There may be no name so immediately synonymous with French cinema as Catherine Deneuve. With a career spanning more than half a century and more than 130 screen credits to her name, Deneuve is a steady fixture in French films and continues working with the world’s finest directors today. A screen icon of the truest sense, Deneuve has long held the reputation of a glacial beauty, projecting the quintessential French chic far beyond her films – even as her performances often undermine her alleged coldness with magnetic charm.

Making her screen debut largely thanks to her sister, actress Françoise Dorléac, the auspicious beginning of Deneuve’s career can be ascribed to a fortunate accident. A handful of small roles were enough to draw the attention of Nouvelle Vague director Jacques Demy, and her first leading role in the 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) features a young Deneuve at her most fragile. Vibrant colours offset the tragic love affair between 16-year old Geneviève (Deneuve) and the good-looking mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Scored by Michel Legrand, the film’s dialog is completely delivered in song, and while Deneuve’s voice is dubbed by Danielle Licari, the sweet innocence of her performance paired with the eye-catching set and wardrobe design made a lasting impression.

The Young Girls of Rochefort

Courtesy of: Madeleine Films

Becoming something of a muse to Demy, Deneuve featured in several more of the director’s films. Unforgettable among these is The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort), scored yet again by Legrand, in which she and her real life sister Dorléac play a pair of twins – one blonde, the other a redhead – singing and dancing cheerfully through the seaside town of Rochefort, as they both look for love in their own right. More lighthearted than Umbrellas, the particular chemistry between the sisters makes The Young Girls so memorable – and heartbreaking considering Dorléac’s shocking death the same year as the film’s release. Both films, however, capture the timeless whimsy of Demy’s work perfectly: keeping a fine balance between heartbreak and happiness, they never fall into the trap of sugar-sweet kitsch.

Rounding out the collaborations with Demy, there are the extraordinary fairy tale adaptation of Donkey’s Skin (Peau d’âne), in which she stars alongside fellow screen legend Delphine Seyrig, and the hilariously enjoyable A Slightly Pregnant Man (L’événement le plus important depuis que l’homme a marché sur la Lune). Demy, however, is only one of the many iconic directors of Deneuve’s illustrious career. Often neglected in her filmography is her turn in one of Agnès Varda’s early narrative features, The Creatures (Les créatures), where she plays a young wife who has lost her voice after a car accident. The mixed reception and middling reviews of the film later led Varda to create the successful art installation My Shack of Failure (Ma Cabane de l’Échec) out of its film stock.

Belle de Jour

Courtesy of: Robert et Raymond Hakim

In 1965, Deneuve mesmerised international audiences in Roman Polanski’s English-speaking release Repulsion. While the director’s highly problematic status as a convicted rapist needs to be taken into consideration when viewing his films today, the performance Deneuve delivers, chronicling a withdrawn woman’s descent into madness, requires a mention in any summary of her career. While one of Deneuve’s most recognized roles, Repulsion is undoubtedly second to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967). Playing a bored housewife who turns to prostitution in the afternoons, the film’s particular style and its immediately recognisable wardrobe, tailor-made by Yves Saint Laurent, has long become a periodic point of reference for fashion. Deneuve’s reputation for her unaffected, yet erotic aloofness may have originated with the role of Séverine – for the Belle de Jour remains seemingly unmoved (and unmovable), even as she pursues increasingly violent sexual fantasies.

Mississippi Mermaid (La sirène du Mississippi), released in 1969 marks the first instance Deneuve worked with François Truffaut, but their second collaboration The Last Metro (Le dernier Métro) is the more notable of the two. Set in the demimonde of Parisian theatre during the German occupation of France, the 1980 film earned twelve César nominations and won ten of these – including Best Actress for Deneuve herself. This was Deneuve’s first win of the French equivalent to the Academy Awards; a second one followed in 1993 for Régis Wagner’s Indochine, which also garnered her a Best Actress Oscar nomination – a rare instance in which a non-English speaking performance was nominated.

The Hunger

Courtesy of: MGM

Deeply ingrained in European auteur cinema, Deneuve’s occasional turns towards Hollywood were, for the most part, less successful. Yet her English-speaking features include both the charming but underseen April Fools, in which she stars alongside screen darling Jack Lemmon, and Tony Scott’s The Hunger. The latter has easily achieved cult status in the decades following its 1983 release, leaving a lasting impression with its Bauhaus soundtrack, stylish design, and Deneuve herself, irresistibly and impeccably cast as an immortal, bisexual vampire who counts both David Bowie and Susan Sarandon among her lovers.

Reaching her 40s in the mid 1980s, Deneuve’s career shows none of the drought many other actresses have so unfortunately experienced around that turning point. Her allure, it seems, transcends even the film industry’s prevalent ageism. While the performances of her younger years are certainly the ones she is most remembered for today, she has still managed to achieve an unparalleled richness of characters and roles in the second half of her professional life. This time marks the beginning of fruitful professional collaboration with director André Téchiné which resulted in six features to date, counting among them My Favorite Season (Ma saison préférée), Thieves (Les voleurs), and Changing Times (Les temps qui changent). In these films, Deneuve’s characters move towards the more ordinary, allowing her a subtler – but no less noteworthy – expression of their emotional turmoil.

8 Women

Courtesy of: BIM Distribuzione

By no means limited to these more sombre projects, Deneuve’s choices continue to ensure variety. The turn of the century brings with it not only her startling, deeply unglamorous turn in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, but also the joyously campy 8 Women (8 femmes). Another instant cult hit, director François Ozon amassed some of France’s biggest names – Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant – to star alongside Deneuve in his closed-circle-of-suspects crime romp. Cleverly making use of his eight actresses, Ozon’s musical mystery surrounding the man of the house’s death is endlessly enjoyable, and features each of the main characters performing a different French chanson to capture their essence. Perhaps the first to deliberately play with Deneuve’s iconic status, Ozon’s 2010 picture Potiche does so even more openly: here, the ageing trophy wife Suzanne (Deneuve) rises to the occasion of running her husband’s (Fabrice Luchini) umbrella factory and does so quite successfully – much to his chagrin.

Potiche, however, seems to mark the starting point of several roles tailored to reference her cinematic career. Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way (Elle s’en va) is another loving homage to Deneuve – a touching road movie following a former beauty queen who, on her way to buy cigarettes, impulsively escapes her dreary existence in order to find her joie de vivre once more. And then there is, of course, this year’s The Truth (La vérité). Hirokazu Kore-eda has crafted a masterful tale surrounding the legacy of Fabienne (Deneuve), a fictional French screen diva from another age. With its central theme of truth and fiction, the film makes use of the rich cinematic (and in parts even personal) history Deneuve brings with her. Not at all the inaccessible ice maiden of her reputation, Deneuve’s willingness to have fun with such a delightfully self-referential role proves once more that she – and her career – stand without comparison. With The Truth‘s slated for release on Curzon Home Video and several films currently in production, we can only hope that she will grace our screens for many more years.