mischievous smile, practically shouts, "Like an aloof icon!"