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In the early ’90s, an American Film Institute publicist invited me to a Willard Hotel press luncheon launching the European Union Film Festival. When I learned that the host was Charlton Heston, I muttered some lame excuse about a conflicting dental appointment—but quickly changed my mind when I discovered that the event also included poached salmon and Catherine Deneuve.

On the dais, Heston, ghoulishly bewigged and caked with orange makeup, cracked a wheezy gag about parting the Red Sea and mouthed some boilerplate about cinema, the universal medium. He ended by asking Deneuve to stand up so that we could admire her. An official from an embassy that I no longer recall, a festival corporate sponsor, and an AFI representative followed Heston with some soporific remarks; each concluded by instructing Deneuve to rise to her feet and exhibit herself. With each display, the actress grew increasingly vexed. Clearly, she had something that she wanted to contribute, and she resented being regarded as decoration. Finally, lunch was served and the press conference ended—without a single word from Deneuve.

I couldn’t help thinking that Deneuve’s appearance that afternoon mirrored her performances in the ’60s films that made her an international star. Her impassive, Ingresesque beauty served as a blank screen upon which filmmakers projected their obsessions. In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Jacques Demy presented the 21-year-old actress as the idealized embodiment of innocence. In Repulsion (1965), Roman Polanski imagined her as a victim of sexually repressed dementia. In Belle de Jour (1967), Luis Buñuel framed her as the centerpiece of his surreal exploration of bourgeois perversity. As Deneuve’s star ascended, advertisers embraced her as an elegant billboard that could be used to promote upscale products. American hucksters hired her to flog perfumes and automobiles in television commercials.

Unlike earthy Jeanne Moreau, the only ’60s French actress featured in as many internationally acclaimed films, Deneuve remained aloof and enigmatic. Moreau, with her blazing Bette Davis eyes and sullen, downturned mouth, was an unguarded force of nature, transforming each role into an extension of her volatile personality. But Deneuve never allowed us a glimpse of what, if anything, lay beneath her mask. Her off-screen life suggested that she was something of a nonconformist. In her late teens, she had an affair with director Roger Vadim, Brigitte Bardot’s ex-husband. Although she appeared in Vadim’s Vice and Virtue (1962) and bore him a son, she refused to marry him. In the mid-’60s, she wed Swinging London photographer David Bailey, infamous for his portraits of barely pubescent girls. And in 1972, the year she divorced Bailey, she had a second love child, with Marcello Mastroianni, her co-star, ironically, in Demy’s 1973 film, A Slightly Pregnant Man.

But the free spirit that informed Deneuve’s personal life has begun to manifest itself onscreen only in the past decade. As her still-striking face and figure have matured and thickened, she has become more expressive, exposing emotions that she previously held in check. Her Oscar-nominated performance as a ’30s French colonist raising an adopted daughter in Indochine (1992) possessed a depth of feeling that transcended the film’s soap-opera plot. Increasingly complex roles followed: the object of an incestuous brother’s affections in the psychological drama My Favorite Season (1993); the exasperated wife of a Shakespearean scholar in The Convent (1995); a policeman’s repressed-lesbian philosophy-professor sister in Thieves (1996). Although none of these films were widely seen, they attest to Deneuve’s determination to expand her range, as does her eagerness to collaborate with cutting-edge contemporary directors, including Raoul Ruiz in his Proust adaptation, Time Regained (1999), and Lars von Trier in last year’s experimental musical/ melodrama, Dancer in the Dark. (After seeing von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, Deneuve contacted the Danish director requesting to appear in one of his forthcoming films.)

Deneuve won the Best Actress award at the 1998 Venice Film Festival for her performance in Place Vendome, a murky drama that would be nearly unwatchable without her presence. Directed and co-scripted by actress Nicole Garcia, best known in this country for her role as the youthful radical who becomes a corporate executive in Alain Resnais’ Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980), Place Vendome is set in Paris’ Right Bank district, where exclusive jewelers sell their wares behind the colonnades of 18th-century buildings. Deneuve plays Marianne, the world-weary, dipsomaniac wife of prestigious gem dealer Vincent Malivert (Bernard Fresson). (Her character’s name is something of an inside joke: Deneuve succeeded Brigitte Bardot as the model for Marianne, the symbol of France on that nation’s coins and stamps.)

About to be exposed for some shady dealings and facing financial ruin, Vincent commits suicide. While going through his belongings, Marianne discovers a cache of valuable diamonds. Prior to her marriage, she was a jewel broker herself, working with her lover, Battistelli (Jacques Dutronc), until she found out that he was betraying her with another woman. Marianne learns that Vincent’s diamonds are pawns in a cutthroat competition between DeBeers, the famous London jewel merchants, and a Russian underground gem cartel. Dogged by Jean-Pierre (Jean-Pierre Bacri), the dumped boyfriend of Nathalie (Emmanuelle Seigner), Vincent’s ambitious young saleswoman, and surprised by the sudden reappearance of Battistelli, Marianne sobers up, realizing that she now controls the fates of several desperate men and powerful international businesses.

If the preceding synopsis seems somewhat jumbled and obscure, I’m not entirely to blame. Garcia’s screenplay (written in collaboration with Jacques Fieschi) is so convoluted, and her direction so muted, that it’s often difficult to follow what’s going on. The members of the warring diamond cartels, a shabby, sleazy lot, are so vaguely characterized that it’s hard to tell them apart. Jean-Pierre’s simultaneous pursuits of Marianne and Nathalie, who had an affair with Vincent, lead one to suspect that he’s some sort of double agent, but for whom? And what motivates Nathalie’s budding relationship with Battistelli—love or greed? The plot’s ambiguities are more exhausting than intriguing—a problem compounded by cinematographer Laurent Dailland’s shadowy, claustrophobic wide-screen images.

Place Vendome wouldn’t be worth visiting without Deneuve’s participation. We first see her drying out in the rehab center that has become her second residence. Having lost interest in life, she can barely stand to gaze at her pasty, hungover face in a mirror. After returning home, she attends a business dinner with Vincent, only to excuse herself and disappear into another room, where she joylessly drains the dregs of half-empty wineglasses. But the discovery of the diamonds following Vincent’s death resurrects Marianne’s spirit. They unexpectedly impel her to resume her former profession and revitalize her alcohol-dulled emotions—a transformation reflected in her wardrobe, which changes from black to vibrant reds.

Deneuve’s Marianne, as multifaceted as the diamonds she inherits, confirms the actress’s artistic metamorphosis. No longer an exquisite, inscrutable screen icon, she’s become the energizing force of movies that couldn’t exist without her. CP