directed by François Ozon
starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini
Music Box Films
In 1977 communism still made sense in a few odd places, like France. At the Pujol Umbrella Factory, working conditions are still 19th century down to the Turkish squat toilets in the plant. Robert Pujol (Luchini) isn’t taking any worker guff, and a strike is about to boil into open warfare while his bored wife Suzanne (Deneuve) putters in the flower garden and sends the servant off to Portugal so she can at least make Robert toast. Communist mayor Maurice Babin (Depardieu) eggs on the workers, and they kidnap Robert. Umbrella production stops cold, and the world trembles. Suzanne rallies the family. Ultra-conservative daughter Joëlle (Judith Godrèche) demands an airstrike, artistic son Laurent (Jérémie Renier) thinks a love-in might help, but its Suzanne’s relationship with Babin that saves Robert and the factory. Suzanne actually makes the place a better employer, a more productive and innovative facility, and she finds a real joy as a leader of men. Naturally this enrages Robert and a web of old love affairs turns this from a political screed into the sort of flirty frothy French film that we remember from the Art House days of our youth.
Ozon’s deliberately retro style uses Dogma 95 style lighting, silly split frames, and the occasional sly modern technique to frame the story. Except for Deneuve and Depardieu everyone is rather one dimensional: Robert a froth-mouth reactionary, Joelle a Tea Party radical, and Lauren the swishy artist boy who flames his way to the top of the brolly design game. But Deneuve and Depardieu both peel off layer after layer of personality, motivation, and all that dry-lit theory that only the film dweeb can discuss, turning this into the kind of love story audiences crave. Deneuve careens between vulnerable and domineering, loving but practical as Depardieu goes from the burnt-out warrior to the energized lover, balancing personal happiness with the happiness of an ill-defined working class that at least cares enough to vote for him. By the credits, Robert has recaptured his sinking ship and drilled fresh holes in the rotten planking, pissed off his faithful lover and secretary Nadège (Karin Viard), and lost his wife. But everyone else is joyful, and Suzanne wraps up a political win with a dopey French pop song that wins your heart. If you have fond memories of foreign films before they were co-opted by Hollywood, this is a trip down memory lane complete with explicit bunny sex, funny looking cars, and plenty of gratuitous cigarette smoking. All that’s missing is the mime.