Deneuve, Still Witty, Still Beautiful
Movies: ‘Potiche’ Jenny Hansell
First things first: Catherine Deneuve still looks fabulous. As Suzanne Pujol, the pampered wife of an umbrella factory owner, she is fresh-faced yet age-appropriate, glamorous yet down-to-earth. Gerard Depardieu, however, does not look fabulous. As her one-time lover and present political enemy, labor leader Maurice Babin, he still affects the shambling hang-dog look that was so charming in “The Return of Martin Guerre” and “Green Card,” but now he looks like he has swallowed a giant sea turtle and is queasily about to disgorge it on the dance floor.
It’s a shame, too, because “Potiche” is a farcical feminist fable. Trophy-wife Suzanne takes the reins of the factory when her apoplectic husband has a rage attack that sends him to the hospital for three months, and she becomes empowered and free. But no matter how empowered Deneuve’s character may be, there is no way the actress would have been cast if, like Depardieu, she had inflated like a Thanksgiving day float.
But no matter. Depardieu is a side show. The movie belongs to Deneuve, who sails through it with a brio that suits the broad comic tone of the film. Based on a play of the same name, it is set in 1977, with lovingly recreated costumes, home décor and, especially, hair styles — characters toss their carefully feathered locks as if they were auditioning for “Charlie’s Angels.”
It’s the kind of movie where characters who see each other every day conveniently explain their whole life stories to each other in quick bits of dialogue to set the stage. Like this:
Suzanne to her husband Robert (more or less): “Remember how you took over my father’s umbrella factory? It was my dowry, and you made me your trophy wife.”
Suzanne to Maurice, when he comes to argue with her about a strike in the factory: “That’s not how you felt about me 30 years ago, when you came upon me, stranded with a flat tire, and we became lovers.”
And so on. So that’s the setup. Depardieu, man of the workers, now an MP, has held a torch for the daughter of privilege all these years. When, newly in charge of the factory, she is thrust into negotiations with the strikers, he tries to coach her in strategy. But she shrugs him off. She dresses in her finest furs and pearls, greets the angry strikers as old friends, and improbably wins them all over. Within weeks her art-loving son is designing Kandinsky-themed umbrellas, her surly daughter is devising new business strategies, the workers are happy and business is booming.
Then her husband comes home and hilarity ensues.
Or is supposed to.
It’s about then that the movie loses its rhythm and narrative confidence. Will Suzanne maintain her power and independence? Will Robert’s devious attempts to get his position back destroy Suzanne? To whom will his goofy red-headed secretary and former mistress, Nadége, throw her loyalty? The plot meanders here and there for a while, and the laughs turn into sentimental uplift a little too soon and for too long. But Deneuve sails along in her bouffant and sensible pumps.
“Potiche” is playing at The Triplex in Great Barrington, MA, and Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, NY. It is rated R for being French in its attitudes about sex.
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