Sophia Loren (here with Robert Hossein) plays a Parisian laundress in “Madame Sans-Gêne,” directed by Christian-Jaque.
By DAVE KEHR
The New York Times
Published: June 10, 2008
These days, all it takes to be labeled a diva is to release a couple of pop albums in a row and exhibit some bad behavior in public. But at least two extraordinary examples of the genuine article continue to walk the earth: Sophia Loren, 73, and Catherine Deneuve, 64. This week Lionsgate Entertainment honors these two near-mythological figures of the European cinema with boxed sets of seldom-seen films.
Catherine Deneuve, as a glum anesthesiologist, and Patrick Dewaere in André Téchiné’s “Hotel America” (1981).
Although their careers overlap — Ms. Loren’s first film dates from 1950, Ms. Deneuve’s from 1957 — they represent two very different traditions. Both have regularly crossed the Alps, Ms. Loren to appear in French-language films and Ms. Deneuve in Italian ones, but they seem to belong to sovereign territories of their own, which barely have diplomatic relations.
Lorenland is a proletarian world of workers and peasants, defined by spontaneity and sensuality, a world of broad comedy and even broader melodrama. The petit principality of Deneuve is the Monaco of movies: a primarily urban environment of designer boutiques and chic restaurants, in which emotions are muffled and sex discreet (and frequently unhappy).
Where Ms. Loren is a pagan goddess, all bosom and hips, with almond eyes and pillowy lips, Ms. Deneuve is a perfectly proportioned Renaissance angel, thin-lipped, wide-eyed and enveloped in a nimbus of golden hair. Ms. Loren has the imposing physical presence of a monumental statue; Ms. Deneuve the exquisite, pocket-size beauty of a cameo brooch. Ms. Loren invites us to live more intensely in our world; Ms. Deneuve exists in another space entirely, one surrounded by velvet ropes, and she’s not sure she wants to share it at all.
Sophia Loren in Boccaccio '70 (1962). (credit: Brown Brothers)
Ms. Loren began as a bit player (she can be glimpsed as a slave girl in the MGM “Quo Vadis,” filmed in Rome in 1951), and it took her several years to assemble a star persona. Even as directors discovered her remarkable physical gifts, it took them a while to figure out what to do with them. The oldest film in the “Sophia” boxed set, Ettore Giannini’s kitschy Technicolor tribute to Neapolitan song, “Carosello Napoletano” (1954), takes Loren’s statuesque quality almost literally. As the most beautiful girl in 19th-century Naples, she poses rigidly for a photographer, an object to be contemplated. She is barely more animated in “Attila” (also 1954), a sword-and-sandals adventure directed by Pietro Francisci (whose 1958 “Hercules” would turn this most distinctive of Italian genres into an international phenomenon), in which she plays a scheming Roman aristocrat opposite Anthony Quinn as the well-known Hun.
Sophia Loren and Vittorio De Sica
Ms. Loren really came into her own in another 1954 film, Vittorio De Sica’s “Gold of Naples” (not part of the present collection, but said to be a coming Criterion release). In a single traveling shot, held an outrageously long time, De Sica simply records the astounding sight of an ungirdled Ms. Loren, playing a Neapolitan pizza-maker, as she walks the length of a crowded street, moving in ways that definitely do not bring marble to mind. Galatea had come to life, and Ms. Loren, with this one image, became a star.
The Lionsgate set flashes forward to 1962 and the French-Italian co-production “Madame Sans-Gêne,” a costume adventure that represents one of the last flowerings of the French “tradition of quality,” with direction by Christian-Jaque. Ms. Loren, spilling out of a low-cut peasant blouse that defies several laws of physics, is a Parisian laundress who befriends a tiny Corsican colonel during the French Revolution and rises to the nouveau aristocracy under the empire, without losing her bawdy forthrightness.
By this point Ms. Loren had already passed through Hollywood (most gloriously in George Cukor’s 1960 “Heller in Pink Tights”) and won an Oscar under De Sica’s direction (for the pompous “Two Women”), yet here she seems to be playing a caricature of Italy’s über-diva Anna Magnani. There is much hearty laughter with hands on hips — and not a whole lot else. The Lionsgate set builds to an anticlimax with De Sica’s tedious, saccharine “Sunflower” (1970), among the least engaging of the many films in which Ms. Loren appeared with Marcello Mastroianni.
The Deneuve collection begins with a genuine curiosity, Jean Aurel’s 1968 “Manon 70.” Based on the 1731 novel by Antoine François Prévost, as updated into a best-selling novel by Cécil Saint-Laurent, the popular (and pseudonymous) author of a long series of historical bodice-rippers, the film offers Ms. Deneuve as a sort of contemporary courtesan, dressed in Op-Pop Ungaro outfits accessorized by oversize sunglasses.
Manon pings capriciously among assorted wealthy lovers (one is played in deadly earnest by the gifted American comic actor Robert Webber) until she discovers her grand amour, a self-serious journalist (Sami Frey) who destroys his career in order to support her in the jet-setting style to which she has become accustomed. Very much a film of its unsettled time, “Manon 70” strenuously draws parallels between the libertines of the 18th century and the sexual revolutionaries of the 1960s, frequently to unconsciously comic effect.
The downside to being Catherine Deneuve is that no matter how she is cast, she invariably ends up playing the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, seldom an interesting role. Directors have tried to cope with this in different ways over the years. Most struggle unsuccessfully to deglamorize her: In “Le Choc,” a 1982 thriller included here, the director Robin Davis gets some kind of a prize for casting her as the proprietress of a provincial turkey farm (which does not prevent Alain Delon, as a hit man on the run, from falling madly in love with her); in “Le Sauvage,” Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s popular comedy from 1975 set on a tropical island, gives her a sunburn, takes away her couture and dumps her in the drink. (She is little more than a guest star in Alain Corneau’s “Fort Saganne,” a heavy 1984 military epic with Gérard Depardieu, which is also in the Lionsgate box.)
Among Ms. Deneuve’s more recent directors, André Téchiné seems to have found the best solutions to her excess of attractiveness. In the 1981 “Hotel America,” the first of five films they have made together (and by far the best in this collection), he shifts the burden of glamour from her to her male co-star, the wide-eyed, childlike Patrick Dewaere.
Ms. Deneuve is the glum, dowdy Hélène, an anesthesiologist no less, who has come to the resort town of Biarritz to get over the death of her fiancé. Mr. Dewaere is an irresistibly helpless local, a painfully sensitive dreamer who lives in a room in his mother’s small hotel. Although he makes the first advances, soon it is Ms. Deneuve who is pursuing him, rationalizing his emotional upheavals and capricious changes of mind (he’s Manon 81), while she functions as the center of stability. For once, she is not an object of desire but an individual afflicted by desires of her own. The reversal makes her human.
(Lionsgate, $39.98 each box set, not rated)