One of the most enjoyable branches of François Ozon’s film-making is his fondness for theatrical farce and borderline hysterical camp. It may come off a bit wonky in 8 Women (2002) but that film did at least introduce him to Catherine Deneuve; together they have whipped up the delightful fondant that is Potiche, loosely adapted from the stage and set in the provinces in a semi-fantastical 1977.
“Potiche” means trophy wife in French; that’s wealthy bourgeoise Suzanne Pujol, coiffed, poised and, we are lead to believe, terminally airheaded. But in fact, she’s just terribly sweet and polite and writes not-quite-awful little poems about squirrels and roses, and when her abrasively self-satisfied husband (Fabrice Luchini – hyper-controlled but effectively developed) is kidnapped by the striking workers of his umbrella factory, surprisingly, it is she who she knows just what to do. A late-night visit to the mayor secures his intervention; it’s Gérard Depardieu, an old flame with a smoldering torch. But he’s also the only one in the film who is not really funny, striking instead a note of melancholy with the subdued desperation of an aging communist (20% of the French vote in 1977) looking to hang up the hammer and settle down to family life. Ozon take us out for a moment to pay homage, when Deneuve and Depardieu lock eyes on the dance floor of the splendidly divey boite, Badaboum!, together once again. But in her newly-found independence Suzanne has no time for that sort of thing and before long the men are reduced to hanging around like puppy dogs.
Further musical interludes, sunny 70s pop as perfectly deployed froth, are as inconsequential, apparently, as Suzanne’s opinion. But it is part of the farce that such a bright and determined spirit would break out only now after so many years of subservient marriage. She’s a perfectly-mannered Billie from Born Yesterday, with the same sweet surprise of self-realisation, but the education here is her unexpectedly successful transformation of the factory while Pujol recovers from a heart-attack. Under Suzanne’s gentle yoke the hairy unionists are subdued, the workers are harmonious and her children are by her side. Jérémie Renier is charmingly open-natured as her son the artist, his character revealed with delightful understatement, albeit the vessel of an incestuously homosexual subplot; daughter Joëlle (Judith Godrèche) and secretary Nadège (Karin Viard – pert) complete the triumvirate of self-liberating women with Deneuve, whose path – in an extension of the original play and evocative of more recent political events – takes her all the way to the National Assembly.
Despite boardroom shenanigans, heart attacks, liberal promiscuity and family betrayal several times over, nothing ever seems too serious. There are issues inherent to the plot – the position of women in society, business and family; the rights of the workers and maternalistic management vs rampant profit motive – that provide a solid emotional bedrock which needs little exploitation to prop up the jolly goings-on. Ozon directs briskly, with touches of sitcom style and great fondness for his characters and setting (the umbrellas as much Tati as Demy) and best of all it’s a worthy vehicle for the wonderful Deneuve. She’s radiant, of course, regally elegant (she honors the workers by wearing the jewels their labour bought her) and deliciously funny. The instinctive intelligence and thoughtfulness of her character balance the farce, and that link to a real emotional world is all Ozon needs to affirm that, whilst things may have changed a great deal in 33 years, in some ugly respects they look remarkably similar. It is to his credit therefore, that the high-pitched candy coating makes such consistently amusing fun of it.
In limited theaters March 25th!