Catherine Deneuve: Tristana | Repulsion | Belle de Jour

Film Actresses & Global Classics


In this series I offer my reflections on actresses and their most compelling performances in (mostly) classics of global cinema.


Catherine Deneuve by Richard Avedon, 1968

Catherine Deneuve by Richard Avedon, 1968


Catherine Deneuve with David Bailey, 1966

Catherine Deneuve, in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) and Tristana (1970), illuminates the screen with her signature ‘presence’ and in so doing, contributes greatly to making these films classics of global cinema. In no other of the dozen or so of her films I’ve seen is her signature so apparent. Why? In this post I will argue that these three films, each in its own way, was the occasion for a synergistic conjunction of woman, actress, screenplay, role and director, and as such generate an energy that makes the films as compelling today as they were at the time of their release.

Susanne Valerie Granzer, in her philosophical reflection on the art of acting (Actors and the Art of Performance: Under Exposure), writes: ‘Acting is sensuous, contradictory, performative and ecstatic. It thus always includes an incalculable, unpredictable moment, an increase of being. The result of a performance is not logical, but ontological. It cannot be summed up with arguments. Its character is more of an erotic nature. Desirable, coupled. Every performance is a copulation, a copula, an amour fou’. She defines ‘the distinctive eros of the actor’ as ‘the demonic, the erotic act of play that couples the canny with the uncanny’.

The actor’s art as demonic and erotic: this vision will inform my reflections on Catherine Deneuve as an actress.

The medium of the actress’ art is herself—her body/voice, her self-experience, the distillates of her encounters with others and the world. How she gives form to feeling is a function of what she’s made of her experiences—sensual and intellectual, emotional and spiritual. What can be said of Catherine Deneuve regarding the relation of woman to actress? I offer first my vision of the woman then, in the discussion of the films to follow, my vision of her relation to the actress.

Catherine Deneuve is not neurotic. She fell into acting by accident, learning her craft through the adventure of filmmaking, and continued only because she enjoyed it. Consequently, unlike so many actresses who seek in their art (unconsciously, of course) a means of self-repair, she is fundamentally a free woman, not driven by any compulsion. This aspect of the woman is one determinant of her screen persona, that ‘presence’ characterized by ironic distance and alert detachment. As she said in an interview (my translation), ‘I have a critical frame of mind, an ironic disposition, because my father raised us that way. He taught us at an early age that it’s important not to yield to admiration, at least not for one’s looks. And he wanted us to always be lucid about people, to see them as they are’. And indeed, every interview Deneuve has given confirms her lucidity and independence, her free-thinking derived from lived experience, influenced neither by formal education nor intellectual fashion.

Catherine Deneuve with David Bailey on their wedding day, London, 1965

Catherine Deneuve with flamingo (detail), David Bailey

Another determinant of Deneuve’s screen persona is, of course, the particular quality of her beauty, that marriage of sculptural elegance and sidereal coldness. But what is Deneuve’s self-experience in this regard? It’s entirely consistent with her freedom and lucidity. See, for example, this interview. Going further, Giorgio Agamben’s remarks on ‘the nihilism of beauty’ (in Nudities) strike me as particularly relevant to Deneuve: ‘The ‘nihilism of beauty’ consists in reducing one’s own beauty to pure appearance and then exhibiting this appearance with a sort of remote sadness, stubbornly denying the idea that beauty can signify something other than itself. But it is precisely the very lack of illusions about itself—this nudity without veils that beauty thus manages to achieve—that furnishes the most frightful attraction.’ Indeed. And Deneuve herself says (in the same interview cited earlier, my translation): ‘The importance of the image frightens me because what people say about me and how I perceive myself are out-of-synch. Right from the time I was very young, the image has always seemed dangerous to me’.

The raw material of Deneuve’s acting, then, her body/voice and life experience, are characterized by freedom, lucidity and the nihilism of beauty. Let’s now take a look at how she transforms that material into three of her greatest roles: Carole Ledoux in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Séverine/Belle de Jour in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) and Tristana in Buñuel’s eponymous film (1970).


