Catherine Deneuve continues her run as world cinema’s most gracefully aging actress. In François Ozon’s fitfully funny, 1977-set “Potiche,” Deneuve plays Suzanne, bourgeois housewife to Robert (Fabriche Luchini), the haughty, irascible owner of an umbrella factory. Suzanne lives in a state of blissful submission – in other words, the “potiche” or trophy wife of the title – content with scribbling poems, housekeeping and needlework while her husband lords it over a factory full of discontented workers.
When the workers strike, however, a stress-induced heart condition forces Robert into months of recovery so Suzanne takes over the business. Not only does she transform the factory into a model of style, productivity and worker satisfaction, she brings her homemaker daughter Joëlle (Judith Godrèche) and artsy college-student son Laurent (Jérémie Renier) into the company fold, giving each of them the sense of career direction they craved. But there are wrinkles in Suzanne’s grand scheme: To win over the factory workers, she enlists the partnership of the town mayor Maurice (Gérard Depardieu), an ex-flame as well as an ardent labor activist despised by Suzanne’s money-grubbing husband.
Ozon adds a generous helping of marital infidelity and paternity woes into this stew of family and class dynamics as Suzanne reveals that Laurent might, just might be her and Maurice’s love child. The news sends Maurice into flights of giddiness and Robert into spasms of outrage. But Robert doesn’t get off scot-free either as he hints that he might, just might have fathered the gal that Laurent longs to marry – the baker’s daughter, no less.
Loosely adapting the farcical 1980 play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, Ozon’s movie wisely retains much of the staginess of its source material as many of the scenes have a static, set-bound comic energy about them. Among the funniest is when Laurent, upon learning that Robert has been taken hostage by the striking workers, exits the scene, intent on negotiating for his release. He re-enters only moments later breathlessly, his shirt tattered and, when asked if the strikers roughed him up, he answers it wasn’t the strikers but dad himself, outraged that Laurent would even dream of negotiating. Such scenes must play out with a minimum of cinematic intervention so that the theatricality of the scene, complete with timing and dialogue, can deliver the punch line. Many of “Potiche’s” brightest moments result from Ozon leaving the story’s stage roots intact. At others, he opens up the cinematic potential of scenes to tap into inherent laughs as when Suzanne and Maurice break into an ersatz disco number reminiscent of “Saturday Night Fever” at a local nightclub.
The disco tribute is part of the fun as “Potiche” is infused with all the trappings of a kitschy, late-70’s French television movie. Starting with the multi-screen title sequence with its sugary music and gauze filters to the candy-colored Renaults, shaggy hair-do’s and billowing cravats that populate the movie henceforth, much of “Potiche’s” comic appeal rests on its breezy campiness.
The performances are likewise gleefully broad as everyone on-board seems to be having a blast, from Luchini, whose flummoxed dithering embodies the boss you love to hate, and Renier, strutting about the factory floor in blonde pompadour and bellbottoms as the factory’s newly minted umbrella designer. The blustering Depardieu, working the comic potential of his portly, thatch-haired appearance to the utmost, gives “Potiche” a baseline reason to chuckle even when the movie ambles through its slower, more strained plotting. But Deneuve is the calm, elegant center of these shenanigans in a performance that walks a fine balance between goofiness and gracefulness. In her hands, Suzanne becomes a reminder of France’s patriarchal past as well as a feminist emblem of a liberated future.
Directed/Written by: François Ozon
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard, Jérémie Renier, Judith Godrèche