Catherine Deneuve still has sex appeal to burn in Potiche
The always iconic French actress Catherine Deneuve plays the title role in Potiche (Music Box Films; 103 minutes; unrated; 2011), which loosely translates as “trophy wife,” in a pleasant Gallic trifle that also serves as a valentine to some of the French film industry’s most durable performers.
Deneuve, born in October 1943, has her share of bona fide classics such as Repulsion, Belle de Jour, and The Last Metro, plus some, well, let’s just call them interesting choices for her English-language flicks (think the Burt Reynolds police drama Hustle and the lesbian vampire outing The Hunger). Her elegant appeal hasn’t diminished with the passing years, so she’s just right as the matronly Suzanne, the supposed happy housewife in the movie’s 1977 setting, who doesn’t realize the extent of her unhappiness.
After all, her husband Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini) is a philandering jerk who has married into Suzanne’s late father’s umbrella business and has taken over as factory boss with a tyrannical attitude toward his employees. Her kids are polar opposites, with her daughter Joelle (Judith Godreche) as an ultra-conservative who shares daddy’s work ethic, and snipes about the workers, “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.”
Meanwhile, son Paul (Jeremie Renier) is a liberal lefty. Things come to a head when the striking workers hold Robert hostage, with Suzanne eventually put in charge of squelching the strike and running the company. And she likes it, especially since it reunites her with Babin (Gerard Depardieu, another French acting legend), a local politician who, as a former laborer, shared a tempestuous afternoon with the married Suzanne many years ago.
Director Francois Ozon seems to have a knack for restoring luster to the careers of aging actresses, such as his work with Charlotte Rampling on Swimming Pool and Under the Sand. He doesn’t need to perform very much rehabbing when it comes to the steadily working Deneuve, however, as he keeps things on the light side regarding Potiche’s portrayal of class warfare. Perhaps taking a cue from Ernst Lubitsch, some of the characters are unsavory yet sympathetic. Robert Pujol may be a despicable rotter, yet actor Fabrice Luchini still lends a comic undertow to the role. Likewise, Karin Viard as Robert’s secretary-mistress turns out to be Suzanne’s best pal in one of the movie’s bigger surprises.
It’s also fun watching Suzanne’s transformation as she succumbs to the joys of liberated sisterhood, not to mention her intriguing reunion with long-ago lover Babin. Depardieu, with his hulking physical presence and bulbous nose, has always been an oddball romantic figure, but he’s expressively tender with Deneuve during memorable moments such as the sweetly magical dance sequence at a glitter-balled discotheque.
If there’s a structural problem with Potiche, maybe its origins as a theatrical play (from Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy) are to blame. There are occasional moments when those stage-related seams start to show, and there is a transition in tone at the midway point: After the strike crisis has averted, Robert seeks some mild-mannered retribution, which leads to two different votes of confidence concerning Suzanne in the final reels. The movie doesn’t go downhill, however, although it’s not exactly aligned to the frothy first half.
Yet Deneuve, who is in nearly every scene, is a constant delight from the get-go, such as the opening credits that show her Suzanne joyfully jogging in the woods—then stopping to note a pair of rabbits in a compromising position. Deneuve’s feminist journey is often keyed to French pop songs of the era, including Michele Torr’s chart hit “Take Me Dancing Tonight,” which features the lyrics “I want you to woo me and thrill me/ Like the night when you popped my cherry.” Deneuve even warbles the song “How Beautiful Life Is” at the climax, as her character attains new heights not imagined in the movie’s initial scenes. And when it comes to some longharbored details that inevitably get spilled, Suzanne can only say to the frazzled Robert with a smile, “For an old couple, we still have plenty of secrets to share.”
If nothing else, Potiche demonstrates the cultural differences that exist between French and American filmmakers regarding their treatment of elderly performers.
Catherine Deneuve is a vibrant presence throughout this new art-house import, having a great time with one of her most substantial roles in recent years. Meanwhile in this country, national treasure Betty White is doing a TV Land sitcom and getting tackled in a Snickers commercial. What’s wrong with this picture?
Oooh-la-la!: Catherine Deneuve in Potiche.