Potiche is set in 1977, a fact Ozon revels in. The fashion, the cars, the color palette all point to satire, but the look is so thick and wonderful that we may as well be watching a documentary. The umbrella factory is threatened by strike, and the stress gives poor, unsympathetic Robert a near heart attack. With a pacifist, anti-capitalist son, Laurent, and an inexperienced daughter, Nadège, it is decided that Suzanne takes over negotiations with the workers. Thus this trophy wife takes her first step into the modern 70s.
The film is a feminist love song. I am a feminist. But Potiche is very superficial about politics. The film gives women the opportunity to work outside the home, and though Suzanne proves to be brilliant in her position we are never shown any of her savvy. The company is turned around in a cut! This is the feel of the film; it supports the energy Ozon infuses. Potiche is a kind of French fairytale. Suzanne is granted things and they are taken away. It is French because, while the politics are fluffy, the film has great insight into its characters. Suzanne, unbeknownst to everybody, has in the past had numerous discreet affairs, just like her husband. The only difference is that Robert is out in the world and his sex is already free. Suzanne knows a housewife’s place and knows how to play the game and win. After her husband and daughter coldly take back the umbrella factory, Suzanne is dissatisfied with her life again and decides to run for MP, a political office. Here she is allowed to be active in her liberation, but like her handling of the factory Ozon goes little in depth on her campaigning. She visits local shops for photo ops and that’s just about it. Suzanne triumphs and never breaks a sweat.
In a way Potiche is immune to criticism. It is perfect style, high energy, it’s very funny and has the right side of the argument, or at least a liberated side—I can only speak for my politics. What else can I say? I enjoyed myself. There, that’s it, except for a trend I’ve noticed with its leading lady.
Catherine Deneuve has nothing to prove. She has made herself an icon with a terrific body of work spanning 60 years. However, I’ve noticed a kind of lull in her recent work going back 10 or 15 years. It’s similar to the first period of her career. At the beginning her onscreen persona lacked dramatic weight, held back possibly by her delicacy and beauty. It wasn’t until her defining work with Buñuel, and to a lesser extent Polanski, that Deneuve showed her range. Truffaut brought her to the brink. In the 90s and 2000s she’s been very productive but stuck in a similar mood as her earliest performances. Perhaps she is too big an icon, a legend, for the directors who work with her, and her roles, not her acting, lack depth or resonance. She is always perfect, but in a way the material doesn’t seem up to her. Her most diverse role in recent memory was in Gaël Morel’s Apers lui, which was itself an average film. François Ozon has used Deneuve before, and both of their films together play more like stylized film tributes than serious works of cinema. In Potiche, I don’t think the homage of having Deneuve running an umbrella factory is lost on the director. Though the film is a further opportunity for Deneuve to play satire, Suzanne’s depth is all on the surface. She fits in perfectly in this charming, fun film, but I hope before too long a director, even Ozon, will take advantage of the Deneuve we’ve seen in The Last Metro.
I guess what I’m talking about is serious drama. I should confess a bias against comedies, though more and more I’m finding ones that actually work. I just need to avoid Judd Apatow. But it seems that satire has become the new dramatic oomph, and I need to accept it. But there is one story arc in Potiche that I found fascinating.
Laurent, Suzanne’s son, goes through a subtle change. I may be the only one who’s caught it because it might only exist in my mind, but his story adds a subtext speaking more generally to the lack of liberty for parents. The first we hear of Laurent, Suzanne tells her husband that their son is bringing home a girlfriend, the baker’s daughter. Robert is unhappy. At first he admits to snobbery until Suzanne presses him. He confesses the girl may very well be his own illegitimate child—Laurent may be dating his sister! Laurent is devoted to his mom and she loves him dearly. She hires him as an umbrella designer and here I noticed a shift in his look. He looked incredibly, stereotypically gay, right down to the pink ascot. When Suzanne runs for MP, we learn that Laurent has left his girlfriend to stick by the most important woman in his life—Suzanne. Suspicious enough. They both then note a handsome blonde kid handing out flyers for Suzanne’s campaign. He is the son of one of Suzanne’s ex-lovers. Suzanne (figuratively) thinks he could be her own son considering the timing of her relations with his dad. I think Laurent has come out, and the blonde kid is his boyfriend. Laurent gives him very intimate looks but nothing is said. The trap that this lays for parents is that it offers little leeway in discretion. By the acts of both his parents, Laurent might, in either relationship, be dating his sibling. It’s something funny for me to note, though insubstantial to the film itself.
I hope this doesn’t read like a mixed review. I enjoyed this film—I carried a smile all the way through. Though it may feel lite, it is fun and the actors are terrific. I haven’t even mentioned the great Gerard Depardieu as the Mayor. He has an interesting relationship to Suzanne and to Laurent, and just to see Deneuve and Depardieu on screen together again is worth it.
Director: Francois Ozon
Writers: Pierre Barillet (play), Jean-Pierre Gredy (play) and Francois Ozon
Stars: Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini and Jeremie Renier
Runtime: 103 minutes
Potiche is currently playing in select cities across the US. Check it out if it comes to your region. It is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD in Europe via Amazon (France):
(beware that the Blu-ray is region 'B' locked and does not feature English subtitles)
(also without English subtitles)