Catherine Deneuve as Carole Ledoux & John Fraser as Colin in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion

Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

In Repulsion, Catherine Deneuve plays Carole Ledoux, a young woman terrified of her own desire, unable to integrate her sexuality into her self-experience, let alone into a relationship with a man (or woman, for that matter). Why? We don’t know: Repulsion is a work of art, not a clinical case (Carole is not another Marnie). And it is precisely because we don’t know that Carole’s subjective viewpoint in the film is so effective: Not given any clue (except for a single family photo), we are thrown back upon ourselves; we then sense, somewhere in our buried past, that for us too sex was—at least potentially—a trauma. While none of us, no doubt, could imagine the fear of sex leading us to madness and murder, we can nevertheless feel that Carole is not alien to us. This, then, is the challenge Deneuve faced in playing Carole: to convey the humanity of a ‘psychotic’, to restore the link with us that the ‘schizophrenic’ has ruptured. This she accomplishes brilliantly.

(For those interested, the best discussion of schizophrenia I know of is that of Christopher Bollas in When the Sun Bursts.)

Deneuve was twenty-one when making Repulsion. In the audio commentary to the Criterion DVD of the film, she says: ‘The fact that I was very shy and very young—the age of the character—helped the credibility of the actress. I think in Repulsion I look very romantic and very wild [‘wild’ is her rendering of the French ‘sauvage’, which in this context means ‘introverted’, ‘withdrawn’, ‘shy’] and that is not something Roman could have asked me to play, that is the way I was and the way he used me.’ Polanski, for his part, says: ‘Catherine was somebody I knew in Paris. A very quiet girl, with quite a sense of humour.’ And in one of the interviews he gave upon the release of the film, he said: ‘She looks like a professional virgin, but sexy’. (Note, in passing, that Deneuve gave birth to her son, Christian Vadim, when she was nineteen: still in her teens, she wanted to be a mother.) Both physically and in terms of temperament, then, there were certain points of correspondence between the woman, the actress and the role.

Catherine Deneuve, aged 21, in Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

In another ‘bonus’ on the Criterion DVD, we see Polanski directing Deneuve on set (a French TV station filmed part of a day’s shooting), and the discussion between director and actress concerns how to render Carole’s madness. Here Polanski—a man with cinema flowing through his veins and an accomplished actor to boot—gives Deneuve a vocabulary of gesture, movement and gaze that she would modulate to render the precise degree of Carole’s sexual panic at any given moment in the narrative. Note, in passing, that Carole’s panic is always triggered by something concrete—the sight of a couple on a bridge, the scent of an undershirt, the sound of lovemaking, the touch of a dress—and that only the sense of taste, procured by actively taking something physical into the body (as in sex) is absent from the set of trigger events.

This points us to the question of ‘choice of symptom’ (see my post on ISABELLE ADJANI): Today Carole, rather than ‘choosing’ psychosis or schizophrenia in an attempt at self-cure, would probably choose anorexia (see ANOREXIA in the WORLD OF MARA MARIETTA). Indeed, in contemporary culture, anorexia is often the preferred means to deny the body and refuse sexuality. But to return to the topic at hand: Polanski (in the Criterion DVD commentary) compares working with Deneuve to dancing a tango, with the actress following the director’s lead. Carole’s nervous tics (swiping her nose with her fingers, for example) came out of this ‘tango’, and prompted Polanski to say: ‘Catherine picked things up marvellously, she would suck up any acting proposition like a sponge. She would do it in such a natural way that when looking at it you’re sure that it’s just spontaneous, that she’s not aware of doing it’. To call that talent doesn’t get one very far, for only Deneuve’s availability, a function of her freedom, enabled her to lend herself so fully to Carole’s madness and incarnate it so effectively. ‘It was through those details that Polanski really put me in the scenes’, Deneuve adds. Yes, but once ‘put’ in a scene she had to ‘be’ there in a way that ‘an incalculable, unpredictable moment’ could arise, a moment that would foster ‘an increase of being’. If such moments are plentiful in Repulsion, it is largely because of Deneuve’s ability to so ‘be’.

