Catherine Deneuve is no longer just an actress but an icon of film, each performance of her later career is informed by her legend and her history. Though a skilled and resourceful actress, her beauty and her celebrity are just as important to her casting as is her talent. She is as much a monument to cinema as she is a performer. Her work is informed by her stardom.
Director François Ozon has worked with Deneuve twice. A student of cinema, particularly Hollywood cinema, Ozon’s collaborations with Deneuve engage with her stardom and her place in film history. As film scholar Richard Dyer says, “[Stardom] combines the spectacular with the everyday, the special with the ordinary, and is seen as an articulation of basic American/Western values.”
Ozon’s audiences get access to Deneuve as a spectacle with his films. In a throwback to studio star vehicles of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Ozon’s work with Deneuve is a way to exploit the audience’s affection, desire, and expectations of the actress. Their first film together was the Douglas Sirk-inspired pastiche, 8 Women, which had Deneuve work with other important women in French cinema, including Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant, and Danielle Darrieux. In 8 Women (2002), Ozon demonstrated his love for cinema by incorporating elements of classic Hollywood, including Sirkian melodramas, MGM musicals, film noir, and screwball comedies.
In Potiche (2010), their second collaboration, Ozon employs Deneuve’s star image again, gifting her with a tailor-made vehicle that allows her to simultaneously be an actress as well as a star. In Potiche, Deneuve’s image is initially subverted as her character is (relatively) dowdy and underdressed but as the classic-hero narrative of the plot gives her character a triumphant story arc, she becomes more fashionable, and her star image is affirmed. Ozon hits every note of the classic star vehicle in Potiche, even giving Deneuve a musical number at the end.
Potiche is another film in Deneuve’s very prolific late career. Though she was in her late 60s at the time, Deneuve maintained a productive run, appearing in two or three films a year. The same year that audiences saw her in Potiche, she starred in a supporting role in Éric Lartigau’s 2010 thriller, The Big Picture. In each film, she gave strong performances but a large part of her appeal in these late-career films is her glamour. She essentially epitomizes stylish French cinema.
Ozon credits the actress for the film being made, insisting that “[the casting of Deneuve] was important. Without her, I wouldn’t have done the film…In France, only Catherine Deneuve could do this part.” Indeed, Deneuve exudes a world-weary, sophisticated elegance. Her evergreen beauty makes her desirable into late middle age. Yet, despite her beauty, there’s also something removed and isolated about Deneuve: she doesn’t blend in the film, despite the ingenious wardrobe that tries to convince audiences that she’s a blowsy housewife in 1970s France.
In Potiche, Ozon employs Deneuve as a cinematic symbol, disrupting his effort at realism by casting such an instantly recognizable figure whose demeanor is defined by iciness. At least, film critic Manohla Dargis likened her to an iceberg, describing her acting as moving “through the scenery with her glacial hauteur.” Deneuve’s diva quality is part of her appeal and legacy as well as her persona, and this is somewhat affirmed by Ozon’s admission that the two shared some tension when working together on 8 Women.
It’s fascinating to watch a film like Potiche because it embraces so many different film tropes and conventions. Ozon makes these nods to different cinema conventions with a cheekiness and Deneuve is an important part of his allusions. From the first frame, we see Ozon looking backward, using Cooper Black font for the opening credit texts, connoting the 1970s.
Viewers first see Deneuve jogging through a forest wearing a red tracksuit. Philippe Rombi’s kitschy score accompanies the actress as she runs through the sun-dappled trail, clearly out of her normal guise: instead of donning extravagant drag, she’s clad in a plain red jogging suit; her crown of champagne hair is shrouded by a headscarf. When she stops to do some quick exercises, she’s joined by a menagerie of woodland creatures, including two copulating rabbits wherein Ozon presents a tongue-in-cheek spoof of Disney films. Deneuve’s jog ends with her strolling into a mansion.
When we see Deneuve again Ozon does something very funny by framing her in a kitchen door, carrying a tray of breakfast. Deneuve’s diva image is wholly subverted. Her dowdy red suit is covered by an ugly blue apron. Her hair is a large blonde bubble. Or a better description would be a blonde helmet. The wide lapels peeking out of the neck of the apron suggest a leisure suit beneath. All of it is just tacky enough to create a comedy and much of it is to do with what Ozon has done to his star.
Potiche translates to trophy wife and Deneuve’s character is defined as a trophy wife. Her character, Suzanne Pujol is married to the bigoted and short-tempered Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini). Owner of an umbrella factory, he is mired in a war with the labor union. Suzanne is ensconced in her large home, completely domesticated, isolated from her husband’s work. Her relationship with her adult children and grandchildren is warm. Robert, on the other hand, is a tyrannical cheat who abuses his employees and is having an affair with his secretary.
The instigating factor that sets off the hero story is Robert’s heart attack. Incapacitated and unable to deal with the impending strike at his factory, Suzanne is drafted to act as the de facto leader of the factory until he gets better. The plot then pivots to a 9 to 5-esque tale in which the more sympathetic and continuously underestimated Suzanne uses her empathy to not only successfully evade a strike but also to institute changes that make the company a better workplace.
In a noticeable shift in aesthetics, Suzanne dresses up to face the angry workers. Deneuve is more familiar at this point – wrapped in a luxurious white fur stole – she plays the role of a grande diva, akin to Marie Antoinette or Evita Perón. She is the glamorous if indulged figure who is tasked to negotiate with the outraged workers. Ozon composes a scene that braids his film’s ’70s-era aesthetics with the working-class setting and Deneuve’s conspicuous glitz.
