French actress Catherine Deneuve first captured the public's imagination in the early 1960s — and she's held it for more than 50 years. Her iconic early movies, such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, were coupled with modeling campaigns that cemented her as the latest, greatest sex symbol. For many, she immediately became the epitome of French cool. Yet there was always much more to Deneuve than her looks: an Oscar nomination, 14 César Awards nominations, and a wealth of high-profile collaborations prove that. So, as the “French Jayne Mansfield” just collected a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award from the Venice Film Festival, now is the perfect time to revisit her sparkling life.
It seems evident from this simple photograph — just a young Catherine Deneuve sitting on the edge of a swimming pool — that she was destined to be a star. But even though she was born into a family of actors, she had little ambition for the spotlight. "I didn't think acting was for me because I didn't know what I wanted to do," she told The Los Angeles Times in 1992.
"My sister [Françoise Dorléac] was older, and she was an actress, but I was much more [into] dreaming about things," she explained. In fact, Deneuve only started acting, at age 13, because she got a small part in one of her sister's films.
But when Deneuve did become a star of the cinema screen, audiences fell in love with the actor — and began to obsess over her personal life. Deneuve has been pretty tight-lipped about her relationship over the years, though. In 2013 she told The Sydney Morning Herald, "I never discuss my private affairs — never." She even kept quiet when, in 2020, a book claimed that she had enjoyed a 50-year affair with the "French Elvis," Johnny Hallyday.
The pair met on the set of the 1961 film Les Parisiennes and reportedly carried on an affair throughout much of their lives. "To escape [the paparazzi], she would hide between seats or in the [trunks] of his cars," biographer Gilles Lhote told Le Parisien.
At the time Deneuve met Hallyday, she was already in a relationship with the movie director Roger Vadim. Deneuve was just 17 years old when she met the 30-something Vadim, but the pair seemingly immediately hit it off. "We fell in love in an evening," Vadim later claimed. Certainly, Deneuve started to live and work with the director — and they even had a son together. Yet the actor refused to ever marry her lover.
"Even though I was very shy, there were things that I just didn't want to go through," Deneuve explained to The Los Angeles Times. She did agree to appear in two of Vadim's films — including her breakthrough in 1963's Vice and Virtue.
By this time, Deneuve had started using her mother's maiden name for her professional name. Her real name is Catherine Dorléac. "It was impossible for me to have the same name as my sister Françoise," Deneuve told Film Comment in 2012. "Or at least, that’s what my family said at the time. Françoise had studied at the Conservatoire, she worked in theater. And me, I wasn’t even sure that I’d continue acting."
"For that first film, my parents suggested my mother’s name," Deneuve continued. "If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t make that decision! I love my mother dearly, but I don’t like her maiden name. It’s hard to pronounce. I prefer my real name."
The name change didn't hurt her career, of course. And neither did the decision to dye her hair blonde. That's right: Deneuve's natural hair color is brunette, even though the world knows her as a blonde. But the actor claims that the choice of hair color was a tribute to her favorite star, Marilyn Monroe. She told Film Comment that the dye job was "a gesture of love" for Marilyn.
In fact, Deneuve revealed that Marilyn was the only actor who ever "had a hold on" her. Yet despite the new hair, it would still be a few years before she became known as the "ice maiden" of cinema.
Her career had to wait, in part, because she had a baby. Christian Vadim was born in the summer of 1963. At that time, Deneuve had already accepted a part in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for director Jacques Demy. The film was to play an important role in her personal and professional outlook. "That’s when I realized that cinema could be something else," she told Film Comment, "when I started a [professional] relationship with someone who really wanted me, for this particular film."
But the shooting of the movie had to be delayed because Deneuve fell pregnant. She didn't postpone it for long, though: she was on set just two months after Christian's birth.
"For me, something truly shifted when I worked with Jacques [Demy]," Deneuve told Film Comment about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. "Something profound happened around the relationship you can have with a film." And the critics seemed to agree. The 1964 movie musical won the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes and was nominated for five Oscars. Its impact on cinema is still being felt today — director Damian Chazelle cited it as a major influence on La La Land.
