Potiche, the latest film from French director François Ozon, opens with a slow zoom towards our protagonist as she jogs solitary against a nature background and ends with a slow zoom out away from the same protagonist as she stands swarmed with political supporters. With nearly the same expression on her face in both instances, this juxtaposition shows the ability for any strong woman to rise above the mundane. More importantly it shows that there is some smart camera work and thoughtful filmmaking afoot, which is what makes Potiche more than your average comedy.
The latest French comedy from Swimming Pool and 8 Women director Ozon is delightful and hilarious, if a bit on the nose, and will have the ability to charm the pants off even the stodgiest of capitalists. With great performances from screen legends Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu and pitch-perfect comic timing throughout, Potiche is a cross-generational comedy that is not to be missed.
The protagonist that I mentioned in the opening is Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve), wife of the Pujol Umbrella magnate Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini). When Robert is taken captive by the striking umbrella factory workers, Suzanne chooses to seek the help of pro-union politician Maurice Babin (Depardieu), with whom she also shares a heated romantic past. The ordeal causes great stress for Robert and he is forced to take a leave of absence for health reasons, leaving Suzanne in charge of the turbulent factory. With a pleasant expression and a “let’s all be friends” attitude, Suzanne agrees to the workers demands and restores the factory to normal working order.
Robert returns from his health excursion and wants control back of the factory and gets locked in a battle for superiority with his own wife as each has different ideas for how the workers should be treated. The couples’ son and daughter take sides and Maurice Babin attempts to rekindle his relationship with Suzanne as it is revealed that all of the characters have less than straight-laced pasts. Insert some forced, but poignant commentary on the gender and class conflicts in the workplaces of the 1970s and you have the formula for a delightful piece of cinema.
Catherine Deneuve is a solid enough actress that she can carry just about any movie on her own. With her eager facial expression and matter-of-fact line readings there is the feeling that nothing in the film surprises her. By the end of the film we learn that she is just as likely to surprise her male counterparts as they are to her. She gets strong support from another French film legend Gérard Depardieu and comedic actor Fabrice Luchini who play the two men in her life – her lover and husband, respectively. Those three actors along with Jérémie Renier and Judith Godrèche who play her son and daughter fill each scene with perfectly timed hilarity. Even though the language was French and the film was subtitled, the language of comic timing is universal and these actors nailed it.
The film serves as a sort of commentary on women’s struggle for equality in the workplace where Suzanne Pujol, the “potiche” (trophy wife) referred to in the title, represents a womankind’s revenge on the male counterparts. Despite the fact that some scenes are played out a little obviously and it tried too hard to portray her husband in a negative light (something Fabriche Luchini did just fine on his own) the message is mostly well-received. The characters are compelling in this well-told story until the third act drags when politics are unnecessarily thrown into the mix for what felt like an extended ending.
The true delight, however, comes from the retrospective and very French attitude the characters have towards one another. There is a delightful scene when Robert Pujol’s attempt to blackmail Maurice Babin by telling him he has a son backfires when Mr. Baubin is delighted by the news. Depardieu’s expression of pure elation will lift any soul as it shows us that money, power, and admiration mean nothing in relation to one’s own personal happiness. The film’s narrative flaws are greatly outweighed by this overall attitude towards life and when it’s over it will leave you wanting to get up and perform a choreographed disco dance much like the aged lovers in the story.
Bottom Line: The political message is the only way in which the film is half-hearted. In just about every other moment it is full.