‘Out, damned spot’: not the guilt of murder, but the scent of sex

Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

When it comes to sex, all of us have experienced longing and frustration, but where along the continuum of love and madness does desire tip into terror? Carole is courted in South Kensington by Colin, a handsome, affable young man with a sports car to boot. But he is not Carole’s type: she is only turned on by ‘masculine’ men, men who don’t wrap sex in love, men like her sister Helen’s married boyfriend, Michael, or better still, the workman in the street who calls out to her: ‘Hello, darling. How about a bit of the other, then?’. Alone in her flat Carole has recurring hallucinations, fantasies in which she imagines the workman raping her, but when Colin tries to steal a kiss she wipes it off her lips and rushes home to brush her teeth (in front of the same mirror where, later, she will dreamily examine Michael’s cut-throat razor).

Every woman has experienced desire for an ‘animalistic’ lover over a ‘civilized’ man (as in Belle de Jour; see also Kim Morgan’s Huffington Post article, ‘Roman Polanski Understands Women: Repulsion’), and this deep-rooted dynamic, usually played out only in fantasy or sex-play, is another connection between Carole’s ‘deranged’ mind and the audience’s ‘normal’ one. As for acting the murder and rape scenes, this is what Deneuve had to say (Criterion commentary): ‘It’s never a job to do a rape scene, because it’s physical, it’s not a difficult thing to do because you have physical contact with someone, you’re not acting anymore… The killing and the physical scenes in the film were not the most difficult part for me. It’s like scenes where you have to shout or you have excessive things to do, in a way it helps you to act because you have to get into it and do it. It’s when it’s very subtle and you have to be really in the mood because you have nothing from outside to help you to go through it and to go to the peak of it, then you have to go down and go deep and take that from within yourself, but when you have to express things, once you are warmed up, and you rehearse and you work, you get into the scene.’ Deneuve’s assertion about acting, then, parallels the music truism that it’s easier to play a bravura piece than to play a slow piece well.

Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve and Ian Hendry, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

‘Schizoids destroy themselves by protecting themselves too much’ (Avodah Offit, The Sexual Self, p. 92): This is an argument one can make about Carole. Deneuve, understanding the multi-dimensionality of the role, said (in the Criterion commentary): ‘Carol finally feels safe in a nest and she’s in those arms where she would have liked to be. She’s not safe for herself but she at least feels protected. That’s the image I have, of Carole being in the arms of her boyfriend. Attraction and repulsion are completely mixed together, but I suppose she has to be in that physical state to accept that she can be in his arms. She has to go through all that, it couldn’t happen another way.’ This is a profound insight, and it testifies to Deneuve’s intelligence and lucidity. It must have helped her trace the arc of Carole’s descent into madness while never losing sight of her humanity. Even if she understood that Carole’s fear of sex is pathological, she suspended that view, as it were, in order to play her as a real woman and not as a ‘case’: ‘I think Carole is a very normal person that you have to identify with. It’s very disturbing, because Carole is not someone so peculiar that you see her as a case, she’s someone you feel very close to’ (Deneuve, Criterion commentary).

Today, Deneuve still speaks very highly of Repulsion and Polanski. As a young actress with no formal training, she learned important elements of her craft from him. Besides specific principles such as the importance of gestural precision, there was the more general principle of surprise. As Polanski put it (Criterion commentary): ‘What makes acting interesting is when the reaction is authentic, real, and yet original, not what you actually anticipate as a reaction. For example, when Helen comes into Carole’s bedroom and reproaches her, usually Carole would turn and answer something or react while looking at Helen, but she reacts here like a child, by just ignoring her question. It makes it more interesting.’ This prompts the question, of course, of the relative weight of the contributions from writer, director and actress. While everyone agrees that it’s the director who calls the shots, the fact remains that it’s the actress who incarnates them: her screen ‘presence’ is vital. And it is in this regard that Deneuve’s ‘nihilism of beauty’ comes into play: By the quality of her ‘presence’, she incarnates in Carole a beauty that  inspires desire and the quest for transcendence, even as it transforms that quest into a desire for transgression. This, I would argue, is a key feature of Deneuve’s singularity, and accounts for much of what makes her great in Repulsion.