The movie also confirmed Deneuve's desire to continue being an actor. "After that, I knew I wanted to do that," she told The Sydney Morning Herald, "and I was lucky because at that time I worked with very important directors."
One of these "very important directors" was Roman Polanski. This, incidentally, was long before the director fled the U.S. to avoid a jail sentence. The movie Repulsion marked the first time Deneuve made a film in English — and it became the first time people began to view her as the "ice maiden." Repulsion is about a gorgeous but unknowable woman slowly going insane in London and that idea of Deneuve — gorgeous but unknowable — seemed to stick.
Critics leaned into this image, too. Manny Farber labeled the actor "Catherine Deadnerve," and the famed critic Pauline Kael wrote, "Deneuve, with her icy yet mysterious perfection, is the French Grace Kelly."
Not that Deneuve seems to mind how people think of her. "As a typical Frenchwoman!" she laughed to The Guardian in 2012. "Such a beautiful woman, you know! I don't know... that's how people see me, but I'm not sure they see me on films now, it's still like Belle de Jour, Umbrellas of Cherbourg — an image. But I don't mind. It's also a real image, I've done those films."
And it was while making Repulsion that Deneuve met the only person she would eventually marry. Polanski introduced her to the photographer David Bailey — and convinced her to appear in Playboy.
"Catherine and I just hit it off," Bailey told The Independent in 2010. Although Bailey claimed that he didn't seduce her during the Playboy shoot, as some have said, the pair didn't waste time hooking up. They got married in late 1965, only five months after the release of Repulsion. But it wasn't a marriage that was destined to last. The couple separated after three years and officially divorced in 1972.
"It wasn't sad," Bailey told The Guardian in 2019 about his divorce. "We just drifted apart. She was in Paris, I was in London. She phoned me once and said, ‘Oh, Bailey, it’s great... We got divorced today... it means now we can be lovers.'"
On the career front, Jacques Demy and Deneuve re-teamed again for the 1967 musical The Young Girls of Rochefort. This film perhaps doesn't enjoy as high a profile as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but it's arguably now more revered than its predecessor. In 2022, for instance, critics across the globe voted it as the 185th-best movie of all time for the famous Sight and Sound poll.
It may be a very sentimental film for Deneuve, too. Rochefort is the only movie in which she starred with her sister Françoise Dorléac — who died in a car crash aged 25.
Amazingly, Deneuve was still only in her early 20s when she filmed The Young Girls of Rochefort. "I was already having a very grown-up life for my age," she told the New York Post in 1997. "I was working a lot. I had my son by Roger Vadim too. When you look back, those days were historical, but when you're living in it, it's nothing but work and trips."
Deneuve only began to speak about Rochefort again for a documentary almost 30 years after the movie's release. "It was quite painful for me to do the interviews..." Deneuve said. "But I was pleased to see [Françoise] coming to life again."
"I was attracted to Bailey," Deneuve said in Bailey's autobiography, Look Again. "To me, he was not like an Englishman in the way he talked and moved and the way he did things — he was always very passionate and enthusiastic." Yet, apparently, when she moved in with Bailey, she had to share his home with 60 parrots. "They were the residents,” said Deneuve. "I was definitely the guest…"
"It was not a very long marriage, but it was a very nice relationship," she said. "Nothing was complicated.” And besides anything else, Bailey did introduce her to the fashion of Yves Saint Laurent.
Outside conquering the world of film, Deneuve is perhaps just as famous for her long-standing collaboration with Yves Saint Laurent. "We created a very special relationship," Deneuve told The Guardian in 2009. "He was very light, he had a great sense of humor, a very talented, very shy person." The collaboration began in 1966 — when Laurent dressed her for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II.
"It was a dress from the Russian Collection, a long, simple white dress with red embroidery," Deneuve explained, "... and after that, I asked him if he would dress me for Belle de Jour."
If there's one film that you could call the quintessential Catherine Deneuve film it would be Belle de Jour. "I prefer to be associated with Belle de Jour than a lot of other things, frankly," she told The Guardian in 2009. "I think it's a great film. I was very lucky to do films like that, and like Umbrellas of Cherbourg, at a young age."