Facing each other in a grim meeting room, the laborers are all men, all played by character actors donning extreme ’70s fashion. They’re assembled at a large table, facing Suzanne, who is sitting at the head of the table. The contrast is clear” Deneuve almost looks like a plush toy with her fur and her large, fluffy hairdo and the men are exceptionally realistic, to the point of caricature.
When confronted with their demands, Suzanne appeals to the men’s sympathy by invoking her femininity and promising to consider their requirements. As the story continues, Suzanne is seen as a natural leader, innovating design and production of the company’s umbrellas, proving to be capable in her husband’s absence. Upon Robert’s return, Suzanne’s professional ascent unnerves him and through underhanded machinations, manages to oust her from her position.
Suzanne’s career setback sets the stage for the film’s final act that sees her embrace a political career as she runs for office. In a montage that portrays her political rise, we meet with the Deneuve with whom we are familiar. On the campaign trail, Suzanne eschews the matronly suits she wore at the umbrella factory and instead chooses stylish outfits that signal a new persona. Her hard-lacquer hairdo has been loosened.
Ozon’s film doesn’t try to avoid clichés with Potiche. Instead, he embraces them. He crafts an enjoyable and recognizable story of an underdog who does good. He finds irreverent humor in the familiar. Each time we are faced with a careworn plot point, it’s depicted with a tongue firmly in cheek. Under Ozon’s careful direction, Suzanne flourishes as she finds herself: she goes through a physical metamorphosis from the docile trophy wife to a beautiful political star. Using clothing, hairstyles, and makeup as visual cues, we see Suzanne’s look get glossier and sleeker as she becomes more self-assured and independent.
As a performer, Deneuve does personable work in Potiche, understanding the iconography with which she and Ozon are working. It’s not a deeply intense performance, but then again, few of Deneuve’s performances are. In her best films, she brings a stoicism that simmers beneath the seemingly placid, sometimes-mask like beauty.
But in Potiche she also embraces the absurdity of the script, creating a sharp contrast between her statue-like beauty with the silliness of her setting. Ozon finds comedy in putting his star in goofy scenes which have an effect of the haughty dowager taking a pie in the face. In a sequence that recalls Saturday Night Fever (another artifact of 70s pop cinema), Deneuve is plunged into a dance number that starts innocently enough with the actress slow dancing her costar, Gérard Depardieu. Suddenly, though the downtempo tune morphs into a disco number, and with a good-natured stiffness, Deneuve eases into the choreography. She’s not a good dancer but she’s a good sport, and she never looks slightly ill-at-ease trying to pull off the steps. Ozon is not only paying homage to Saturday Night Fever but again, is mining Deneuve’s own film history, recalling her song-and-dance number in Lars von Trier’s tragic musical, Dancer in the Dark (2000). In the von Trier film, Deneuve is performing an industrial dance-music number with the film’s star and composer, Björk.
Like all of Deneuve’s work, there is quite a bit of subtext to her casting, particularly as her beauty and glamour contrast greatly with the dour and depressing plot of the film. But there’s a key difference in the two performances: in the von Trier film, Deneuve throws herself into the film’s musical number, fully in character. Her character, Cathy, is reluctant to join her friend Selma (Björk) in the musical sequence, but finally comes around and is fully invested. Because the film reflects a sincere and desperate love of movie musicals, there is no irony in Deneuve’s performance. It’s not knowing (though again, there is an implication of having a legendary sex icon like Deneuve dancing in overalls in a drab factory setting). Though not a particularly gifted dancer, in Dancer, Deneuve acquits herself well (aided, no doubt, by the MTV-style quick editing). But in Potiche, she and Ozon are in a shared joke. They aren’t selling the musical number as anything other than a silly indulgence and a sight gag to progress the story as well as to entertain the audiences.
Strangely enough, the disco scene isn’t the only time in Potiche when the film bursts into song. When her Suzanne speaks in front of a rapturous crowd on election night, Ozon again goes back to cinema history, this time citing Alan Parker’s 1996 musical Evita. Whilst giving a speech to her adoring supporters, Suzanne calls for a utopia marked by a gentle matriarchy in which she is mother to her followers. Then, as if it were normal, Suzanne steps away from her lectern, microphone in hand, to warble a pop ditty, a cover of Jean Ferrat’s “C’est beau la vie.” As she weaves her way through the throng of well-wishers, she continues to sing, as she kisses cheeks and presses palms. The last image we have of Suzanne is her standing, glowing in a soft spotlight, a focal point in the crowd of supporters, as the music draws to a close. Staring directly at a crane-operated camera that pulls back, she insists, “Yes, it is great. Live is truly great.”
In Potiche we have an ironic and comical twist on Catherine Deneuve’s star image. Though her following films all will engage in some way with her legend, rarely is it used for comedy as it’s done in Ozon’s film. It’s a performance that relies more on Deneuve being a good sport and a great star than being a great actress. It’s camp at its finest.
Dargis, Manohla. “Sour ‘8 Women‘ Needs a Dash of Douglas Sirk”. Review of 8 Women. Los Angeles Times. 20 September 2002.
Dyer, Richard. “Stars As Images“. Stars. (2nd Edition). Bloomsbury. 1998.
Edwards, Mike. “Interview with François Ozon”. Obsessed with Film. 22 June 2011.
Walsh, Joe. “Interview with François Ozon“. Cinevue. 7 October 2011.