Potiche (2010)

In the U.S. at least, Catherine Deneuve’s status as perennial fashion icon may have overshadowed her acting to the extent that it seems like only relatively recently has her lifelong commitment to working with cred filmmakers been widely acknowledged. A few years ago Deneuve explained her career choices to Melissa Anderson of The Village Voice by declaring, “I have to get the impression that the director is really the author of the film” — a characteristically elegant, simple formulation sure to cement the admiration of cineastes everywhere.

How early did she come by her dedication to auteurs? Deneuve has cited the success of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) as having been formative in her subsequent career choices. I like to go back further, though, and imagine the teenage Deneuve and her big sis Francoise Dorleac lounging around their Paris home like exotic housecats, leafing through the seminal issues of Cahiers du Cinema and absorbing the lessons therein.

“I have to get the impression that the director is really the author of the film.” That statement speaks volumes about why Deneuve has had only a brief dalliance with Hollywood, consisting of the little-remembered The April Fools (1969), Hustle (1975 — opposite Burt Reynolds!), March or Die (1977), and the bizarre outlier of The Hunger (a British co-production, 1983).

A less celebrated work in the Den-oeuvre. (I'd kinda like to see this, actually.)

Filmmaking by committee, or filmmaking by corporation, is not her thing. And why would anyone choose that, when you could work with, among others, Francois Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Jean-Pierre Melville, Andre Techiné, Leos Carax, Lars von Trier, Arnaud Desplechin, or Francois Ozon instead? The key is that Deneuve connected with directors who gave her interesting things to do as she got older, in both lead roles and character parts. Even as she famously retained her beauty, the improbably glam young actress was not afraid to become earthier, and eventually matronly as she got older. But perhaps the other part of the equation is to work with filmmakers who actually take note of older women.

There’s no doubt that Francois Ozon cares about Catherine Deneuve; his charming confection Potiche not only features wink-wink allusions to her roles in Belle de Jour and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (and no doubt scholars of the Den-oeuvre can find more homages in there), it climaxes on a note of unabashed diva worship, as Deneuve’s long-ignored housewife, newly empowered and just elected to Parliament, turns her acceptance speech into a festive singalong, melting even the heart of her estranged lover Gerard Depardieu as he listens over the radio.

It’s no wonder that Deneuve came to New York and then Los Angeles in March 2011 to promote Potiche in person; the movie affords her a fabulous star turn, at the center of a giddy, campy farce. The story is a brisk parable about the rise of feminism in the 1970s: smug, womanizing factory owner Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini), stressed out by a workers’ strike, suffers a heart attack and his well-coiffed wife Suzanne (Deneuve), whom everyone routinely condescends to, has to step in, run the factory and settle the strike. This last includes negotiating with left-wing politico Maurice Babin (Depardieu), a former flame from Suzanne’s long-ago youth.

Ozon and his cast inject such infectious high spirits into the proceedings that things stay amusing even when the mechanics of the plot threaten to get a little creaky. (The source material is a 1977 play, heavily worked over by Ozon.) Without violating the overall smiley-face ambiance, Ozon also allows a few more serious notes to steal into the later scenes, along with a certain playful worldliness — Deneuve’s Suzanne is hardly the neutered matron she initially appears to be.

This resourceful writer-director has a lot of fun with the kitschy trappings of the ‘70s, never more so than in the crowd-pleasing moment when Deneuve and the hulking Depardieu hit the dance floor and bust some Saturday Night Fever moves. You would have to be a cineaste with a heart of stone not to at least smile at the spectacle this scene presents. Campy, yes, not to mention absurd, but generous, too — not only letting the performers have fun, but also mindful of the long history that the audience and actors alike bring to the moment.

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