Dancing With Deneuve

A young writer observed a failure in the making while watching François Truffaut in action

Illustration by Matt Rota
Illustration by Matt Rota

In 1969, I was living in London, paying $40 a month for a flat near Notting Hill Gate, wearing a secondhand pea coat against the damp, and trying to write my first novel. To earn some money, I was dashing off profiles of aging movie stars for United Artists. The studio used these pieces to promote its European films in the United States. I hated the profile business and was in the process of renouncing it when, as sometimes happens to a writer, along came an offer I couldn’t refuse: to write a series of articles about François Truffaut’s latest film, starring Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Truffaut had been a hero of mine since I saw The 400 Blows as a freshman in college. That lyrical study of a boy’s evasions of the conventional adult world and his doomed sprint for freedom had a literary flavor, and my admiration for it had been inspired by my own impatience to get life going. Truffaut’s new film, the preposterously named Mississippi Mermaid (La Sirène du Mississipi—with one p), would be shot on location in Nice, Aix-en-Provence, and the Alps. Some filming had already been done on Réunion, the French island in the Indian Ocean.

Writing for United Artists had been pitched to me as a quasi-journalistic enterprise, but the work was both crass and commercial. The idea of watching Truffaut put together a film and then writing about it, however, was exciting, full of possibility. My pieces would be placed in American newspapers, and my approach was to be “intellectual.” Truffaut, a former journalist himself and a respected film critic, was known as a man of ideas. He had high standards, disliked publicity, and barely spoke any English. My French was minimal and only slightly improved by a week with Berlitz in London, paid for by United Artists, but no matter, I thought. Jean-Paul Belmondo didn’t speak English either, but his constant traveling companion, the actress Ursula Andress, spoke it well, and so did Catherine Deneuve.

Mississippi Mermaid had been adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s 1947 novel Waltz Into Darkness, about a coffee merchant and his mail-order bride who get involved in murder and fraud. Truffaut’s weakness for suspense and poetic criminality was reflected in his adulation of Alfred Hitchcock, and he had said that Mermaid would be about “love and adventure” but would also be “a study in degradation—how a man goes to pieces under a woman’s enigmatic influence.”

I met Truffaut in Nice, just after Christmas, in the lobby of the Hotel Negresco. The film’s publicist, Christine Brierre, introduced us. The director was shorter than I’d imagined and looked younger than his 37 years, suntanned from filming on Réunion (the substitute for the Gulf Coast of Woolrich’s novel). Black button eyes, flared trousers, a tailored topcoat, and a yellow silk cravat. I had half expected a disheveled director with newspapers under his arm and nicotine stains, à la Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut’s friend and fellow founder of the French New Wave.

Truffaut made it plain that I was not welcome and that I was to limit myself to the role of observer. So instead of joining an intimate French film unit, I was cast as the de facto Philistine. I would still be working, but Truffaut had seemingly invested me with everything he resented about the press, United Artists’ financing of his new film, and Americans in general. It all seemed rather petty.

Then Brierre explained that Truffaut was displeased with the relationship between stars Belmondo and Deneuve. On Réunion, there had been no “fire” passing between them, largely because Ursula Andress was always on the sidelines. “In this film,” Brierre said unhappily, “it is very important for the hero and the heroine to be in love.” Then she wept a bit, tacit acknowledgment that this wasn’t going to happen.

I was cast as the de facto Philistine. I would still be working, but Truffaut had seemingly invested me with everything he resented about the press, United Artists’ financing of his new film, and Americans in general. It all seemed rather petty.

On New Year’s Eve, Truffaut threw a party for the cast and crew at a small restaurant near the port. After much champagne was consumed, tables were pushed against the walls and people danced. Belmondo and Andress weren’t there, but Deneuve was. She seemed to be enjoying herself. I didn’t talk to her then, but I had a chance to do so a few hours later. Around two in the morning, I went into the hotel bar for water and found Deneuve drinking coffee. “I’ve always wanted to work with François,” she told me, with little prompting. “It will be a beautiful film, and Jean-Paul is very competent.”

She was unpretentious and willing to engage but, she said, habitually withdrew from inquisitive people. A samba record went onto the spindle, and she asked, “Do you dance to this?”

I didn’t, but I tried. Eventually she drifted off to dance with her hairdresser, and I went to bed.

The next day, Brierre said, “François and Catherine,” and held up two fingers side by side. “Haven’t you noticed?”

She said that when Deneuve and Truffaut had looked at some contact-sheet photos taken during filming, the actress had “censored all those of herself and Belmondo embracing. I have never known it to happen so quickly with François.”

