Here in the U.S., we don’t see enough of Catherine Deneuve. She is no longer the face of Chanel No. 5. (C’est dommage!) And she hasn’t appeared in an American film since 2001’s The Musketeer, where she played the queen.
If you want to see Catherine Deneuve, you have to search out those theaters that regularly play the many French films where she continues to have starring roles. Fortunately, her most recent one, Potiche, is in wider release, so we have the opportunity to remind ourselves how she can still command the screen.
And in Potiche (French for “vase,” but here translated as “trophy wife”) she is given a role where she can display her beauty (yes, even at age 67), her considerable charm, her ability to look stunning no matter what she is wearing, and, of course, her acting abilities. The plot, admittedly, is a little dated and clichéd, but she also manages to rise above the material.
The film is set in 1977, when women were continuing to break out of their roles as fulltime housewives. (The film is based on a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy that appeared ten years earlier.) Deneuve plays Suzanne Pujol, whose husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini) runs an umbrella factory. Robert, to call up a popular label from the times, is a true male chauvinist pig, bullying his wife to keep her in her place, carrying on an affair with his secretary, and constantly criticizing his son and daughter. His workers, who don’t like him any more than his family, take him hostage when he refuses to give into some of their demands. After he falls ill, Suzanne steps in to run the factory and does an impressive job. Although her son, Laurent (Jérémie Renier) had refused to get involved with the factory because of arguments with his father, Suzanne succeeds in bringing him on board.
We soon learn, however, that Suzanne’s track record (the film actually opens with her running in a red track suit) isn’t as innocent as we are first led to believe. Gérard Depardieu plays Maurice Babin, the local politician and Communist Party member whose history with Suzanne goes way back. Once she assumes the high profile position of running the factory and seeks out Maurice for help, the two are thrown together again. Despite the many years that have gone by, Maurice still carries a torch for her and she does little to discourage him. But Suzanne has bigger plans and she will leave both Robert and Maurice in her wake.
Men will enjoy this film for the opportunity to daydream once again about Deneuve, but it’s a chick flick for sure. For those of us who came up in business during the tumultuous seventies, having to fight for every assignment and promotion, this film will remind us about those times. For younger women—pay attention! Women like Suzanne paved the way. We owe her and her generation a vote of thanks.