The French expression battre la chamade now refers to the quickened pulse of lovers before they give into sex. But the term was originally imported from the battlefield, where it was the special drumroll used to concede to the enemy. The military connotations still linger in its current usage, suggesting that for all love’s sweetness, it is also war. To be seduced is to capitulate, to let in; when the verb is active, a conquest is implied. The French specialization in romantic equipment can be explained, in part, because those elaborately crafted chocolates, bouquets, and lingerie are just as much weapons as they are gifts.
Catherine Deneuve has made a fifty-plus year career out of soliciting la chamade from others. At the age of twenty-two with her role in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), she earned the reputation of the most beautiful woman in the world, a role she cited well into her fifties as one she felt pressure to perform. The French press would alternately describe Deneuve as the “glacial” or “frigid” blonde. Unlike most starlets of the era, she did not run around at Cannes in a bikini, and avoided run-ins with the paparazzi, her allure enclosed in secrecy and discretion.
She is now infamous, of course, for the petition she signed that has since taken her name, the “Deneuve letter,” published in Le Monde on January 9 of this year. The hundred women who endorsed it claimed that the #MeToo movement had gone too far, becoming puritanical in its policing of desire. Freedom (liberté) is the word that shows up the most frequently in the text, eleven times, one of them being the ominous-sounding “freedom to bother.” Several of these women, including its authors, Catherine Millet and Abnousse Shalmani, are apologists for the Marqius de Sade. Their reproach stems from a belief in the lawlessness of sex, its link to the imagination and artistic license.
In the time that has since passed, the #MeToo movement has undergone schisms, oppositions, and metamorphoses, but this critique still feels the sharpest, perhaps because it was the first. It received flack from both French women of a younger generation (most of the signees are successfully mid-to-late career) and feminists in the Anglo-American tradition, outraged by the conservative embrace of gallantry at a moment when women were just learning how to speak out against it. Deneuve’s face—heavily made up on the red carpet with her signature fur and leather accessories, smiling, as if indifferent to the atrocities in the course of revelation—was splashed up against the headlines in the Guardian and the New York Times. She was the doomsayer announcing the end of a unified #MeToo—brought about not by the patriarchy, but by women who had apparently so internalized its dictums they wanted it back.
That the women decrying #MeToo were French seemed to come as no surprise, confirming the lingering suspicion that the mystique of French beauty, with Deneuve as its doyenne, was the result of unsavory traditions in the bedroom, of women looking at and thinking about themselves as objects. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1947: “American women have only contempt for French women, always too happy to please their men and too accepting of their whims.” Some theorists accept the difference between sexes as a given, as well as the hierarchy it implies. Scholar Mona Ozouf has made a career out of likening French sex appeal to its way of life, claiming that “not only is submission an aspect of a woman’s love, it is an a priori condition.”
I’ve been anxiously watching Deneuve onscreen in the wake of her anti-#MeToo letter because of what she represented to me as an adolescent. Growing up in Sacramento, shuttled between school and virtuous extra-curricular activities, Deneuve was my portal to another world. This place, this foreign tongue in which women could be rude, bouquets were commonplace in living rooms, and beauty was considered part of life rather than suspiciously elitist—it was my means of escape from the neon lights of strip malls, the drugstore products I was told I needed to come of age.
If Deneuve became the sui generis sex icon in the 20th century, it was not by overtly seducing, but rather by giving into her unspoken desires. As a young woman, Deneuve made repression seem to be an invitation to violation. She was the Madonna all auteur film directors lusted after, the woman everyone wanted to see undressed—and profaned, as she would famously be in her early roles for directors Roman Polanski (Repulsion, 1965) and Luis Buñuel (Belle de Jour, 1967).
The perfection of her features made the kinky sex seem almost unreal. She mastered a detached, indifferent look, making the explicit scenes seem almost out-of-body, even if her body served as the main attraction.
Though my career choices read respectably on paper, this idea of freedom has, unconsciously, explained a lot of them. When I go to France today, I still feel like I’m making a run for it, out of whatever culturally determined prison.
In Heartbeat/La Chamade, released fifty years ago in France today, Deneuve was just off of the success of Belle de Jour, Luis Buñuel’s art-house triumph that had reified her as an icon of bottled-up desire as a wife who cannot consummate her marriage yet daydreams about being whipped in the woods. Séverine (a name lifted from Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs) eventually fulfills her fantasies not in the conjugal bed, but as a prostitute who takes a shift between the hours of 2 and 5 in the afternoon.