"I think it was great luck for an actor to be involved with very important directors young," she continued, "because it gives you another view of cinema." Belle de Jour also solidified her "ice maiden" persona.
"It's not what [movie directors] taught me," Deneuve told The Guardian, "It's what I learned through the making of the film. It's like being with intelligent people — it's very difficult to say or to know what you've learned because sometimes you learn without them trying to say anything. I suppose you always read things differently, you see things differently, when you've done films like that."
But Deneuve thought Manon 70 — pictured here — was "not a great success." She accepted part of the responsibility for this but also claimed it was "probably because the director was not in his best shape."
She had a similar feeling about the movie Mayerling from 1968. The movie did well at the box office, but Deneuve wasn't entirely convinced of its value. "I agreed to do Mayerling, which I found to be a great and beautiful romantic love story," she told Cinema in 1969. "That said, the movie isn't quite what it should have been, and that's not something I'm particularly proud of."
Deneuve did confess, however, that she had no regrets about making the movie. "I think it's very important to make an English-language film every once in a while," she said.
It was back to France for her next 1968 film, La Chamade. And Deneuve once again teamed up with designer Yves Saint Laurent for this sumptuous adaptation of a Françoise Sagan novel. Some of the dresses and costumes from this collaboration may have been among the YSL items Deneuve sold at auction in 2019. "These are the clothes of such a talented man who only designed clothes to beautify women," she said.
"His consummate gravitas during the fittings, together with his shy charm outside the atelier, made all the years we shared together so enchanting," she recalled. "Our silent complicity, our crazy laughter, and our melancholy brought us together."
In late 1970, Deneuve met another man that would be important in her life: Marcello Mastroianni. She had separated from Bailey by then, and both she and Mastroianni had been cast in the film Ca n'arrive qu'aux autres. "The film finished, Marcello remained in my life," the actor told The Illustrated Evening in 1976. Indeed, the pair had a daughter, Chiara, together and remained close for years.
The relationship didn't last, however, and seemingly changed after Deneuve gave birth to Chiara. "I was no longer in love with my daughter's father enough to continue our existence together," she explained to Paris Match.
In 1977 Deneuve revealed that her split from Mastroianni had a profound effect on her. "When I was living with my daughter's father and we broke up, I was depressed," she told Paris Match. "I felt that was worse than breaking up a ten-year marriage." But whatever was going on in her private life, Deneuve continued to work both in her native France and in Hollywood.
The image here comes from her 1975 film with Burt Reynolds, Hustle. Deneuve has only ever said good things about its director, Robert Aldrich, and Reynolds.
"They warned me about the director [of Hustle, Aldrich], 'He’s a misogynist! He’s very hard on actresses,'" Deneuve told Film Comment. "That was the first time I was on a set where there were two cameras rolling. I said to Aldrich, 'But if this camera position is good for the wide shot, how can it also be good for the close-up?' What he wanted to capture each time was intensity. We got on well."
As for Reynolds, Deneuve told The Guardian in 2005, "Burt Reynolds is an actor I really like very much. He's a wonderful person and I had a very, very good experience."
As well as making films in the U.S., Deneuve made a big splash as the face of Chanel No. 5. Even into the 1990s, Deneuve acknowledged that most Americans knew her from these highly effective ad campaigns. "Yes, 'the image,'" Deneuve told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. "But that is because Americans have not seen me so much in film, they think of me from still pictures in advertisements.”
And many people were still finding her Chanel commercials — now on YouTube — in the 21st Century. "You can see why people today find it so sexy," Deneuve conceded to You in 2012.
It is widely acknowledged that Deneuve spent the best part of the 1980s with Pierre Lescure, the founder of the French TV channel Canal+. At least, it's widely acknowledged by everybody except Deneuve. "I had a real family life with her, family and friends are essential for her," Lescue told Paris Match in 2020. "We are still very close, we talk to each other every day. We spent nine years together, it's a life."
"Anyone who knows Catherine knows that you can't make her say or do just anything," Lescure added. "Have you seen a lot of things about her private life...? She never said anything."
