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Deneuve soars above glitz of Cannes

The following article was originally published on May 23rd, 1999.

CANNES, France "You personally are responsible for the redesign of the steps to the Palais des Festivals," I reminded Catherine Deneuve, the legendary beauty.

She laughed ruefully.

"Yes, but I wish I hadn't been responsible. Because there was a sort of panic that night, I remember it so well. . . ."

It was the opening night of the new Palais at the Cannes Film Festival, circa 1981: The vast new hall for the showing of films, with two great theaters and countless little ones, and terraces clinging to the walls. In the upper reaches, the art of cinema was celebrated. In the halls far below street level, movies were sold by the pound.

"Like a cross between a parking garage and a machinegun emplacement," said Billy "Silver Dollar" Baxter, who served as sidewalk superintendent during construction. "The Death Star," Rex Reed said, when he first regarded the finished building. Within minutes of its completion, vines were being planted everywhere, watered by the tears and the prayers of the architects.

And then came the great opening night of the new Palais, which replaced a more humble building at the other end of the Croisette. The older building had featured, more by accident than design, a grand staircase up which paraded the stars of the evening's projections, pausing on the red carpet for the paparazzi and the adoring fans.

The new Palais took the idea of that staircase and magnified it into something Mussolini might have ordered over the telephone. The red carpet began at the curb where the limousines disgorged the stars. It proceeded for 20 yards to a staging area flanked by bleachers for the paparazzi. The stars paused, turned and chatted gaily - trying not to block one another's shots, as the flashbulbs exploded like firecrackers.

Then the carpet ascended perhaps 15 stairs, where there was another landing, this one covered by a canopy of television lights. Here the stars paused for the television networks of the world, while breathless fashion commentators did a play-by-play on who had gowned Miss Deneuve, Miss Moreau and Miss Adjani, and who had armored Miss Madonna.

Then another 20 steps, and then a vast landing where festival director Gilles Jacob greeted his friends and waved them inside.

Meanwhile, flanking both sides of the carpet, all the way up the stairs, officers of the French National Police Honor Guard stood at attention in their formal uniforms, framing the entrance. (There are three levels of cops at Cannes: Honor Guardsmen, with white gloves, plumes, swords, helmets, striped pants and shiny shoes; uniformed police, ready to hurl back strikers, gate-crashers and demonstrators, and troops in riot gear and gas masks, standing by in buses behind the Palais, in case the film is really bad.)

On that great night when the new Palais was inaugurated, a human traffic jam developed. Stars from below continued to ascend, but stars above did not disappear inside, and soon the women in their gowns and high heels were teetering precariously.

"I remember so well," Deneuve said. There could have been a sort of domino effect, the first arrivals falling back and carrying everyone on down before them, tiara over teakettle, into a glamorous heap at the bottom.

Deneuve, who feared for her safety, was not diplomatic at the press conference the next day. She announced that she would never again ascend that staircase until it had been redesigned.

"But the steps were too short and too high!" she said here the other day, remembering. So they rebuilt the stairs, making them lower and more gradual - a pleasure to ascend, everyone agrees.

Deneuve was in the Hotel Martinez, where she was granting interviews about the two Cannes entries she stars in this year: "Pola X," based on Herman Melville's novel Pierre, in which she plays a mother with a too healthy - or is it unhealthy - affection for her son, and "Le Temps Retrouve," an adaptation of the classic by Marcel Proust, the novelist whose game plan was to spend a third of his life experiencing, and then two-thirds remembering what he had experienced, while enclosing himself in a cork-lined bedroom to shut out additional experiences, lest he fall behind.

"You've gone to the Oscars," I said. "You've seen how brutal it all is. The stars are crushed together into a tiny area, and shouted at, and herded like cattle down a red carpet so narrow that four friends cannot fit while arm-in-arm."

"I have been there only once," Deneuve said. That was in 1992, when she was nominated for best actress for "Indochine." "I did not realize it would be that close, that small."

"Here at Cannes," I said, "you ascend, you pause, you turn, the photographers shoot you, the TV cameras photograph your gown, you ascend, you stop again, you are visible to the throngs of fans surging against the police barricades, you are high enough that they can see you bathed in the golden lights . . ."

"Yes," said Deneuve, "tonight we will arrive, 15 of us in the cast, and pause for the photographs . . ."

Fifteen! I thought. To assemble a cast of 15 in the Academy Awards entrance area, they'd have to pose piggyback.

"But now the academy is building a new theater in Los Angeles," I said. "It is obvious to me that you should serve as the consultant on the design of the entrance area. You could explain to them how important it is to move gracefully, uncrowded, unhurried . . ."

"Yes, you're right," Deneuve said. "After the experience I've had, I could be of some help . . ."

"After all," I said, "the women spend all day making themselves look beautiful . . ."

"All day?!?" Deneuve said. "They've been working all day? They've been working for months! I've heard that in America they even have . . . beauty consultants!"

"Yes," I said gallantly, "but we have need of them - while for you, Miss Deneuve, all a beauty consultant could possibly tell you would be: Whatever it is you're doing, keep right on doing it."

"But the crowding at the Oscars! That's, don't you think, very American?" Deneuve asked. "To spend so much time to make things perfect, and then treat it all like a sport, you know. All of that sophistication and at the end, it's just a big fight."

"Yes," I said. "They wear designer gowns and are pushed down the carpet like football fans. And instead of an elegant elevated area where they can pause, and turn, and smile, and be televised wearing their fabulous gowns, what do they do? They climb up three steps to Army Archerd's dais, so he can ask the audience to predict the winners on an Applause-O-Meter."

"My, my, my," Catherine Deneuve said. "Yes, I will be so pleased to give them any benefit of my experiences."

She took a thoughtful sip of her Evian.

"My, my."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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