In a letter, Truffaut had referred to Deneuve as “the blonde siren whose song would have inspired [Jean] Giraudoux.” She had a glacial prettiness and a mysterious aura. When the unit moved to its next location, Aix-en-Provence, an American writer came down from Paris to do a story about her for Cosmopolitan. After two days of following the actress around, he was utterly frustrated. “I ask how she felt when her sister was killed, and she says she was sad,” he told me. “I ask her about her childhood, and she says it was happy. How can I make a story out of that? If only she was bitchy. Then I could carve her up.”

As I wrote my stories for UA, scrounging for insights, I was reminded again how boring filmmaking could be, even with a renowned director and seasoned actors. There were constant difficulties with lighting—in Provence! Truffaut refused to use a studio, so bars, cafés, and pavements had to be prepared. “I’m always forced to sacrifice something,” he complained. “I don’t know why we go through all this.” Directors were supposed to be modern-day Leonardos with scripts, but Truffaut did not work from one. Every night, he wrote his stars’ lines on bits of paper. Final scenes were shot when the “script” was still incomplete, which meant more fragmentation.

The imagined Belmondo-Deneuve relationship still lacked fire, so Truffaut announced that the film would now be based on sex and would have scenes of great intimacy, something he had never before tried. It was a sign, I thought, of desperation. He was not being a “sensationalist,” he added, but a “realist. I want the spectators to realize how much they resemble the people on the screen.” He didn’t consider himself an intellectual, he now insisted, but a lover of   “police films and films of passion.” As silly as all this sounded, at least it provided something to write about.

My nonexistent relationship with Truffaut got worse. He thought that since I wasn’t providing him with copies of the pieces I was sending to United Artists, they had to be scurrilous. I would have handed them over had he asked. But Truffaut never asked for anything. He started referring to me as l’Américain. Then, in Lyon, we became further estranged.

One of the journalists fainted while walking back from the loo but saved face by getting up and blaming  jet lag. I got them all over to the filming location, where they sat on their briefcases and promptly fell asleep. Truffaut was not amused.

The United Artists office in Paris had called and asked me to intercede on the part of three journalists from Tokyo wanting to visit the set. To my surprise, Truffaut agreed. They would be allowed to watch the shooting of a night scene because Truffaut was popular in Japan.

The three men flew down from London with matching metal briefcases. I played host, though I spoke no Japanese; they spoke neither French nor English. Through the consulate I found a French-speaking Japanese diplomat who was willing to come along. This was a comedy in the making. We had dinner in one of the best restaurants in Lyon, a city famous for them, and drank too much Bordeaux Supérieur. One of the journalists fainted while walking back from the loo but saved face by getting up, blaming jet lag, and drinking some more. I got them all over to the filming location, where they sat on their briefcases and promptly fell asleep. Truffaut was not amused.

The next location was the mountain town of Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, outside Grenoble. No one had prepared for the snow, and the pine woods surrounding the location were suddenly full of visitors snapping photos. Deneuve and Belmondo stalked around in city clothes, he in a houndstooth suit and she in a feathered coat. Andress, meanwhile, sat unperturbed on the sidelines in her red fox hat and scarlet ski suit, upstaging Deneuve.

One night, the crew gave a birthday party for Truffaut at the hotel. Deneuve danced with a woman friend down from Paris, as well as with the girlfriends of crew members and camp followers, but never with Truffaut, who sat morosely in a corner. He did get up to blow out the candles on his cake.

Belmondo danced with Andress, her feet dangling above the floor, then insisted on blowing out some candles of his own. A photographer hired by United Artists later sold a photo depicting the moment to the news magazine Jours de France, and Belmondo threatened to sue the studio because the photo was unflattering (distended cheeks). Belmondo’s chauffeur said that the actor was also unhappy with the close relationship between Truffaut and Deneuve, calling it “unprofessional.” A pall had settled over the unit. Soon, everybody decamped for Paris, the final location, knowing that the film was a mess. Truffaut’s apparent inability to write a script was being cited as the culprit when in fact the whole affair had been a disaster.

On the final day of filming, I rode out to the Paris suburbs to say goodbye to the crew, the actors, and Truffaut. He didn’t offer to shake my hand. Because I had danced with Deneuve? Because the Japanese journalists had fallen asleep? Or was it because he knew that the film itself was so bad? (Mississippi Mermaid would run in New York for only a couple of weeks.) Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter. The experience had been interesting, lucrative, and even great fun.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

James Conaway is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Napa: The Story of an American Eden. He is at work on a memoir about his many years as a freelance journalist.


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