Catherine Deneuve and Patrick Wymark, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve: ‘She has to be in that physical state to accept that she can be in his arms’.


Catherine Deneuve and John Fraser, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve and Mike Pratt, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Avodah Offit, The Sexual Self

Criterion Collection DVD, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Christopher Bollas, When the Sun Bursts


Catherine Deneuve, Belle de Jour, Luis Buñuel

Belle de Jour opens with Séverine and Pierre riding through the forest in a horse-drawn carriage. Their dialogue goes like this:

– Shall I tell you a secret, Séverine? Every day I love you more.
– So do I, Pierre. You’re all I have in the world. But…
– But what? I too wish that everything could be perfect. If only you were less cold.
– Don’t mention that anymore, please!
– I didn’t mean to upset you. You know my tenderness for you is immense.
– And what good is your tenderness to me?
– You can really be mean to me when you want to.
– Forgive me, Pierre.

Jean Sorel as Pierre, Catherine Deneuve as Séverine, Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel

Catherine Deneuve, Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel

Pierre then asks the coachmen to stop. He orders Séverine to get out of the carriage. She refuses. He then has the coachmen pull her out and drag her into the forest. Under a tree they bind her wrists, throw the rope over a branch and hoist up her arms. They then proceed to whip her, until Pierre stops the lead coachman and says, ‘She’s yours now’. As the coachman stands behind her and kisses her neck, she looks up in ecstasy.

We then hear Pierre asking, ‘What are you thinking of, Séverine?’ and cut to Pierre putting on his pyjama top in the bathroom mirror while Séverine is seen lying in bed. He turns around and repeats his question directly; she answers, ‘I was thinking about you. About the two of us. We were taking a ride together in the carriage’. He responds: ‘The carriage again?’. The scene concludes with Pierre telling Séverine that, to celebrate their first wedding anniversary, they’re going to a ski resort the next day. He takes a moment of tenderness between them as an opportunity to share her bed; she refuses him and asks for his indulgence: he grants it.

Jean Sorel and Catherine Deneuve, Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel

Catherine Deneuve and Francis Blanche, Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel

Two scenes suffice, then, to make it clear that the heart of the film will be the split in Séverine between love and desire. Her husband, Pierre, will only ever be an object of her love, never of her desire: for that, she will have to look elsewhere. So, while she will never seek to play out her specific fantasies of violation, the cold wife will, after some hesitation, become a hot whore (Belle de Jour): a plain apartment, an accommodating madam, and a clientele with an exotic touch will enable her to attain the elusive realm of the orgasm.

Drama comes in the form of Marcel (Pierre Clementi), a gangster who falls in love with Belle de Jour. If, for Séverine, no-one could ever replace Pierre in her heart, the wilderness of pain in Marcel’s eyes solicits her affection. What really draws her to him, however, is his aura of danger, the ever-present intimation of violence: in bed, the cruelty that shadows his tenderness never fails to take her over the edge.

Catherine Deneuve and Pierre Clementi, Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel

Catherine Deneuve and Jean Sorel, Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel

But, as the saying goes, ‘love spoils everything’: Marcel becomes possessive, wants to spend not only his jours with Belle but also his nuits. She’ll have none of it, of course: Pierre is her one and only, love and desire must remain separate—she can’t imagine sexual satisfaction if the two converge on one man. And so Marcel shoots Pierre, making of him a wheelchair-bound paralytic. And it is now that Séverine’s masochistic fantasies give way to dreamless nights and serene days: paralytic Pierre, incapable of sex, has resolved her struggle between love and desire.

