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Friday, April 15, 2011

Frothy 'Potiche' puts Catherine Deneuve on pedestal

Music Box Films
  • GILF BY ASSOCIATION: Catherine Deneuve in 'Potiche'
  • Music Box Films
After Elizabeth Taylor died on March 23, obituaries lamented that she the last of Old Hollywood's glamor goddesses, with star power that outshone most of the movies she appeared in. Well, maybe not the last: Catherine Deneuve is another legendary screen beauty who became a muse for major cinema artists and fashion mavens alike. Plus, having made more than 100 movies, including classics like Repulsion and Belle du Jour, Deneuve extended her career as an interesting actress longer than Taylor. While Deneuve played icy blonde beauties in her youth, François Ozon's comedy Potiche pens a love letter to Deneuve that lets her show off her comedic gifts. Without a leading lady of Deneuve's stature, Potiche would collapse like a punctured circus tent.

The title Potiche translates as "trophy wife," which has a slightly different French meaning than its American connation. As the title character, Suzanne Pujol, Deneuve isn't the young, sex object spouse to a preening businessman, but the long-time, perfectly turned ornamental wife of umbrella factory owner Robert Pujol (apoplectic Fabrice Luchini). Suzanne faces few expectations beyond running Robert's household, parroting his opinions and turning a blind eye to his infidelities. Early scenes capture Suzanne's cushy life as she jogs in an idyllic forest that would be worthy of Snow White were it not for the copulating rabbits.

Just when it seems like the women's liberation movement will pass Suzanne by, labor unrest wreaks havoc at the factory. Striking workers take her husband hostage, but after she negotiates his release, his heart condition puts him in the hospital and forces Suzanne to take over the management role. She enjoys getting all dolled up for union negotiations and telling indignant workers, "In a sense, [Robert'] my boss, too, so I can sympathize." She also rekindles an old flame with a local socialist politician, Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu, apparently ready for the blog Men Who Look LIke Old Lesbians).

Potiche's greatest strength probably lies in the scenes with Deneuve and Depardieu, which evokes the casual, companionably flirtation of Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give, or Henry Fonda bantering with Katherine Hepburn in On Golden Pond. Ozon gives Deneuve plenty of leeway to warm up a creaky vehicle for farce, without offending her dignity. Suzanne dances to a kitchen radio, cavorts at a discotheque with Babin, outmaneuvers Robert and practically pulls the audience to her bosom.

Though the film takes place in 1977, Ozon's splashy cinematography evokes the films of the 1960s. Flashbacks to her youthful affairs border on parody of the kind of sunny French sex comedy with angels cooing "La la la la" on the soundtrack. Though Suzanne initially comes across as a passive victim of Robert's philandering, we discover that she was never one to resist carnal temptation, giving the film a sexually permissive subtext you'd seldom find in an American film.

The film's treatment of labor issues resonate in America with 2011's debates over Wisconsin unions. Overall, Potiche floats along so airily its toes scarcely touch the ground, and without Deneuve's charms would dissipate altogether, like a perfume cloud. The musical number qualities of the final scene suggest that Deneuve herself has come out for an encore, not her character, but she's one of the few actresses who blossoms under such adoration.

Potiche 3 stars (R ) Directed by François Ozon. Stars Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu. Rated R. Opens Fri, April 15. At United Artists Tara Cinema.

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