Up until this point in her career, Deneuve had appeared like a mannequin on camera—the perfect sex object—but as Lucile in Heartbeat/La Chamade, she seems real. She goes to the beach, gets a tan, and even looks a little greasy from the sunscreen. The critic in Le Monde would speak of the actress as having “thawed,” and cited it as her first real performance. With the sparse soundtrack, her direct addresses to the camera, and less-glamorous clothes, this might be the closest Deneuve gets to a New-Wave sense of immediacy, for which she was otherwise considered too precious. Here she is in the street, on the bus, living her life.
Fulfilling the Madame-Bovary archetype of reading for private gratification, she uses Faulkner novels to justify the worth of Epicurean self-fulfillment. She refuses to work despite the slim paychecks of her new lover, because the office “makes her ugly.” When short of money, she does not street-walk, despite being the recipient of numerous propositions to do so. For Lucile, total detachment from social proprieties means that she wouldn’t get any thrill from breaking the rules. To hell with what society wants from its “respectable” women; she needs no one to undress her because she can undo the buttons herself. This also accounts for why, despite the breeziness of the role, you’d be hard-pressed to define Lucile’s liberties as politically engaged, as extending beyond anyone but herself and her immediate circumstances.
On May 23, 1968, six of the major French film studios went on strike in solidarity with students and workers across the country. Heartbeat/La Chamade was one of four productions shut down, delaying what had been planned as a feel-good flick for summer release. I’ve re-watched the movie twice, looking for scenes that out of necessity must have been filmed after the May ’68 events: traces left on freshly painted walls, missing cobblestones, any imprint of the thousands of people that took to the streets in protest. Nothing. There’s a window Deneuve walks by in one of the closing shots, crowded with a jumble of cinema posters. The shot’s crazed angles seem partially inspired by the explosion of slogans that had briefly graced the walls of Paris in an anonymous assertion of collective experience—something like what the #MeToo hashtag would become— before being peeled off and painted over once again.
Nor is there any mention of May ’68 in the notebooks Deneuve kept in ever-so-neat cursive during her stints in New York and LA, where her agent sent her to avoid the mess. The published diaries from the time don’t let onto much. She does note, her habit of sleeping in till noon, and her general ennui. She writes, “I haven’t done anything, yet I don’t care,” in an entry that makes her not so dissimilar from her character in Heartbeat/La chamade.
The crowds of May ’68, off-screen just like the technicians who stopped the film to go on strike, nevertheless haunt the film. Their presence is contained in each black-checkered space between the images’ frames, hidden within the reel’s motion. French cinema had made a name for itself critiquing Hollywood’s fake glamor, yet despite its feeling of authenticity it too failed to capture the “beauty in the street” (“la beauté dans la rue”) that was the revelation of the masses.
If Heartbeat/La Chamade had been released six months earlier, by virtue of its sex it might have been redeemed amongst the culturally rigorous. Yet its reclamation of Lucile’s individual (read: bourgeois) interests made it hopelessly outmoded by the time October came around. The fact that she was a woman didn’t help. While the Left had deconstructed every institutional hierarchy in the course of the events, the patriarchy remained untouched as the bed rock of the social order. Women who wanted to participate in the’68 demonstrations were told that they should have sex with working-class men to destroy the class system—not unlike Deneuve’s character does, with her new boyfriend who lives in a garret. Her eventual return to Charles, the wealthy businessman she left for Antoine, would have been interpreted as a capitulation to money and the class system it entails, just as those on strike went back to work in September.
The novel on which Heartbeat/La Chamade would be based was written by Françoise Sagan in 1965. It is arguably her epistemological perspective as a female author, and her later contributions to the screenplay (she is co-credited along with the director, Alain Chevalier) that sets as Lucile beyond the pale of the other bondage roles that would define her career. Maybe this is why the New York Times critic would concede that despite the film’s sentimentality, “in this day and age, it not only works but also seems somehow urgent, at least while it is going on.”
Critics reacted by outlining what the novel could have been—satire, tragedy, poetic fantasy, bildungsroman, study of manners, “a simple history, sordid and true”—but was not. The problem they had with the novel La Chamade was not only its genre, that mania particular to the French literati of narrative structure and categories, but also that of gender. It was a problem Sagan wrote into the book, when Lucile concludes that she is “nothing” because she does not fulfill the criteria of “prostitute, intellectual, wife or mother,” unraveling the categories of womanhood with a non-answer, a void. (The French rien does not refer to a woman’s private parts, as the English used to.)