And then Pierre rises miraculously from his wheelchair and asks Séverine what she’s thinking—she replies that she’s thinking of him. The repetition of dialogue from the film’s second scene continues with the couple agreeing to holiday again in the mountains. The porosity between fantasy and reality, it seems, will never be resolved: Séverine, prompted by the same jingling bells that accompanied their initial carriage ride, steps out onto the balcony and sees the horses drawing the carriage through the forest as before. This time, however, the carriage is empty. Has Séverine, then, thanks to her fantasy, been able to both love and desire her husband? Has her enactment of the fantasy of prostitution been effective in her self-cure? Will the soul of dead Marcel somehow lend its virility to Pierre, will he at last know how to ‘take’ Séverine, will he understand that she needs to be ravished in order to enter that realm she so longs for? Questions, questions, questions: Art is always intimate with the erotics of knowledge.

Catherine Deneuve, Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel

Catherine Deneuve, Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel

Now why is Catherine Deneuve so effective as Séverine/Belle de Jour? Again, as in Repulsion, the brilliance of her performance is largely due to the quality of her ‘presence’ and her mastery of subtle movement. To see how this works in Belle de Jour specifically, consider, first, the following observations:

‘If beauty so far removed from the animal is passionately desired, it is because to possess is to sully, to reduce to the animal level. Beauty is desired in order that it may be befouled; not for it’s own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it.’

Georges Bataille, Eroticism

‘To despoil is the essence of eroticism. Humanity implies taboos, and in eroticism they are transgressed, humanity itself is transgressed, profaned and besmirched. The greater the beauty, the more it must be befouled.’

Georges Bataille, Eroticism

‘There is something incorrectly designed and potentially disorienting in human sexual capacity. Man, the sick animal, bears within him an appetite which can drive him mad. Human sexuality is something beyond good and evil, beyond love, beyond sanity; it is a resource for ordeal and for breaking through the limits of consciousness.’

Susan Sontag, ‘The Pornographic Imagination’.

Catherine Deneuve and Pierre Clementi, Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel

Catherine Deneuve, Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel

In Belle de Jour, Deneuve puts her capacity for self-containment, her ability to employ her body as a shield for her interiority, in the service of the mystery of Séverine’s desire. In her key encounters, Séverine’s eyes alone deign to engage while her face flaunts its regal splendour and her body stands aloof. It’s as if she secretes a zone of intimacy around herself, a magnetic field that repels as it attracts. As every woman knows, indifference only intensifies desire, and thus it is that the erotic charge she generates—in her co-characters on the screen and in the film spectators in front of it—springs from their desire to see her beauty befouled. Is that not our secret pleasure in seeing Séverine stripped of her Saint-Laurent suit, of seeing her stockings at her ankles as she’s being dragged along, of seeing her porcelain beauty splattered with mud? Those out of touch with the wellspring of their sexuality may find their pleasure guilty, while more in-touch men and women will thrill to the correspondences between Séverine’s desire and their own.

Deneuve’s natural stance of ironic distance gives her that paradoxically appealing air of detachment, and when the role requires it, she can raise the temperature of her partner/the spectator even as she lowers her own to ice. Personally, I am charmed by her acting, and I think that is due to her ability to assert her subjectivity even as she plays at being an object. In a word, the way she assumes, in Belle de Jour, the nihilism of beauty while pursuing carnal knowledge is nothing short of magnificent.

Catherine Deneuve and Pierre Clementi, Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel

Catherine Deneuve: ‘I think beauty can inhibit a woman’s sexuality. I don’t think it’s necessarily an advantage. A beautiful woman obviously generates a desire, and, feeling desired in someone’s eyes, she can, by reflection, feel desire herself. But that doesn’t solve the problem of her own desire.’ (Interview in L’En-je lacanien, my translation.)