There were also rumors that Deneuve began the 1980s by dating John Travolta. Again, there is no word from the actor on whether or not this is true — but at this point, we wouldn't expect anything else. We do know that this picture of the pair comes from a screening of the movie The Last Metro at the New York Film Festival in 1980. And as Travolta isn't in the film, why else would he be there with the cast and crew?
Deneuve will probably never explain why, but she has been happy to talk about this particular movie. In fact, it seems that The Last Metro proved to be a pivotal picture for Deneuve.
The actor revealed to Premiere magazine in 1986 that she actually considered quitting the business after filming The Last Metro. "I think it was the backlash," she said. "When things go too well, we say to ourselves: "What more can we hope for?". After moments of intense happiness, we have a kind of hollow. Anyway, when we know that things are exceptional, it is obvious that it makes them precious."
Yet when she spoke with You in 2012, Deneuve acknowledged that The Last Metro opened more career doors for her. "After that, I started to get stronger roles," she said.
The "ice maiden" turned 40 in October 1983. "I think the best decade of my life was between 40 and 50," the actor told You. "Forty was the turning point for me as an actress. I remember François Truffaut [director of The Last Metro] saying that he wanted to give me a part that had responsibilities, not just a role of a woman who was the seductress."
These roles included, in 1983, a starring part alongside David Bowie and Susan Sarandon in The Hunger. It was a new kind of film for the star — and she seemingly enjoyed the role of a vampire!
The Hunger gave Deneuve the chance to meet and work with David Bowie. She once made it clear that she didn't take the movie specifically to meet Bowie — "I'm no little girl," she said — but her co-star did seemingly hit it off with another actor in the movie: Susan Sarandon. "[Bowie]’s worth idolizing. He’s extraordinary," Sarandon told The Daily Beast after confessing to an affair with him.
"Bowie’s just a really interesting person, and so bright," she continued. "He’s a talent, and a painter, and… he’s great." Deneuve seemed to agree, too.
This picture from the 1987 Cannes Film Festival typifies the kinds of looks she has displayed at the event over the years. And is still going in the 2020s! She told Femme in 1997 that red was "a perfect color for Cannes." She said, "If there was only one good thing to keep, it would be a red dress to climb the stairs. It's very theatrical, but it takes at least that to face the Cannes stage."
During the 1987 festival, Deneuve really was forced to face a harsh Cannes crowd. The festival-goers seemingly didn't take way to the Palme d'Or winner, and Deneuve had to tell them to settle down.
As the end of the decade approached, Deneuve began to work in more complex movies, such as Hotel America by director André Téchiné. This was the start of a collaboration that last through four movies and 30+ years. Deneuve also branched out with the launch of her own perfume — something she seemingly took very seriously. "I was like a child in front of a magnificent toy," she told Elle in 1989.
"I was filming in Italy at that time, every day I wore one of three possible scents and observed the repercussions on my behavior," she said. "One evening, finally, it was this one. My note to me."
We know, of course, about Deneuve's long-running collaboration with Yves Saint Laurent. But for someone so associated with high fashion, Deneuve has a surprisingly ambivalent attitude toward fashion. "Do I love clothes?" she pondered with You. "Love is maybe too strong a word. I like clothes and when you are an actress you get used to dressing up for events, in costumes in films."
"I worked with Yves Saint Laurent for a long time; I was his friend but never his muse," she said. "I met him in 1966 on Belle de Jour, and it was quite something to be so young and wearing YSL."
It is also quite something to be able to work with your family so much. Deneuve's daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, is an actress as well, and the pair have had an on-screen partnership since the beginning. "My daughter is adorable," Deneueve told You. "We are very close. Some people don’t get on with their daughters and that is very sad. I am so glad and grateful that we have a good relationship. Working with her was wonderful."
The first time mother and daughter starred in a film together was for 1993's My Favorite Season. They've since collaborated on movies such as A Christmas Tale and Beloved.
The on-screen partnership between mother and daughter has proved fruitful from a professional standpoint, too. Their first film together, My Favorite Season, was nominated for seven César Awards after its release. This included a nomination for both Deneuve and Mastroianni. "I did worry that it might be difficult to be in a film with my daughter, Chiara," Deneuve told You later. But she needn't have.
