Potiche is the latest work by acclaimed writer-director François Ozon. International superstar and previous Academy Award nominee Catherine Deneuve (lovely as ever at the age of 67) plays Suzanne Pujol, the initially submissive, housebound potiche (“trophy wife”) of a wealthy umbrella factory owner. The mother of two grown children, Suzanne spends her days exercising, admiring nature and writing poetry, generally happy with her domestic existence.
That all changes, however, when her tyrannical, philandering husband’s employees go on strike and he suffers a stress-related heart attack. Suzanne is elected (with the support of the local Communist Party politician, played by Gérard Depardieu) to fill in for her husband while he recuperates and mediate changes at the factory. Initially reluctant to do so, she becomes wildly popular with the employees and finds herself enjoying her new responsibilities, so much so that Suzanne refuses to step down when her husband returns.
Ozon “freely adapted” his screenplay from a popular stage satire of the women’s liberation movement, also titled Potiche. As director, he fills the movie with amusing visual references to the late-70’s setting including a faux copyright date under the opening title card, a Farrah Fawcett imitation hairstyle Suzanne’s daughter sports and, of course, bellbottom pants and other fashions of the time in psychedelic colors.
While not a musical, Potiche includes a disco-set dance number led by Deneuve and Depardieu, and Deneuve brings the film to a close with the rousing “C’est beau la vie” (“How Beautiful Life Is”), which she sings during a political rally. Viewers should pay attention, too, to the film’s campy opening theme music and transitional music cues that echo those used on Charlie’s Angels.
As an out gay man, Ozon clearly sympathizes with the journey toward sexual and political emancipation that Suzanne and her supporters make in the movie. Chief among the latter characters are Suzanne’s secretary and son. Liberated under Suzanne’s leadership, the secretary (a great turn by Karin Viard) bluntly tells her former boss — Suzanne’s husband, with whom she was also having an affair — upon his attempted return to work, “I’ve learned you don’t have to spread your legs to get ahead!” Suzanne’s son is an initially closeted gay man (played by Jérémie Renier with a nod to Dirk Benedict of the late 70’s series Battlestar Galactica) who gradually reveals his relationship with a local man.
The attractive, 43-year old Ozon is a former child model. He previously wrote or co-wrote and directed the award-winning films Swimming Pool, Hideway (Le Refuge), 8 Women and Criminal Lovers, among others. While gay characters figure into many of his movies, most of Ozon’s productions feature strong female lead roles that have been played by such formidable actresses as Charlotte Rampling, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant and, now, Deneuve. As Ozon told one interviewer, “I’m sure I say very intimate things about myself in all my films, but it’s better to say it not too directly, to be hidden behind a woman.” An exception to this among his movies is Time to Leave, about a gay fashion photographer dying of cancer.
Deneuve isn’t chiefly known for comedy, but she gives a wonderful comedic performance in Potiche and clearly had fun making it. In collaboration with Ozon, Deneuve makes Suzanne’s growth from timid housewife to powerful politician believable and inspirational. By the film’s end, Suzanne is no one’s trophy wife.
Reverend’s Rating: B+
UPDATE: Potiche is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.