The ice queen cometh
Marianne Malivert (as played by 57-year-old Catherine Deneuve) exudes a glacial beauty and an alluring depth of character that even her alcoholism cannot fully drown.
Her 18-year marriage to international jeweler Vincent (Bernard Fresson) is a loveless wreck. While she uses a Paris rehab clinic as a second home of sorts, Vincent soils his prestigious business and personal reputation by purchasing stolen gems. Unable to face nagging debts, empty inventory shelves and a looming scandal, he shows Marianne where he hides his hot ice, then kills himself. His exit becomes a catalyst for Marianne’s re-entry into sobriety and reconnection to a checkered past. So it goes in Place Vendôme, a seductive tale of fluctuating dignity, suspect agendas, intrigue, vanity, love and greed.
Marianne’s inheritance includes an unloaded revolver, a watch, a photograph of what’s possibly her in Spain, five flawlessly cut diamonds and a gem shop on the verge of bankruptcy.
Vincent’s brother wants her to liquidate her assets and tries to trick her into admitting she has possession of Vincent’s contraband. She is a former gem broker who is wary of his intentions and knows her way around hard negotiation, double-crosses and trouble with authorities. She decides to keep the business afloat for reasons that slowly emerge from a noir-ish web of alienation, manipulation and redemption. “Small world, the gem trade,” says one character as the film provides an insider’s view of the global diamond market through encounters in London and Antwerp. The comment proves to be a lingering understatement as we are spoon-fed a stream of shady characters and their incestuous, cannibalistic and toxic relationships.
The characters and their interactions, rather than conventional plot points, provide the real heart of the film. Battistelli (Jacques Dutronc) is a former lover of Marianne’s and a thief whose scams demand a day of reckoning. Nathalie (Emmanuelle Seigner, Roman Polanski’s wife) is a salesgirl who may have been Vincent’s mistress. She leaves the bed of repo-man Jean-Pierre (Jean-Pierre Bacri) for the companionship of Battistelli. Jean-Pierre then begins feeding information to Marianne about both Battistelli and Nathalie. Numerous mentions are made about how much Nathalie is a cookie-cutter image of the older Marianne. Also thrown into the mix is an ominous link between the stolen rocks and the Russian Mafia.
Place Vendôme is titled after the swank Parisian public square that is home to Vincent’s shop and the famed Ritz. It is the third feature from French actress-turned-director Nicole Garcia (Beau Père, Bolero). The pacing feels a bit too slow, and the film seems too long and too emotionally detached. I also felt as though I needed a program at times to keep up with the character flow, but Deneuve overrides these flaws with sheer magnetism.
Her performance in this film earned her the Best Actress award at the 1998 Venice Film Festival. She is the glue that holds all pieces of this puzzle firmly in place. She credibly shifts from glamorous professional to self-absorbed, vulnerable drunk (“She’s not so gullible as she is malleable,” says one character) with only a slight muss of hair, and she chews up the scenery with a disgusted look at herself in the mirror. She is a cool blonde who reeks of dark secrets and a passionate past, intentionally isolating herself from a life that has soured.
I saw Deneuve in person at the San Francisco International Film Festival in the mid-1970s. She made a lasting impression. She does not just cross a room, she glides across it—leaving in her wake a forest of turned heads. In Place Vendôme, she plays a woman who has separated herself into two camps, and neither camp is happy with the other. Just as she did as the housewife-turned-whore in Belle de Jour (1967) and as the radiant romantic lead in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), she proves she can still sell character just as well as she once sold Chanel cosmetics and luxury cars.