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Interview with Catherine Deneuve

Catherine Deneuve in Potiche

François Ozon approached you about POTICHE very early on.

Yes, as he did for 8 WOMEN. I was involved in the project from the beginning, right through to the end. I like to come in at the start, to really understand a film, give my opinion, discuss things. I tried to go in the direction François wanted. He’s very good at expressing what he does, or wants to do. Some actors like to begin working only when the script is final, but I like to be involved a bit beforehand. I need information from various sources so the character can gradually take shape, I can’t create a character alone before the shoot. I have an idea, of course, but I can’t really build the character if I stay in the abstract.

What was your initial reaction to the project?

I knew Jacqueline Maillan’s work, but not the Barillet and Grédy play, which I still haven’t read or seen for that matter. But when François told me about the play and his desire to adapt it, I thought it was a wonderful idea. First, because it was him: he has a particular talent for deconstruction and I knew he’d bring a sharp, ironic, modern vision to this “boulevard” play, which incidentally I do not consider a pejorative term. I could easily imagine what he might do with such subject matter. And then, there was the pleasure of working with him again.He quickly wrote a funny, energetic script with plenty of relevance to women’s place in today’s society. Things have changed in thirty years, of course, but not that much, actually. The play takes place in the 70s, but so much of what happens in it is still happening today: strikes, employers being held hostage, women not having much power, at least compared to men... That struggle is far from being over.

When your character gets involved in politics, Ségolène Royal comes to mind.

I had a variety of examples and images in my head throughout the film, depending on the situation. Personal examples, symbolic images, names I won’t reveal because doing so might distort or trivialize the message. But one thing is certain: I thought of many different people.

You were very involved in the women’s movement in the 1970s, notably when you signed the Manifesto of the 343 Bitches for abortion rights.

It didn’t occur to me while making the film, but of course this is a part of me. When Joëlle, my daughter in the film, tells me she won’t be getting an abortion, that takes me right back. Being pregnant, not wanting to or not being able to get an abortion, not being able to leave your husband... I remember how common those dilemmas were. Young women today have always had these rights, they don’t realize what big changes took place thirty years ago. I must say, it all happened incredibly fast.

What was your reunion with François Ozon like?

The experience of having already worked together made things much easier. I knew him, and he knew me, and that saved a lot of time. Which was a good thing, because I was a little apprehensive about the shooting schedule and being in virtually every scene. Indeed, it was a fast-paced shoot, reflecting the rhythm of the film. François never wastes any time, you’re never waiting around with him. He’s quick, intense, bright, incisive, ebullient. At the same time, he’s very meticulous. I felt like we were working in sync. The film was very written and structured, but within that structure, François gave the actors a lot of freedom. I felt very close to the film and to the project. I always felt like I was being elevated.

And then there was the fact that we shot in Belgium. It’s always better to shoot outside of Paris. You see each other so much more than when you go home after work every night. That encourages team spirit. The shoot was joyful and intense. The Belgian crew was wonderful. We were sad to say goodbye at the end. The atmosphere on a film set is always an unpredictable thing. It depends a lot on the director and the crew. But it’s crucial to the success of a film, especially when it’s a comedy. There needs to be a certain lightness and gaiety in everything. Although, once I’d finished the film, its pace seemed pretty brutal in retrospect!

Your ability to play straight is striking. We are both amused and touched by the character of Suzanne.

Yes, there’s a mixture of comedy and emotion. I absolutely wanted to be sincere, to play my character and the situations straight. François and I discussed it at length. I tried to avoid falling into fabrication, to stay as genuine as possible, to create empathy for the character, to express just how much she’s been oppressed by her authoritative husband. That way, when Suzanne succeeds, we welcome this turnaround, we’re happy to see her get her revenge.

Suzanne’s clothing evolves throughout the film. Did this help you get into character?

Yes, definitely. I had also experienced that on Benoit Jacquot’s PRINCESSE MARIE. When there is a lot of attention to the costumes, something happens with the character on a subconscious level, the clothing informs the attitudes. Pascaline Chavanne is a great costume designer. She’s a gold mine, she does incredible research and then proposes a wide range of options. Gradually the character’s style comes into focus, which really helps when you’re playing against type, as I was in POTICHE. There was no set idea in the beginning, but during the fittings everything came together, we learned which colors and cuts worked. The idea was to remain within the character’s time period while finding her personal style. The costumes needed to be both funny and believable.

The most unlikely costume is the red tracksuit Suzanne wears at the beginning of the film, when she’s still the good little bourgeois housewife.

At the same time, that tracksuit was made from a 1970s pattern and material. This outfit points the character in the direction she’ll be shifting, but she’s still got her curlers in her hair! The curlers were my idea, to counter the more modern image of the tracksuit. If she’d worn a sweatband, she’d have seemed like a liberated bourgeois woman, which she isn’t yet. We needed something quirky for that first scene to set the tone for the film.

What about reuniting with Gérard Depardieu?

Over the years*, we’ve reunited many times. And each time, it’s so natural. I love and admire him enormously. He’s an actor who is so present and warm with his partners. Plus he’s funny, and... very impatient. He doesn’t like to rehearse, he likes to shoot, he has a tendency to want to speed things up. Fortunately, François is the same. I think Gérard really had fun playing this union man. He was a natural in the part, it just flowed. François used Gérard’s amazing presence even as he was writing the scenes. He knew that having him playing the role would take everything up a notch.

On the other hand, this is the first time you’ve ever worked with Fabrice Luchini.

Gérard’s acting style is direct and instinctive, while Fabrice spends a great deal of time preparing. When he arrives on set, he has already developed his character perfectly for each situation. He’s a theater actor above all. With Gérard, you can change things at the last minute. With Fabrice, it’s a bit more complicated because his technique is the opposite of Gérard’s. He’s extremely brilliant and commands authority. Fabrice is hilarious in the role. He takes Pujol to the limit of the character’s nervous, irascible, quick-tempered personality, while also making him sympathetic in the end, when he finally realizes nobody is indispensable, not even him. He’s no Citizen Hearst!

8 WOMEN and POTICHE were both plays to start with, but very different from each other.

Yes, to me, the two films are polar opposites. First of all, 8 WOMEN was shot on one set, whereas POTICHE had multiple sets and locations. They’re not the same type of story, and most of all, there was much less emotion in 8 WOMEN. That film focused on other things: the complicity between actresses, the mother-daughter relationship. The tone was more playful.

You don’t do theater, but you’re not afraid of playing theatrical roles in the cinema.

Right, because cinema and theater are completely different. Theatrical acting in cinema is still cinema. What frightens me about theater is the unity of place, the fact that everything must be planned and decided in advance, everything is prepared, you are always doing the same thing. I have trouble with that, and with stage fright, being the center of attention in front of an audience. I still can’t imagine myself working in the theater.