ARTS / Show People: The fire beneath the ice: 34. Catherine Deneuve

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DURING the New Wave the dominant image of womanhood in French cinema changed from sex kitten to ice maiden; from Brigitte Bardot to Catherine Deneuve, both protegees of the canny Roger Vadim. Bardot's appeal had been her promise of availability; Deneuve's was a challenge, an aristocratic perfection that invited you to discover its flaw.

Even in comedy, Deneuve played with an aloofness that seemed to leave her untouched by the most frantic action: in Jean-Paul Rappeneau's La Vie de Chateau, where Resistance hero and German officer forget the Normandy landings for a personal duel over her, she seems merely irritated by their attentions.

The directors who have brought the best out of her are those who managed to suggest the fire under the ice. In Repulsion, Polanski did it by exploiting her frigidity, showing her driven mad by an obsessive wish to be left alone - the desire neither to feel desire nor to feel desired. In Belle de Jour (1967) Bunuel attacked her hidden sexuality head-on, casting her as the upper-middle-class wife of a surgeon, bored, sexually unfulfilled, who spends two hours a day working in a brothel. Joseph Kessel's Twenties novel was a morality tale about the division between mind and senses; Bunuel made it far more disturbingly erotic, leaving us uncertain about her motives and suggesting the pleasure she derives from her humiliations, like all erotic pleasure, is ultimately incommunicable. When it came to Britain, Dilys Powell wrote that Deneuve managed to look 'both chilly and subterraneously debauched'.

Her aloofness is her own; she was hardly born to 'la vie de chateau'. The daughter of an actor, Maurice Dorleac, who made a living dubbing foreign films, Deneuve began acting while still at school, following her elder sister Francoise into films where they were frequently cast as siblings: the pairing intensified the rivalry between the vivacious Francoise and her chilly sister, who wanted a career of her own. In the early Sixties she met Roger Vadim, who anticipated Bunuel by making her Justine in an update of Sade, Le Vice et la Vertu (1963). In that year, she also had his baby, but refused to become the next Mme Vadim.

Her big break came thanks to Jacques Demy, who had long marked her down as the lead in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1965), the story of a girl whose boyfriend is called up to fight in Algeria and leaves her pregnant. She opts for security, and marries the man who can provide it. All the film's dialogue was sung, distancing the events and endowing an everyday tale with an aura of romanticism, which benefitted Deneuve. She still seemed remote and melancholy, but less cold.

From then on, she was everywhere, an icon of Sixties glamour. In Michel Deville's Benjamin, she achieved huge popularity, losing her virginity in an 18th- century chateau to the music of Boccherini, Mozart and Rameau. She married the photographer David Bailey in 1965, and made excursions to Italy and America, co-starring with Jack Lemmon (April Fools) and Omar Sharif (Mayerling), who accused her of playing at being Garbo.

She made it up with Francoise and they co-starred in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, Demy's much less successful sequel to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, made shortly before Francoise's death in a car crash. In gratitude to Demy, she put her own money into his next failure, Peau d'ane, a fairy story adapted from Perrault. Demy wanted her with Depardieu for Une Chambre en Ville, but would not let her sing the role herself. They parted coolly, with none of the fuss that one associates with a show-business bust-up: 'I was sorry for many reasons,' Demy said. 'Firstly, because it was the end of a friendship.' And secondly: who knows?

In the early Seventies, she had a daughter by Marcello Mastroianni, a frequent co-star. She remained - and, at nearly 50, remains - as beautiful as ever, and just as remote. An attempt to rekindle the erotic fire, by making her a vampire in Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983), failed because of a ludicrous script.

Somehow, Deneuve survived poor films and graduated from enigmatic eroticism to genuine glamour. She deservedly won a Cesar in 1980 for her part in Francois Truffaut's Le Dernier Metro. But has seldom given the impression of being a particularly intelligent actress, certainly not to the point where she could understand, and exploit, her own strengths.

She is currently to be seen in the colonialist epic, Indochine - admirably preserved, or self-preserved, though without the familiar mass of blonde hair. Like Bardot before her, she became the face of France, or at least the head on its coins; that iconic status is preserved in the commercials she has made for her friend Yves Saint-Laurent. Polanski and Bunuel may have stirred the fire, but no one has discovered the flaw.

'Belle de Jour' (18) is at the Everyman (071-435 1525) and the Swiss Centre (071- 439 4470) from 17 July, and the Edinburgh Film House (031-228 2688) from 24 July.