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Festival Nirvana: Palm Springs Touts its Star-wattage and Ozon’s “Potiche” at Opener

Festival Nirvana: Palm Springs Touts its Star-wattage and Ozon's "Potiche" at Opener

At some point several years ago (or more), I remember my former colleague Eugene Hernandez and I vowed that whenever we traveled to a film festival, the topic of weather would only be a passing reference at best in write ups (or at least that was the plan) lest the primacy of the event, and most importantly, the films not become a backdrop.

So, I sin.

Maybe it’s because I live in New York and it’s been a pretty nasty winter so far, but the Palm Springs International Film Festival is the way to go! And to their credit, the organizers of the festival seem to know when to capitalize on a good thing. In his opening remarks at the festival’s gala opening Thursday night PSIFF chairman Harold Matzner said that the event had been fragile financially just a few years ago, but is now thriving. Was it Maria Carey’s loopy acceptance speech last year at the festival’s signature awards gala for her role in “Precious” that sealed the deal? Her…errr… drunken on stage chat was picked up by practically every TMZ/Perez/Inside Edition/Entertainment Tonight imaginable and even organizers last year jokingly were calculating in dollar terms the amount of publicity the sloshy acceptance speech generated.

And this year’s awards show is bound to be a hit, though presumably more sober. The cast of “The Social Network,” Ben Affleck, Colin Firth, Danny Boyle, Natalie Portman, Robert Duvall (who recently had his prints cemented at Grauman’s Chinese), Mark Wahlberg, James Franco, Amy Adams, Aaron Eckhart, Jennifer Lawrence, Carey Mulligan… Sounds like Oscar campaign season is in full swing. And with sunny Palm Springs under two hours from LA (in ideal traffic) there are bound to be some Academy members turning up along with those ubiquitous throngs of photographers and television cameras.

“The size and success of this festival would have been unimaginable to us a few years ago,” Matzner said Thursday night prior to the fest’s opener, French director Francois Ozon’s “Potiche” starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. “So much media cover our annual awards show, it’s almost like the Golden Globes.”

While the event’s apex of glitz is set for Saturday night, the Palm Springs International Film Festival is an event that appears to attract a loyal crowd of locals and visitors for almost two weeks, even when most of the stars have moved on. With nearly 200 selections from 69 countries, the event is offering up an array of choices. And while some Hollywood insiders may make it out for the Saturday awards gala, no doubt organizers are hoping they’ll stay for the lineup, which again includes a majority of the Best Foreign Language contenders vying for the Best Foreign-language Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. Along with that, festival heads Thursday touted its lineup across the board, including its sizable crop of first-time filmmakers who will screen their work in the coming days.

Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in a scene from Francois Ozon’s PSIFF opening night film, “Potiche.”

“200 individuals are here who’ve denied themselves a normal life for the art of filmmaking,” PSIFF Director Darryl Macdonald noted Thursday night, giving a shout out to the event’s filmmakers to rapturous applause. In addition to the newcomers, this year’s festival includes a focus on Africa and Australia, but France seems to be a part of the festival’s DNA. Ozon’s “Potiche,” which had its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival took center stage last night, giving the film a great spotlight.

In the comedy that had Thursday night’s crowd belting out laughter, Deneuve plays Suzanne Bujol, a trophy wife (“potiche”) whose passive life is thrown into turmoil when her philandering right-wing husband becomes ill and she is forced to take over the family business right as a worker uprising threatens to close the factory. With the help of her once lover (Depardieu) who is now the communist Mayor/MP in their locale as well as her son and her husband’s secretary (and lover), she takes command of the situation and ushers in a mini-utopia at the factory.

While the film seemed to be a crowd pleaser, the subtitles for the French-language film did come in handy. For the first ten minutes or so, the film’s sound cut out. The hundreds of people packed in the theater at Palm Springs High School for the event seemed to take it in stride, although there were a few groans. And finally, the technical snafu was corrected and there was a good applause after the film’s credits rolled.

“One of the things about the Palm Springs International Film Festival, we’re an ‘international’ film festival,” PSIFF Director of Programming said Thursday night. “It seemed fitting to open with a foreign-language film, and it stars Catherine Deneuve. Who can resist Catherine Deneuve?”

[Correction: In an earlier version of this article, iW inadvertently listed Annette Bening as one of the honorees at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.]

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