Stardom never glows more coolly, or reaches more fascinating, elusive corners of a genuinely great career, than it has in the case of Catherine Deneuve, an iconic French actor who across six decades redefined what a leading lady can be. Steadfast in front of the camera and beyond famous off it, Deneuve has always been in concert with her directors, a collaborator who used her allure to create a presence that spoke to the filmmaker’s needs, whether that director was Jacques Demy and the film was the 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (a much cited inspiration for La La Land), or Roman Polanski’s landmark 1965 psychological horror study Repulsion.
Now aged 73, Deneuve came of age in an era when breathtakingly beautiful blondes were assets with used by dates that producers and studios on both sides of the Atlantic deployed and then deterred as their needs required. But as the daughter of seasoned stage actors, born and raised in Paris and first in the movies as a teenager in the 1950s, she was in control of her career from an early age. Deneuve’s stunning looks were never fixed, as much as she was famous for her icy eroticism she could always bend to unexpected angles without breaking. Her remarkable films with the Spanish surrealist and social provocateur Luis Bunuel, 1967’s Belle de Jour and 1970’s Tristana, effortlessly intertwine desire, self-control and hypocrisy.
Deneuve worked a little outside France, ultimately attaining renown internationally for her luxury product endorsements, but her eye for filmmakers has always been first rate: by the time she was 30 she’d also worked with Agnes Varda, Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, and Jean-Pierre Melville. Age brought elegance, but her screen persona never calcified, and in her later years she would act for Leos Carax, Andre Téchiné and Lars von Trier. Deneuve has never settled for being the grande dame, and she can as easily subvert her storied past as celebrate it. That’s why she remains one of the enduring greats of French cinema. The past tense is never applicable.
Catherine Deneuve’s stardom meant that as she grew older she could be flexible in the part she wanted to play, whether slotting into ensemble casts, choosing an intriguing supporting role, or remaining the prominent name on the poster. In some cases, including the tense, unpredictable 1998 drama Place Vendôme, Deneuve was able to break through the film industry’s avoidance of stories about older women. In Nicole Garcia’s movie, which contrasts the assumed luxury of wealthy Parisian life with the subconscious tangle of past misdeeds, Deneuve plays Marianne Malivert, the wife of a prestigious jeweller, Vincent (Bernard Fresson), who emerges from alcohol addiction rehabilitation just as her increasingly harried husband, beset by claims of improper activities, commits suicide.
The first half of the film is, like the cloistered gem business, economical with information. The details of Marianne’s life and her relationships emerge slowly, often in opposition to the expectations others have of her. Involuntary shudders grip her body when she looks in the mirror, and the social expectation of her family’s standing are slipping away. “You aren’t afraid because you’re sick,” is one of the last things Vincent says to Marianne, but with his death comes renewal. There is a remarkable shot after the funeral, as Marianne sits in a car, where you can see Deneuve weigh up what comes next for the character. The rush of emotions physically move through her very body.
In possession of a handful of valuable Russian gems that may have been stolen by Vincent, Marianne re-enters the professional world she once mastered. She makes decisions on the fly, and is drawn to a young employee, Nathalie (Emmanuelle Seigner), whose own predilections are a reflection of the circumstances that attached Marianne to Vincent two decades prior. Slowly you realise that selling the diamonds is as much about settling her past as ensuring her financial security, and the Garcia steers the picture towards the unsettling terrain of a film noir. “We all believe we’re stronger than we are,” Marianne notes, confronting the men who seek to steer her, and Deneuve shows you that Marianne can obtain everything she needs with one possible exception: happiness.
At the beginning of Francois Ozon’s delicious satire, Catherine Deneuve’s 1970s privileged housewife jogs – in a vivid red tracksuit, no less – through a forest that’s as picture perfect as a tourist postcard. But as she looks around, Deneuve’s Suzanne Pujol spots not one but two rabbits, which are humping vigorously. The tone is set: kitsch undercut by farce. Based on a popular play and liberally adapted by Ozon, the former enfant terrible of French cinema (Water Drops on Burning Rocks), Potiche also positions Deneuve as a woman taking control of her life, although in this case with a decidedly lighter tone.
“You accept everything,” Suzanne’s daughter, Joelle (Judith Godrèche), tells her after she defends the importance of marriage. Suzanne’s husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini) is the combative boss of the family business, an umbrella factory, where he confronts the unionised workforce and fraternises with his secretary. When a worker sit-in and a heart attack sideline Robert, the previously languid – or more accurately, bored – Suzanne takes charge of the company. She proves a dab hand in industrial relations, especially once she brings in the local mayor, a Communist named Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu), with whom she has had prior acquaintance.
Ozon’s film, with its waves of orange and deliberately gaudy, off-key design, not only depicts Suzanne as a confident boss in a conservative era, it also presents her as having a more complicated past than her age and position traditionally implies. The tone is playfully brisk, and the scenes between Deneuve and Depardieu have a chemistry that dates back to the duo’s first collaboration 30 years prior in Truffaut’s The Last Metro. Throughout the film Suzanne prick masculine pride, and by the end of the movie – in scenes that reflect on Ségolène Royal’s then recent tilt at the French Presidency – she turns her independence into a maternal strength. Catherine Deneuve as the mother of France? Who else could pull that off?
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