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By Michael Calleri

The workplace comedy and circus adventures are tales that films have utilized almost as long as movies have been around. This week's offerings tap deep into cinema's past.

"Potiche" is the newest feature from accomplished French director Francois Ozon ("Swimming Pool," "8 Women"). It seems to have been created to showcase the legendary Catherine Deneuve.

And why not?

Deneuve is a superb actress whose appearance in any film tells us that we are in the presence of a cool, smart, sophisticated European woman. The word "potiche" in French is an idiom meaning "trophy wife," so what's especially fun about the movie is the fact that Deneuve is clearly playing with her reputation as one of cinema's ice goddesses.

Director Ozon loves to toy with the conventions of film genres. With "Potiche," he's created a comedy that is genuinely funny and almost as broad as a boulevard in Paris. Played at a breathtaking pace, the picture has been shot in bold colors, like one of those Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies from the 1960s.

The movie's opening scene brings immediate laughs. On her daily morning jog, Deneuve, as housewife Suzanne Pujol, literally talks to the animals as she runs through a beautiful wooded area. Birds and bunnies are her friends. She's like a living, breathing Walt Disney cartoon character.

It turns out that the woods are her backyard and her life is one of serene pleasure. Suzanne has little to do except exercise, write poetry, relax and enjoy good French food.

Her husband, Robert, who owns an umbrella factory, definitely married her for her beauty and ability to showcase what's correct about the world of manufacturing at parties and town gatherings. Trophy wife, indeed.

As the film progresses, we will see the stronger side of Suzanne. Her husband and two children will soon take her seriously.

This is because the employees at Robert's plant have taken a stand. A labor dispute soon leads to him being taken hostage by the workers. Who steps in to keep the umbrellas rolling off the assembly line? Suzanne, of course.

She becomes empowered, and our little country mouse is suddenly the talk of the town. In fact, she discovers that she's very good at running a factory. Set as it is in the 1970s, "Potiche" has within it a message of female liberation.

In addition to the central storyline, the movie has a nice subplot about the friendship between Suzanne and the town's leftist mayor, played by Gerard Depardieu. They share an interesting past.

Deneuve's scenes with Depardieu are especially sweet because, like their characters, they have shared the screen many times before. They are both perfect and deliver their lines with a whimsical lightness.

The film has fine production values. The wonderfully comic screenplay is by director Ozon and is based on a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy.

The supporting cast is delightful, including Fabrice Luchini as Suzanne's embattled husband, Karin Viard as his ineffective secretary, and Judith Godreche and Jeremie Renier as Suzanne's right-wing daughter and left-wing son.

"Potiche" is a charming work, made all the more so because Deneuve's comic ability is put to good use. Ozon keeps everything percolating, even offering a couple of nice surprises for moviegoers.

The wit and wisdom that comes from a woman's emerging sense of self worth give the picture a jolt of politics and sociology. There's a lot going on in "Potiche," not the least of which is further realization, if you needed any more, that Catherine Deneuve truly is a cinematic treasure.

"Water For Elephants" has two attractive leads, Robert Pattinson as a Cornell University veterinary student and Reese Witherspoon as the youngish wife of a circus owner, the circus being the kind of small traveling show that barnstormed through the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.

The movie also has middle-aged character actor Christoph Waltz, who acts circles around the young stars. He proves here that he really deserved his supporting actor Oscar for "Inglourious Basterds." Once again, he controls every scene he's in. And we're happy to watch. Waltz plays August, a complicated man who can be kind and endearing one moment, cruel and bitter the next.

Pattinson plays Jacob Jankowksi, who's left homeless and desolate after his Polish immigrant parents are killed in an automobile accident. Jacob hops aboard a moving train that shuttles the Benzini Brothers Circus around the country. Through the conventions of the plot, he takes on the job of the circus's animal doctor. Associated with the circus is Marlena, a sickly-looking acrobat who is the star of the circus's horse show. Jacob and Marlena are soon ogling each other, which is a dangerous thing to do because she's married to Waltz's circus owner.

This is the total construct of the film, the inherent risks of fooling around with another man's wife, in a circus family no less, with a goodly number of freaks, flakes and drunks.

I should also mention the primary elephant, who figures prominently in the goings-on. Pattinson and Witherspoon try to build their relationship on their care and concern for the huge animal. There's more, but you might want to see the film, so I won't spoil anything.

The biggest problem with "Water For Elephants" is that there is no chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon. He stands around looking as if he's wondering how he ended up acting in movies, the "Twilight" films notwithstanding. And she looks bewildered, as if she's wondering why she's married to the old guy. Furthermore, Witherspoon is too lightweight to carry a noir romance. I couldn't take much of what she does seriously.

The movie is based on a very popular book by Sara Gruen and is directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Richard LaGravenese. Neither Lawrence nor LaGravenese seem to recognize that they don't have much of a story. "Double Indemnity" this is not. Plus, they've got to contend with Waltz's ability to dominate everything.

Additionally, they haven't dealt very well with the elephant in the room. You lose interest in the animal through no fault of its own. "Dumbo" this is not.

E-mail Michael Calleri at michaelcallerimoviesnfr@yahoo.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 26, 2011