"Once I was on the set and saying the lines, I became the character and it was fine," Deneuve said. Mastroianni has also continued to have a successful career as a working actor.
After My Favorite Season, in 1994, Deneuve took her relationship with Cannes to the next level. She became vice president of the jury, which is in charge of giving out the awards. The French legend later revealed that she'd turned down several offers to be president of the jury — and only relented for two reasons. The first was that this was a vice-president position. And the second? Because the president was Clint Eastwood.
It has since been rumored that Clint and Catherine enjoyed a more intimate relationship away from the famous Croisette. But of course, neither of the stars has spoken about any affair in public.
Deneuve's lack of openness about her private life has hardly impacted her fame, though. She began to finally be recognized stateside when she received an Academy Award nomination for the 1992 film Indochine. It was a big step up for an actress who, up until that point, was best known in France. "There is no such thing as a Hollywood career for a French actress today," Deneuve told the Los Angeles Times at the time.
"You can come here and do films like Juliette Binoche, but you can’t come here and have a career," she added. Still, she did confess to wanting to do more work in America.
Yet she didn't make another English-language movie for the rest of the decade. The first one was Dancer in the Dark — and even that was a drama from a Danish filmmaker about a Czech immigrant. In the meantime, Deneuve continued to ply her trade in her native France. And, of course, to work with her daughter. "I guess if she wasn't my mother I might be scared of working with her," Mastroianni told The Guardian in 2012.
"My real relationship with my mother is so intimate that it never resembles something you put on screen," she added. Mastroianni also called her mom "cautious," "very funny," and "charismatic."
This is clear from her more forthcoming interviews. It seems strange, for instance, that Deneuve was being asked about aging at the beginning of the '90s — when she would have only been turning 50. But it appears that she has always been pragmatic about it. "If I said, ‘No [aging doesn’t bother me],' that would be a lie," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I don’t know any woman who does not care about getting old."
But she did also state, "For actresses like Meryl Streep, it is difficult to get parts and time is harder on a woman here [in America] than in Europe." And perhaps that is partly why Deneuve's continued to work in France.
Yet although she is clearly a legend of cinema, it's only recently that Deneuve has started to receive various lifetime achievement awards. And Deneuve has been quick to downplay their significance. "Tributes, they start at the time when things seem to be slowing down," she told The Independent in 2015. She added, "You have to be careful with what they call 'homage,' 'tribute,' because it becomes something very final."
Don't be expecting a memoir anytime soon, either. "I'm not interested in giving more of myself than I've done. I've no desire to be more public. I'm not interested in talking about the past," she said.
The revered actor did suffer a brief health scare in 2019. She had a "very limited" ischemic stroke while shooting the movie Peaceful — or De son vivant — near Paris. Deneuve had to spend over a month recovering in a hospital and a rest home before she was allowed to return home. But when Peaceful premiered in Cannes in 2021, the actor revealed that she was "feeling fine." Something had changed for the French legend, though.
Deneuve said at Cannes that her experience shooting the film "made [her] look at things in a different way" and "made [her] perception very, very different." But it didn't slow down her astonishing work rate.
Deneuve even lets her presence be felt when she's not showcasing her work on the big screen. At Paris Fashion Week in 2023, for instance, she was photographed repeatedly attending various events. And, fittingly enough, the Yves Saint Laurent show — from designer Anthony Vaccarello — was something of a callback to early '90s Catherine Deneuve style. It was Vaccarello's way of presenting clothes in the spirit of Yves Saint Laurent without copying him.
And if Deneuve doesn't yet want to be seen as approaching the end of her career, she has continued to pick up lifetime achievements awards. The latest came from the Venice Film Festival in 2022.
And even as she prepared to accept her award from Venice, Deneuve was determined to think of the future. "We don’t have time to look backward," she said. "This is our present, and we have to continue to go forward." She added, "Today, the important things are the same: The story I want to tell... the screenplay... the environment we create... the people I will spend time with."
Catherine Deneuve will turn 80 years old in 2023, but she signs no signs of slowing down. She was unveiled as the face of timeless beauty for a Cartier ad campaign in January 2023, and there are at least two more films set for release.