Film review: Potiche

Duncan Wu finds irony and charm in the camped-up tale of a 1970s trophy wife's empowerment

June 2, 2011

Credit: Picselect


Directed by François Ozon

Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu and Fabrice Luchini

Released in the UK on 17 June

"Elect me and I'll stand up for your cheese!" If for nothing else, see Francois Ozon's new film Potiche for the sight of Catherine Deneuve uttering this bizarre line, although it is by no means the funniest thing in it. The film begins with a scene in which, while jogging, her character is winked at by a squirrel and then observes two rabbits engaged in frenetic sexual activity, inspiring her to write a poem. You would have to be a joyless person indeed to watch that without a smile.

Potiche began life as a stage play, which Ozon has freely adapted for the screen. Its protagonist Suzanne Pujol (played by Deneuve) - the "potiche" or ornamental wife of the title - inhabits France in 1977, a year in which the country is swept by industrial unrest, which leads to the occupation of her husband's umbrella factory by its workers. After her husband's non-fatal heart attack, she takes over negotiations with assistance from the local mayor (Gérard Depardieu), an old flame from years before. "You're proof a woman can succeed without spreading her legs," her husband's secretary remarks approvingly - although incorrectly.

The mayor is still in love with her, despite his pageboy haircut and frighteningly rotund physique; these days Depardieu looks like Arthur Mullard in a wig. "Let's start over. It's not too late," he says to her, as they take to the floor of the local disco. But she is there to empower herself, so that when her husband returns from his "cruise", he is compelled to accept the hard truth.

"You mean", says Monsieur Pujol, a tremor in his voice, "that I'm now a trophy husband?"

Ozon gives new life to Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy's play, which was already a decade old when he adapted it. It's a creaky old warhorse preoccupied with social class and sexual hypocrisy, subjects that fell out of currency in British drama decades ago. But Ozon handles its datedness by keeping it rooted in the 1970s, while filming in a deliberately camped-up manner reminiscent of sitcoms of the period. Even the acting is staged in a self-consciously theatrical style, with moves being blocked for the fourth wall rather than in the interests of cinematic realism. This is a high-risk strategy that encourages us to view everything as an ironic construct rather than as straightforward comedy.

It is less applicable to the final act of the piece, Ozon's addition to his source, in which Madame Pujol becomes a politician similar to Ségolène Royal. The wife who describes herself as "the queen of kitchen appliances" here undergoes her ultimate transformation. "C'est beau, la vie," she sings. There's nothing ironic about that, nor about her unstoppable popularity. Ozon's Potiche resolves into a paean to female empowerment.

I enjoyed this film. It's a bell-bottomed, florid piece, a drink- and drug-fuelled vision of the 1970s, although its fluctuations of tone may leave some disoriented. Much of the dialogue reminded me of the late Joe Orton, as when Depardieu says, "I may be a man of the people but I know how to treat a lady", or when Deneuve remarks, having heard that the workers have surrounded her house: "When this happened to Marie Antoinette she didn't lose her head."

"La liberté guide nos pas", read Madame Pujol's election posters; if anything, the theme of the film is freedom - the freedom fully to realise one's potential, whether as a politician, a gay man or the manager of an umbrella factory. Ozon's use of irony reminds us that the world is not precisely as he portrays it. But within the idealised setting of the film, he paints the world as it could be.

The film's self-ironising wit makes one forgive its excesses. The spectacle of the worryingly overweight Depardieu out-Travolta-ing Deneuve on the dance floor is typical. Only a heart of granite could fail to respond as the two stars revisit their former glories. There is, in all this, a kind of innocence, and that is where the film scores highly.

Potiche sets itself up as sophisticated boulevard comedy; in fact, it appeals to the childlike urge to see the underdog - in this case, Madame Pujol - master the forces that beset her, using a distinctively female form of persuasion. "My management style is warm, fair and human," she tells her workers. There's nothing heavy-handed about Ozon's touch either, which is light and assured. If you know his previous films, this one will come as a surprise, albeit a pleasant one; if you don't, you could do worse than begin here.

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