It’s not precise that the sight of Catherine Deneuve as a middle-aged alcoholic — slightly slack jaw line, wrinkles etching her face, a thickened midsection — is a shock. Deneuve has been one of the busiest actresses in the world for the past decade, with her aging candidly, fearlessly documented. What is shocking is how impossibly beautiful she remains, how incredibly sexy. If anything, her feminine and acting powers have only deepened with time. She plays women with histories, with complex and complicated stories that unfold across her weathered but still gorgeous face. Even as her Hollywood peers are relegated to portraying simplistically drawn mothers and shrews (or creatures that are both), the terrain Deneuve has staked out has grown more psychologically and emotionally intricate as she ages. Few of her recent characters have been mothers at all.
In Place Vendome, the actress plays Marianne Malivert, a wealthy jeweler‘s wife who’s seemingly been pampered and indulged for years, and made weak because of it. She spends most of her time in an expensive rehab clinic, where she has a permanent bed and a revolving-door approach to treatment. Another character, commenting on Marianne‘s marriage, quips that she’s only “brought out for special occasions.” After her financially strapped husband Vincent commits suicide, Marianne is forced to try to sober up and take charge of her life. Thrust into the cutthroat world of the jewelry business, she has to deal with the mess of her existence — the ruins of her thwarted career, the loveless reality of her marriage, hints that her husband had been seeing another woman. Her recovery is set in the middle of a taut thriller in which the Russian mafia and double-talking businessmen are major players. In case there‘s ever any doubt, her unnerving dealings with mysterious men and shadowy forces make literal the fact that Marianne is fighting for her life.
Writer-director Nicole Garcia — herself an actress — toys with genre to underscore points about gender and power. The women who normally are on the fringe in tales of intrigue and espionage are brought to the center of the frame, with all the treachery in place. No soft lobs just because they’re girls. But Garcia also works in timeless observations about gender hypocrisy, the interchangeability of women (especially as they age), and the privileges and steep costs of female beauty. She doesn‘t hammer her points home, though; it’s possible to watch the film, enjoy it immensely and not gleana single feminist insight — even if it‘s that insight which makes Place Vendome so rich, so resonant. Garcia doesn’t simply cast men as power-hungry villains and women as their helpless victims. Marianne is shown to have once been shrewd and coolly ambitious before a turn of events that all but crushed her.
Deneuve gives a vanity-free performance, one that has her looking both blowsy and beautiful — if ragged at the edges. Her Marianne doesn‘t sober up and become a kick-ass heroine: She stops and starts, pulling herself up from trembling drunk to weary-eyed survivor who fucks up, falls down, then starts the climb again. Nathalie (Emmanuelle Seigner) — Vincent Malivert’s top salesperson and possibly his lover — is equally driven but more calculating. Her mercenary approach to romance is not only a form of self-protection (and -promotion), but also a tart commentary on both the changed and the intractable definitions of femininity and female power. What ultimately makes Vendome work so beautifully is the very Frenchness of it all. The kick within the movie (like the best French films, period) is its restorative powers: You walk out feeling like an adult, like you‘ve participated in a heady, provocative conversation about the vagaries and quotidian brutalities of life. It’s all about having your intelligence — emotional, spiritual, cerebral — respected. Garcia does that; Place Vendome does that. And Deneuve, an icon whose meaning and definition have grown and deepened over the course of her career, sits at the head of the table.