Belle of the Ball

New York

Left: Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, and Susan Sarandon. Right: Glenn Close.

“SHE’S SO PRETTY. SHE’S AMAZING!” the woman sitting to my right announced—to no one in particular—before the lights dimmed in Alice Tully Hall, where Catherine Deneuve was being honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Monday night as the recipient of its annual Chaplin Award. The object of her admiration was unclear; likely it was Deneuve, though I didn’t see the actress anywhere in the auditorium before the event began. Perhaps my seatmate was transported by a particularly soignée look of one of the Film Society’s senescent patrons, who began gathering in the Tully lobby at 6 PM, when the black-tie event—the FSLC’s largest annual fund-raiser—kicked off with cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and a harpist. Those wishing to pay more could partake of the dinner by Daniel Boulud’s Feast & Fetes Catering following the eighty-minute tribute.

The Chaplin Gala began in 1972 to honor “the film industry’s most notable talents”; of its thirty-nine recipients, only four did not speak English as their native tongue: Billy Wilder, the honoree of 1982, Federico Fellini (1985), Yves Montand (1988), and Deneuve. Could language barriers have been a reason for the night’s rather incongruous roster of hosts? Despite having performed in more than one hundred films (including seven English-language films) around the globe since 1957, the most famous Frenchwoman in the world was feted by a mere five onstage presenters, including two—James Gray and Martin Scorsese—who have never worked with her.

Born in 1969, the year that Deneuve starred in Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid, the American director Gray, the first presenter, was quick to acknowledge the absurdity of his inclusion at Alice Tully Hall. “I’m here because, much like Jerry Lewis and Bed Bath & Beyond, I’m huge in France.” (I can vouch for this: The premiere of Gray’s last film, Two Lovers, at Cannes in 2008 was the closest I have ever come to being crushed to death by a press scrum.) He continued to self-deprecatingly crack wise (the neurotic stand-up routine mostly killed) before recalling his first introduction to Deneuve—seeing her on TV in his Queens living room in a Chanel No. 5 ad (perhaps it was the one below). Though the furthest removed from the honoree, Gray also offered the most touching—and accurate—assessment of the actress’s gift: “Beauty in cinema is not skin-deep. The camera also embraces the thinker, and Catherine Deneuve is always thinking.”

Catherine Deneuve in an ad for Chanel No. 5.

The camera also embraces the lesbian-vampire temptress, as the next speaker, Susan Sarandon, Deneuve’s seduced costar in The Hunger, pointed out. Sarandon, the gala’s “honorary chair” and the 2003 recipient of the Chaplin Award, perfunctorily read from the enormous prompter in the back of the house before getting a chuckle with, “I think I’m the only presenter who has actually slept with Catherine.” Sarandon praised her colleague as “one game gal”—presumably referring to Deneuve’s willingness to same-sex on-screen or maybe to the fact that the icon was the only guest at a party Sarandon threw decades ago who helped clean up the next day.

Deneuve and Sarandon’s infamous love scene from The Hunger—the spilled sherry and Lakmé on the piano segueing to slo-mo, heavily art-directed soft-core complete with sheer curtains blowing in the breeze—was just one of several film clips shown in between presenters that highlighted Deneuve’s fondness for playing characters with unconventional desires. She was shown being pelted with mud as her husband denounces her as a “little slut” and “maggot” in one of the dream sequences from Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour; a still from Marco Ferreri’s Liza, in which Deneuve, wearing a collar and leash, plays the “dog” of Marcello Mastroianni, the actress’s real-life romantic partner at the time, was waggishly described by their daughter, Chiara Mastroianni.

Both Mastroianni, an actress who’s made several films with her mother, and François Ozon, who’s directed Deneuve in the romps 8 Women and Potiche, referenced Gérard Depardieu’s famous quip in their onstage hosannas: “Catherine Deneuve is the man I’d like to be.” Ozon reversed the gender inversion by declaring to the honoree, “You are the woman I would like to be.” Her daughter took note of her mother’s political actions, including adding her name, in 1972, to the “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts,” whose signatories admitted to having an abortion, illegal in France until 1975. “I’m guessing that Rick Santorum wouldn’t be happy with the positions of my mother,” Mastroianni said to wild self-satisfied applause.

Seemingly devoid of any personal anecdotes about the actress, Scorsese, the last speaker and the official bestower of the Chaplin Award to Deneuve, resorted to lofty generalities: “French cinema and Catherine Deneuve are one and the same,” he said, later adding, “She doesn’t just work for directors but with them for the picture.” When the honoree herself, in a backless, full-length, cerulean gown, accepted her trophy—shaped like a twisted strip of celluloid—she graciously thanked the audience and her presenters, lined up onstage. Like Scorsese, Deneuve also had few anecdotes to share, noting that a lot of her career had to do with “luck” before concluding her brief remarks with, “So much has been said, and I don’t have much to add.” Sphinxlike, the actress demonstrated one of Ozon’s observations about her: “I think your secret is that you keep your secrets.”

Melissa Anderson