Catherine Deneuve likes to poke fun at herself in François Ozon movies. In a way, it's her way of sticking up two fingers to anyone, and there have been many, who have accused her of being aloof, cold, melancholic and serious over the years. Affirmation of the friendly side of the French icon also comes when I meet her. She is promoting her turn as a trophy-wife-turned-politician in Potiche, and she answers questions without missing a beat, although the constant smoke coming from her cigarette suggests she's not all too comfortable talking freely about her life and work.
Ozon, as charming a man as you can hope to meet, seems to have tapped into Deneuve's playful subconscious. In 8 Women she fought with and then kissed Fanny Ardent. They were famously both lovers of François Truffaut. The triangle was established in Truffaut's penultimate film, La femme d'à Côté (1981). Inspired by Deneuve, Ardant played the lead and, after the shoot, and replaced Deneuve in the director's bedroom, so it was magnanimous of Deneuve to so publicly show she bore no lasting grudges. Gérard Depardieu played Truffaut's alter-ego on screen, which also ensures Potiche has a link with Truffaut
"Potiche" means "trophy wife", but Ozon's new film could just as easily have been called "Pastiche". It opens with Deneuve running through a wood, winking at squirrels, wearing curlers in her hair, and a red tracksuit that looks like it's been borrowed from Liverpool's club shop. The costume and image is so memorable that it's no surprise that it has been used for the poster promoting the movie.
"I love the red tracksuit, it's my favourite costume from the film," says Deneuve, who, when I meet her, looks elegant as ever in a formal dress. She still looks magnificent and it's hard to believe that she will be 67 on October 22. The French icon remains one of the few stars who can still claim to have that movie star aura that ensures they fill a room because they are in it.
Set in 1977, the movie gives Deneuve the chance to wear lots of great costumes. As her social status changes so do her clothes. Playing Suzanne, she starts off as a submissive wife who watches on as her husband openly flirts with other women. He is the patron of an umbrella factory that once belonged to Suzanne's father.
Deneuve says that it's not often she gets offered such broad comedy, which is why the parts Ozon suggests always appeal, and adds: "I like very much to play that kind of character in a comedy, I think it was very funny, but it had nothing to do with me in reality. I cannot imagine being talked to like that by a man, without saying goodbye and slapping his face with the door."
The message that Deneuve doesn't suffer fools, especially if they are men, is loud and clear. For an actress who is supposedly famous for living her life in private she's made a remarkable amount of headlines in the gossip columns. As with the character in Potiche, the men in her life have affected her career choices. The great influences on her early professional career were director Roger Vadim, which whom she had a son, Christian, when she was 19, and Truffaut. She has a daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, with the great Italian acting maestro Marcello Mastroianni, whom she dated after her marriage to photographer David Bailey. She and Bailey met at a photo-shoot for Playboy in 1965, married a fortnight later and divorced in 1972. When she tried to forge a career for herself in Hollywood in the mid-1970s her Hustle co-star Burt Reynolds was enamoured by her. She also dated Canal+ tycoon Pierre Lescure in the 1990s.
So I ask her how many times she's had to slap a door in a man's face. She replies: "None. That's because nobody has dared talk to me like my character is talked to in the film. I couldn't be with a man who spoke to me like that; we wouldn't be in the same room."
Someone she does have a lot of time for is Gérard Depardieu. He plays a former lover, communist and trade unionist in the film, who helps her deal with the upset workers in the factory. She also says that both French superstars like to work in the same way, "We are both more instinctive actors. We like to arrive on set and work out what to do in the moment rather than rehearse beforehand."
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Ozon has added a whole new act in which Suzanne runs for office in the story, which is loosely based on a play by Barillet and Grédy. Despite the feminist bent that this is given on screen, Deneuve doesn't think that women being in political power would necessarily make for a better world. "I don't see why it would be better. I think it would be better if there were more women in social life with bigger responsibility because it's still not very fair the amount of women in public life."
She avoided the temptation to base her character on Margaret Thatcher: "She was hard. I thought my character was a kind woman and a nice woman, whereas Thatcher was an iron lady so it was not really pertinent."
Deneuve claims she has recently decided to reduce the number of films that she has agreed to do, because she now finds happiness working on the large garden of her house in the outskirts of Paris, and spending time with her five grandchildren. The oldest is 20 and the youngest five months.
But soon she will be seen in two other movies, including the fantastic documentary on Yves Saint-Laurent called L'Amour Fou, by his former partner Pierre Thoretton. Laurent designed many of the costumes that Deneuve wore in her most iconic roles, and she says of the fashion designer: "It's very difficult to say what happens when someone you have known for 30 years disappears. It's still very strange, always very awkward and still something unreal but you have to carry on. It's not that he was part of me, it was that I knew him for such a long time, and anyway, when someone dies it's something so abstract in a way but it's part of life."
She is also in The Big Picture, a French adaptation of a Douglas Kennedy novel that sees the action moved from the United States to Europe, including some scenes in London. She doesn't really consider this a movie role because it's a cameo. "I met the director Eric Lartigau, and I liked him very much, because if it had only been for the script then it was not something I would necessarily have done. I also liked the idea that it had been written for a man, because in the book it had been written for a man and now I was playing the part."
It seems she has now realised that being aloof is nowhere near as much fun as defying expectations.
'Potiche' opens in the UK in the new year
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