Film Reviews

Catherine the Great

The current release of French director Nicole Garcia's Place Vendême, which was nominated for 11 César Awards when it made its debut in France two years ago, is yet another sign that the drop-off in French imports that has plagued U.S. screens in recent years is reversing: This is roughly the 15th French film to receive U.S. distribution this year, not counting such reissues as Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Big Blue. What's even more amazing, none of these films stars Gerard Depardieu, who seemed to have become the sine qua non for an American release.

It does have the next best thing, in terms of name recognition -- Catherine Deneuve, whose work here won her a well-deserved Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival. Deneuve may be going after Depardieu's crown: She has also been seen stateside in East-West and Time Regained during the last five months. While she had only supporting roles in those movies, she is the center of Place Vendôme, a story that swirls around her character even when she is offscreen.

Deneuve plays Marianne, the desperately unhappy wife of respected jewel merchant Vincent Malivert (Bernard Fresson). For reasons that eventually become clear, Marianne is not only a constantly relapsing alcoholic but also so highly strung and neurotic that she spends more time in psychiatric facilities than at home. What she doesn't know is that Vincent -- perhaps because of the expense of her illness, perhaps because of maintaining his mistress, Nathalie (Emmanuelle Seigner, who starred in husband Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate earlier this year) -- has been reduced to dealing in stolen gems, risking the solvency of his firm and his family's previously pristine reputation. When Vincent's predicament drives him to suicide, Marianne is left in a wretched position. She refuses to go along with Vincent's brother in selling the firm; she is convinced she can save the day by selling off some magnificent diamonds Vincent had hidden in their apartment.

But it's been 18 years since she herself abandoned the trade for marriage. She doesn't seem to realize that it's a different world now: Many of her old contacts are dead or out of the business; the fall of the Soviet Union has unleashed a whole new group of ruthless criminals; and things have become a lot less freewheeling than in her heyday. Even more dauntingly, a whole array of unsavory types seems to be after the gems. The only one she thinks she can trust is Jean-Pierre (Jean-Pierre Bacri), the down-on-his-luck middle-aged boyfriend Nathalie has recently thrown over for a mysterious new lover.

Although Marianne is forced by circumstances to resurrect the plucky, resourceful young woman she once was, she also is forced to recall the traumatic situation that drove her to alcoholism and depression in the first place. In fact, not merely to recall, but to relive. In Vertigo-like fashion, it becomes increasingly clear that history is repeating itself in amazing detail, with Nathalie a younger reflection of herself.

Garcia's visual style is pleasing if a little dark, but -- not surprisingly for a former actress (Bertrand Blier's Beau Père, among others) -- her greatest asset is in her casting and directing of actors. Seigner, sometimes dismissed as a blank beauty who just happens to be married to a major director, earned her César nomination for Best Supporting Actress here. Curiously, both Fresson and Jacques Dutronc (who plays the mysterious lover) were also nominated in the male supporting category; yet neither leaves as strong an impression as Bacri, who was overlooked. (The Césars seem as capricious as the Oscars: Place Vendôme lost for Best Picture to Francis Veber's loathsome The Dinner Game.)

But it is Deneuve's show all the way. That this drop-dead gorgeous babe is also a terrific actress was clear at least as far back as Polanski's horrifying Repulsion (1965). The years have been exceedingly kind: In terms of sheer physical beauty, it's not so much that Deneuve doesn't look like a 56-year-old as that she's as luscious a 56-year-old as she was a 20-year-old, back when she became an international star in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

At the same time, her dramatic range and self-possession have only deepened. As in Repulsion so many years ago, in Place Vendôme she plays a character whose surface beauty is a thin, fragile veneer disguising a pathetically devastated soul. As Marianne struggles to recover strengths she has long since forgotten she possesses, Deneuve keeps us guessing as to whether her character is succeeding or is, at any moment, about to exhaust her emotional reserve and disintegrate.

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Andy Klein