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DENEUVE REMAINS BELLE OF FRENCH CINEMA

Catherine Deneuve, the ice princess of a hundred French-movie fantasies, was an hour late for the interview. Somehow, in her case, it seemed only appropriate.

With a national re-release of "Belle de Jour" she is, indeed, the belle of la French cinema all over agian.For three decades, Deneuve has been considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. To an entire movie generation she was, and is, the embodiment of the French star - the symbol of sophistication and glamour in an era that was short on both counts. One critic had written that her on-screen aura is that of "the face of an angel and the lusts of a devil."

She received an Oscar nomination just two years ago for playing a proud French colonial in the popular epic "Indochine." Her mental breakdown in "Repulsion" (directed by Roman Polanski) remains one of the most horrifying movies ever made. Her lovely naivete in the musical "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" remains fresh.

In real life, her romantic liaisons with such famous men as director Roger Vadim and actor Marcello Mastroianni are as infamous as they are legendary. She was a liberated woman, doing things her way, before women in the rest of the world were yet liberated.

Through it all, she has kept her distance from the public - maintaining the mystery that is essentially a part of a screen legend.

So what makes us think she will show up today?

But Deneuve, to glory in the reissue, has crossed the Atlantic and, yes, she does arrive, even though an hour late, with an entourage. Dressed in a pink tailored suit topped by discreet diamonds, she is stunning.

"If I could think of an excuse, I would geeeve one, but I can't - so I won't," she said.

In what is one of the more surprising movie events of the year, "Belle de Jour" has been restored and re-released under the sponsorship of Martin Scorsese. Initially, the film drew some shocks for its plot in which Deneuve plays a wealthy but bored housewife who takes a job as a prostitute in the daytime. At night she is the cool socialite Severine Serizy, the wife of a young doctor, but by day she is Belle de Jour, realizing her kinky fantasies in a high-class brothel.

Mirimax Films succeeded in getting the rights to "Belle de Jour" only after the original producers died recently. They had taken it out of release in the early 1970s and it had been inaccessible since.

Now a new generation wonders about the cool blonde who seems so demure and so proper.

"It is strange to me that the public still, today, associates me with `Belle de Jour,"' she said. "The fact that Luis Bunuel chose me for the part was the thing that shocked some people, I think. I was shy. I never really wanted to be a movie actress. I had usually played quiet, introspective parts. For him to cast me as this woman who works in a brothel in secret shocked people a great deal more than if someone else had played it. It was a turning point in my career, but I don't think it was a great performance. It was more a presence than a performance."

Asked what "Belle de Jour" will say to young people today, she is characteristically blunt. "I don't think it will say anything to young people. Young people are not the hypocrites of the world. For the most part, young people say and do what they please. They don't have to worry yet. `Belle de Jour' does say something about hypocrisy - and how people don't act on what they want. Bunuel was Catholic and he saw things in deese deeeeep ways.

"I don't think the film is shocking today, but, then, I didn't think it should have shocked anyone in 1968." Catherine Dorleac was born in Paris. Both her mother and father were actors. "There were four girls, four sisters. We were like Jo March and the `Leeetle Women' - very close. The family is still very close." Her sister Francoise (one year older) was already an international beauty and star when Catherine (who took her mother's maiden name as her screen identiy) went into films. At the height of her stardom, Francoise Dorleac was killed in an automobile accident at age 25.

Catherine Deneuve made her screen debut at age 13. Despite the patronage of director Roger Vadim, she did not achieve prominence until "Umbrellas" in 1963.

"I was a very shy girl and I didn't really want to be in films," she said. "Because my sister was in films, I was sent to talk to producers. It seems I was thrown into films almost immediately. I had to deal with all the technical things, which were a real challenge. At first, I thought moviemaking was to be a playland - a time for fantasy. I had to learn differently."

She had a child by both Vadim (in 1963) and Marcello Mastroianni (in 1972) but did not marry either.

She was married, briefly, to British photographer David Bailey. It ended in divorce. "I have been married, but I don't have to live with that. My sister is married and that is well for her. For me, I feel the commitment has been as much, but I doubt I will ever marry again."

Both her children are actors. The son, now age 32, is a stage actor. The daughter, Chiara Mastro-ianni, is 23 and appears with her in Manuel de Oliviera's upcoming film "The Convent," co-starring John Malkovich. Chiara appeared with her father in Robert Altman's "Ready to Wear" ("Prete-a-Porter") last year.

"When my children were little, I wanted to be with them more - not to work so much. Now that they are grown, I expected I would be free and want to work more. It is not true. When they are grown, you worry about them more," she said.

While actresses known for beauty often have trouble getting respect, Deneuve never saw her striking looks as an obstacle.

"I am aware, yes, that my looks have been a major part of my career, but I used it. I used it quite well. It was more a help than a hindrance. Still, we hear about actresses who feel they are not respected because they are attractive. After Sharon Stone, I don't think we can worry anymore about beautiful actresses not being smart. She is very smart.

"I think it is a woman's job to be as attractive as possible. That is the beginning. From there, you go elsewhere. You need not be dull."

As for the passing years, she comments, succinctly, "I do not care for the passage of time, but it is necessary."

She, though, has never been asked to play her own age . "I make about one and a half movies a year now. I used to make two or three each year. Perhaps if I wasn't getting good roles, I would worry more about time."

She's returning to Paris to complete her next film. She plays a philosophy teacher who is involved with one of her pupils. "It's sort of a thriller," she said.

She does worry that some of her recent films weren't released in the United States. "The French film industry is troubled more by politics than by the language problem," she said. "We simply do not export enough French films. We must learn that we can not survive just with France."

She does not regret her one venture into Hollywood films, which resulted in "April Fools" (1970) with Jack Lemmon and "Hustle" with Burt Reynolds in 1975. "I liked very much doing the films in Hollywood. I liked Burt Reynolds and Jack Lemmon. There were no problems. I spoke English well enough.

"But, on the other hand, I never was tempted to move from France. I would come back, again, but only to work. In Hollywood, there is a social center of actors that is like a colony. We don't have that in France. Hollywood is like a factory town - only movies. In France, I feel I am more in the real world."