For Sagan, Lucile’s shirking of responsibilities, her renunciation of every prescribed social role, including that of love, was the ideal. “She lives what I would define as the charmed life,” Sagan said in a television interview, a rare smile on the side of her lips. Lucile’s total self-interest, her amorality that surpasses the lessons one supposedly learns in deviance, leads Antoine to ask her if she is a woman or a flower. Sagan has her marry at the end, so that she can’t even be considered properly bohemian. “This is a modern portrait of Eve,” wrote Le Monde. “In opposition to the feminism of the moment, with enough money Lucile can keep her right to reverie, evading the real world.”
I have left so many conversations with French women speechless at their apparent resignation to the foyer or home, their belief that lying around is something owed to them; I have also been the recipient of extended critiques by my French partner’s friends and family members, who ask, only half-jokingly, when I will put away my laptop. But I wonder if we have been too quick to dismiss the women who, like Lucile, refuse to work. They’re written off as shiftless and “feminine,” while their daydreaming, no matter its private nature, might actually be another kind of strike. In the American context, careerism has been reclaimed as the great equalizer of the sexes. In France, it can’t be. Work itself is considered another kind of submission, in this case to the capitalism every monetary exchange inevitably forms a part, providing neither a self-revelation nor identity.
The gaze in Heartbeat/La Chamade and the power dynamic it implies—the viewing subject, the looked-at object—is rarely if ever reciprocal. In the film, Deneuve constantly protects herself from the “bothering” she would later defend as a man’s right in the Le Monde letter. Lucile navigates a jungle of omnipresent masculine attention—at the airport, at the café, at work, while window-shopping—by telling those interested to “go fuck off.”
If you can read a star across her performances, the many times Deneuve says “no” in Heartbeat/La Chamade is payback for Belle de Jour, where she was asked to undress without notice. “[I was] very exposed in every sense of the word, but very exposed physically, which caused me distress,” she said of her experience working for Buñuel. “I felt they showed more of me than they’d said they were going to… I felt totally used.” This was the closest she came to identifying with the invisible “little hands,” the idea that her lived experience behind the camera was just as important as the image’s shallow depths onscreen.
It would be just such an experience that Deneuve as Lucile defends in Heartbeat/La Chamade. After falling pregnant, she insists on an abortion despite the fact that Antoine wants to keep the kid. “A child is perhaps not the end of your world, but it is the end of mine,” she tells him, asserting the importance of her “nothing,” as it were.
Even when it was unfashionable to be a feminist—as in 1982 when giving an interview to Le Nouvel Observateur—Deneuve insisted that she was one. The feminists, for their part, weren’t so sure. “Catherine Deneuve thinks women will be shocked by her position as the submissive dog,” notes an unsigned article from The Burning Rag in 1972, then the militant Women’s Lib journal in France. It wasn’t the hierarchy that was deemed the problem: “Between the master and the bitch, it is the bitch who controls the master,” wrote the author.
Instead, she took contention with an interview Deneuve had given to Elle, in which she claims she is on the side of all women, even those who are “beautiful, happy, married, with children.” Today, her statement reads like an embrace of feminism’s many faces, what might be called intersectional. The author was of a different opinion, her hand drawn over the Elle citation in a green, outraged scribble: “So the women who want to liberate themselves are ugly and unhappy because they’re single and childless!!”
How can the woman who represented the lynchpin of Woman in France, where the “eternal feminine” was invented, speak for women in the plural? Defending her choice to sign the anti-#MeToo letter in Libération, Deneuve would confuse the silence of sexual assault victims with her inability to speak on their behalf, saying that “this climate of censorship leaves me speechless.” Then again, if we struck her sexually explicit scenes from the canon, I’m not sure how much of her would remain. Cultural correctness would, effectively, efface her.
We call them stars, as if their name in lights might serve as guide posts, but even the most famous of them fade. Deneuve has outlasted the many directors who tried to control her, using her looks, supposedly fleeting, to trump them. The most beautiful woman in the world has stuck around when everyone expected her to go into hiding. She has kept at it, she has kept working, she has kept signing letters—though it is precisely this determination to endure that has revealed her to be out of touch.
Heartbeat/La Chamade does not end like the book, with a comfortable dinner party, but instead shows Deneuve as she walks through the street in the early morning. She’s just broken it off with Antoine, and brushes her tears away, though you know she won’t be crying for long. The scene is reminiscent of the beginning when, waking up before Charles, Lucile takes her car out for a drive, letting her hair wild in the wind. I used to imagine that she just kept on walking, leaving both men behind—an impossibility, given what her character wants. But if women can speak truth to power now, it is surely as the realized fantasy of those who have come before them, however private and unspoken. Deneuve’s face in the early dawn still gives way to the dream.