Joseph Kessel, Belle de Jour, Folio

Georges Bataille, Eroticism


Catherine Deneuve as Tristana and Fernando Rey as Don Lope in Luis Buñuel’s Tristana

Catherine Deneuve, baring her breasts off-screen, in Luis Buñuel’s Tristana.

Carlos Fuentes: ‘Sex is very powerful in Buñuel’s films because it is felt rather than seen’.

Carlos Fuentes: Luis, what is your attitude to sex?

Luis Buñuel: Personally, I’m monogamous and discreet. An old man can easily make a fool of himself; like Don Lope in Tristana, I believe in a chaste eroticism. You can attribute that to my Jesuit education. Sexual pleasure for me is directly linked with the idea of sin and only exists in a religious context. The sexual act cannot be reduced to a chapter on hygienics; it is an exciting, dark, sinful, diabolical experience. Sex is a black tarantula and sex without religion is like an egg without salt. In the Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas says that fornication between man and woman, even if they be married, is nevertheless a venial sin. Now, I think that’s a very sexy idea. Sin multiplies the possibilities of desire.

From an article/interview with Buñuel by Carlos Fuentes in The New York Times, 1973.

How does Bunuel’s vision of sex play out in Tristana? A reading of the film as a drama of sexual revenge offers an answer.

What’s the story? It goes like this: Upon the death of her mother (fast upon that of her father), Tristana, not yet twenty, falls under the tutelage of Don Lope, a man in his mid-fifties. In the film’s tripartite structure, we move from Tristana’s relative innocence to her incestuous seduction by Don Lope and then to her revenge for this violation. This primary dramatic arc is overlaid with other lines of development: Tristana’s evolution from quiet individualist to outspoken idealist (in her relationship with Horatio) to embittered cynic; the changes in her psychological state, from contentment to entrapment to rebellion; Don Lope’s trajectory from domestic tyranny to calculated tolerance to suffering resignation; the evolution in Don Lope’s circumstances, from modest poverty to economic misery and finally to wealth. In the reflections that follow I will focus on the intersection of the primary lines—Tristana’s evolution from ingénue to rebel to bitch and Don Lope’s from despot to ‘manager’ to martyr—and, as the understated impetus of all that unfolds, the ‘incest’ at the heart of the film.

Catherine Deneuve, Tristana, Luis Bunuel

Catherine Deneuve and Fernando Rey, Tristana, Luis Bunuel

One’s ‘choice of symptom’, as I’ve implied in my discussion of Repulsion and Belle de Jour, is never innocent. So why does Tristana develop a tumour in a leg that leads to the leg being amputated (just below the knee)? Neither Galdós in his novel nor Bunuel in the film give any clue, but the film’s foregrounding of sexual dynamics justifies, I believe, the following interpretation: Don Lope’s sexual relations with Tristana are a clear case of incest (he is a father-figure to her), and they generate a slow-burning trauma that assumes bodily expression as the tumour in her leg.

Seduced into sleeping with Don Lope, she feels increasing disgust for him as her relationship with her new lover, Horatio, develops. So she runs away with Horatio, in pursuit of a love unconstrained by any institution, be it sanctified tutelage (husband-wife) or merely official (guardian-ward). After the rapture of their early love, she is sorely disappointed to find Horatio intent on following convention. So she runs back to Don Lope, and with the amputation of her leg ensures, firstly, that she will no longer run away from revenging her violation, and secondly, that Don Lope, trapped by his lust and love and sense of duty, will not run away from her. ‘There’ll be no more running’, she seems to have decided: revenge is cruelest in a huit clos.

If Tristana now has something of Lady Macbeth, her rallying cry, as we’ll see two paragraphs down, is not ‘unsex me here’ but ‘sex me here’.

