François Ozon is one of those filmmakers whose work I tend to like when I see it, but which I tend just not to think of at any other time. (Granted, a lot of his movies don’t make it to the provinces. His last film to play here was 2003’s Swimming Pool.) I don’t see that changing with his latest, Potiche (meaning: status symbol, trophy wife), changing that. I enjoyed it immensely—far more than anything else I saw this week—and I would certainly recommend this soufflé of a movie to anyone (well, anyone who isn’t subtitle-phobic). And right now, I’d like to see his Time to Leave (2005), but just don’t see myself headed for an Ozon binge.
Potiche is a period piece—the period being 1977. The period is important because this is a story about striking workers and female empowerment that is very much of that era, especially in France. Plus, it allows for some rather flamboyant clothing and hairdos, and provides stars Catherine Deneuve a brief turn on the disco dance floor. In other words, the surface of the period is as important as the political time, so don’t be expecting the Gallic version of Made in Dagenham (2010). This is French farce—and, in fact, it’s based on a theatrical farce. Ozon has opened it up and broadened the scope of locations far beyond the possibilities of the stage, but its theatrical nature is still evident in all the entrances and exits. Of course, those are central to any good farce—and Potiche is definitely a good farce.
The film opens a bit on the precious side with Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) jogging through the countryside and being enthralled (a little too enthralled) by nature—even writing insipid little poems about a squirrel and a rose. It all feels a little forced and fake, even with Deneuve doing it. Fortunately, things are soon set to rights when the plot is set in motion. We soon learn that Suzanne is married to Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini, Paris), a man who seems to have married her for her beauty and to gain control of her father’s umbrella factory—not necessarily in that order, since he has a long history of cheating on his wife, whose intellect he dismisses. He’s a terror at the factory where all the workers hate him as much as they loved Suzanne’s father—even his secretary/mistress, Nadège (Karin Viard), isn’t exactly crazy about him.
Not surprisingly—and because the plot demands it—there’s soon a strike at the factory, and through a series of events, Pujol ends up in the hospital and Suzanne takes over the management, proving that she’s much more capable than her husband. (We never doubted this because she’s Catherine Deneuve.) Of course, she has help from her two children, Laurent (Jérémie Renier) and Jöelle (Judith Godrèche)—not mention from an old friend (and youthful indiscretion), the Mayor and local MP Maurice Babin (Depardieu), whom the autocratic Pujol loathes because Babin is a communist.
The plot is necessarily complicated by all manner of revelations about the characters and their relationships, most of which aren’t very revelatory to anyone familiar with farce, but which I’ll leave to their mild surprises. What makes it all work probably comes down to the teaming of Deneuve and Depardieu, who—even as they both age and he expands to Brandoesque proportions—have enough star quality to carry just about anything, and this is better than that. Ozon makes the most of his cast and the material—he even makes the umbrella factory have something of the air of René Clair and Jacques Tati. For pure pleasure of cinema, there’s nothing better out there at the moment. Rated R for some sexuality.