Chris Darke meets a French screen legend and ends up discussing sex, brutal cops, and self mutilation over tea
We sit in a corner of a quiet Knightsbridge hotel, "the most beautiful woman in the world" and I. She asks the waiter for Japanese green leaf tea but makes do with cappuccino. Spooning froth from the cup, she lights an ultra-slim cigarette, looks over tinted tortoise-shell glasses and smiles.

Catherine Deneuve is in black and gold, a midi-length cashmere dress, short sleeves and black fishnet stockings, her hair crests in an upswept swirl of ash-blonde. A feminine uniform of opulent anonymity, hers is the look of a woman accustomed to being escorted by minders on the long walk from hotel lobby to waiting limo, ushered past strangers who realise, too late, that Belle de jour herself just swept by. Questions about her personal life are off-limits but her amorous trajectory is well documented. Seduced at 17 by the Sixties French svengali Roger Vadim, by whom she had a son; a brief marriage to David Bailey and a daughter by Marcello Mastroianni.

So we're here to talk films, specifically her latest, Les Voleurs. It's her fourth with director Andre Techine and in which she plays Marie, a middle-aged philosophy professor caught in a perilous sexual triangle between Juliette (Laurence Cote), a gamine on the wrong side of the law who's also involved with Alex (Daniel Auteuil) a sexually brutal cop.

"He wrote the character for me and we wanted to work together again," Deneuve explains of her ongoing collaboration with Techine. "We have things to do together. I have the impression that I'm not always doing the same character but that he's building up something through me in an approach to a feminine figure.

Les Voleurs is a dark, complex film that combines a crime narrative with a melodrama's concentration on its characters' emotional lives. These lives are as twisted and fragmented as the film's narrative. Alex, a cop from a criminal family, is damaged goods; Juliette is self-mutilating and uncertain to the point of pathology. Only Marie seems to possess a certainty about her that enables her to move with equanimity among cops and criminals alike. This emotional tour de force finds its conviction in a superb script and icily precise direction. Since his 1994 film Les Roseaux Sauvages', Techine has habitually shot his films with two cameras, a procedure that Deneuve is as keen on as she is on his on-set attitude. "A two camera set-up is a great thing for the actors, but very difficult for the cameraman. It means that Andre doesn't have to do close-ups after shooting first takes but because he works like that he does a lot of takes," she explains. "He's a very attentive, aware person. He never speaks loudly, he always comes to speak in your ear. He's very sensitive and he understand well the characters of the actors. He demands a lot and he shoots a lot."

Francois Truffaut once wrote of her screen presence: "Catherine Deneuve is beautiful to the point that a film in which she is the heroine could almost give up telling a story. The cinema-goer finds his happiness simply in watching Catherine, and this repays the price of the ticket."

If Deneuve is cinema's great surviving 'cool blonde', she is so thanks to a willingness to extend herself, to take risks with roles that were calculated to ruffle the surface of her beauty, to complicate and darken the dimensions it gave on to. Her long-standing screen persona has been as the queen of chic sexuality. From Bunuel's Belle de jour (1967) and Truant (1970) through Polanski's Repulsion (1965), she has both courted and become saddled with epithets such as 'the ice queen' and 'the aristocrat of l'amour'. In her youth she was all blondeness and wide-eyed delicate beauty. Unutterably glamorous, in these films she fed herself happily through the mincer of sadistic sexual fantasies to emerge intact, her persona having accrued an extra dimension that hinted at depths of depravity that shaded her cool passivity.

It was these works that took her definitively away from the wholesome jeune fille image that her first breakthrough role gave her, in Jacques Demy's delirious French technicolour musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964). "My meeting with Jacques Demy was very important in my starting out.", she recalls "I don't know whether I would have become an actress without that meeting. Something in my nature was very much against that exhibition you have to make of yourself as a performer."

Where Les Voleurs continues the vein of questing characterisation is in Marie's lesbianism; a woman who's been married and had children, she falls - first with astonishment, then despairingly - for Juliette. Deneuve of course, has been here before. In Tony Scott's meretricious vampire- lovers movie The Hunger (1983), she seduced both a quivering Susan Sarandon and a generation of gay female viewers themselves hungry to identify with Deneuve-as-dyke. But when the star threatened legal action against an American gay publication that took on her name as its masthead without her permission, the amour quickly soured. While Les Voleurs has nothing in common with Scott's tale of the designer-undead, it has a sequence in which Marie and Juliette take a bath together that may restore some of Deneuve's cross-orientation appeal.

Deneuve is in London to inaugurate the French Institute's new cinema, the Cine-Lumiere, and when I ask her what she thinks is the difference between French and American cinema she's thoughtful in her response, but it's clear, where her affinities lie. "The French are very observant about people and their personalities, the way they try to struggle and survive," she explains. "In American film it's more action, in the French cinema ... c'est plus cerebral. The good French films have good scripts, good stories and good characters, not stereotyped characters."

When we talk about the recent American tendency to remake French hits, she gets suddenly animated, and with good reason, it transpires. "Oui [delivered with a tic that's peculiar to French women, the word inhaled like a drag from a cigarette] they were even talking of doing a remake of Belle de jour with Sharon Stone!" she exclaims "I couldn't believe it when I heard that. I thought 'Why do Belle de jour Do another film on the same subject but not a remake. It was supposed to be set in Washington, dealing with politics".

Do you think they'd re-title it Severine in the Oval Office I ask. Her laughter is sudden and explosive in the tranquil hotel tea-room. "Severine under the table..." Modesty prevents her from completing the sentence and she sighs again, then continues, slightly wistfully. "What a shame. Americans dare so much. They're so incredibly genuine about doing things without thinking twice."

Is she offered many American scripts ? "Not interesting ones" she replies evenly, "Otherwise I would make an American film. But the parts I am offered in France are much more interesting."

The future includes a role in Polax the long-awaited new film by Leos Carax. "My part in the Carax [film] is very small, I only shot for a month in a five month schedule. It's a very strange story about incestuous and platonic relationships between a son, his mother, his girlfriend and a girl that he doesn't know is his half-sister. It's very much about identity and what I've seen of it is beautiful. He really is a cineaste." She puts out her cigarette, leans pensively on her fist, then says with another smile "Next, I'm probably going to do a comedy which is an idea I enjoy very much. I don't want to be stable in one category. Settling down is not my thing."

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