Catherine Deneuve, Tristana, Luis Bunuel

Catherine Deneuve and Fernando Rey, Tristana, Luis Bunuel

‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’ (Congreve, The Mourning Bride): In Tristana, for ‘fury’ read ‘revenge’ and for ‘scorned’ read ‘violated’. In the first two thirds of the film Tristana’s emotions are richly varied: In the bell tower with Saturno she is a winning blend of curiosity and confidence, radiating a red-blooded wholesomeness into which Don Lope’s severed head comes to cast a poison; confessing her ‘dishonour’ to Horatio, she is torn between past shame and future pride; with Saturna, she is conspiratorial and complicit, forthright and assertive. But in the last third of the film, as she exacts her revenge, her contempt is all-consuming: one-legged with Don Lope, she gives full reign to her disdain. On their wedding night, for example, she naturally refuses him her favours, but does so with a cutting put-down: ‘At your age!’.

Something else, however, differentiates the last third of the film from the first two: Tristana, despite her amputation, is confident in her sexuality. Don Lope’s desire for her, if more tender, is nevertheless as fervent after the operation as before, and in Saturno’s masturbation fantasies—for that is all Tristana allows him—she is as fully present as previously. Horatio, however, shows only brotherly concern, and for that she despises him: ‘Don Lope would never have let me go to another man’s house’.

Tristana’s wooden leg strewn with her panties and bra

Catherine Deneuve, Tristana, Luis Bunuel

If Congreve’s line from The Mourning Bride has become proverbial, it is, of course, because scorn—and sexual scorn in particular—is the only weapon a woman can wield when effective power is in the hands of the man (or, in the personal realm, perceived to be so, given the dynamics of the feminine and femininity). Flaunting her sexuality to intensify the sting of her withholding it, then, gives a sharper edge to a woman’s revenge: If, in the first two thirds of the film, Tristana’s face was luminous, in the latter third, shadows of Bunuel’s black tarantula fall upon it: shadows that her make-up only make more ominous.

It is no surprise, then, that Tristana is one of Catherine Deneuve’s favourite roles. She has often said how appealing she found it to play the character’s evolution over time. Indeed, the movement from passive obedience to active rebellion, from wide-eyed wonder to jaded disdain, furnished the actress an opportunity to draw on a broad palette of emotional colours. Her natural economy of gesture and predilection for nuance alternated with her gift for expressing anger and placing the cutting remark. If Deneuve, with her face alone, can launch a thousand ships or sink an entire armada, in Tristana she employs the ‘nihilism of beauty’ rather differently. Indeed, the act of incest, like a slow poison, comes to imprint violence on her face, a violence directed not only against Don Lope, but against everyone who she deems complicit with him. Don Lope, by imposing sexual relations on Tristana, has made her a threefold orphan: already motherless and fatherless, she becomes orphaned of her substitute father.

Catherine Deneuve and Franco Nero, Tristana, Luis Buñuel

Catherine Deneuve, Tristana, Luis Buñuel

The amputation of Tristana’s leg, then, did not entirely remove the poison of incest from her blood: her anger and bitterness act as an antidote to its lingering effects, while her affirmed sexuality serves to reinforce the femininity vampirized by her substitute father. And, in an attempt to rid herself once and for all of the persecuting head in the bell—the image of incest—she hastens the death of the dying Don Lope. All these events, internal and external, Catherine Deneuve is called upon to incarnate, and to that end she makes her deadpan face a mirror of Tristana’s emotions, conveying with equal felicity the power of the repressed and the intensity of release. Her performance in the role is one of her finest; her unique attributes beautifully serve the film.

In this post, then, I hope I’ve shown that beyond her ‘legendary beauty’ and ‘iconic status’, Catherine Deneuve is, quite simply, a great actress.

Catherine Deneuve, Tristana, Luis Buñuel

Catherine Deneuve: ‘What I call private life is simply personal life. For me, life is private. Which doesn’t prevent me from voicing my views on subjects that are considered private. But I have always been fiercely protective of my private life. Today, I have the impression that time has proven me right in that regard. Very few people can imagine, or even believe me when I tell them, that I live so simply. Very simply.’ (Interview in L’En-je lacanien, my translation.)

Luis Bunuel, Tristana, BFI DVD

Benito Pérez Galdós, Tristana

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2018 | All rights reserved