Film review by: Witney Seibold
Farce seems to be something that the French can still get away with. In America, there are no farces left (unless you count the recent spate of limp movie spoofs, which I don’t). Broad sex comedies with frothy and lecherous characters, bright colors, and joyous consequences seem to have fallen by the wayside in the U.S. Luckily, we have François Ozon‘s bubbly feminist parable “Potiche” to content with. Ozon, who seems to alternate between frothy comedies and sour, doomed-relationship dramas, is in fine form with “Potiche,” a stylistic homage to “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” right down to the 1977 setting and the casting of the sublime Catherine Deneuve in the lead. “Potiche” is one of the brightest and most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year.
The title refers to a French slang term for a trophy wife, and that’s where Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) finds herself at the film’s outset. She is chipper and happy, content to wear her track suit and write insufferably cheerful poetry to the happy little bunnies that live on her property, but is disgusted when she is around her lecherous husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who runs an umbrella factory, and who is having an affair with his hot secretary Nadège (a gorgeous Karin Viard). Robert is a harsh taskmaster, a horrible blowhard, and kind of a buffoon. He is very rich. Suzanne is his trophy. Deneuve, decked out in impeccable dresses, perfect makeup, and a bulletproof hairdo, looks perfect as a trophy, but still gives the impression of tired strength.
When there is a strike at his factory, Robert immediately has a heart attack, and must stay in the hospital to get well. The strike must be settled by Suzanne’s old squeeze, the would-be left-wing revolutionary Babin (Gérard Depardieu, who has become increasingly potato-like as the years have passed), who brings politics into the home, and posits that a family member take over the business until Robert can recover. Robert’s son Laurent (Jérémie Rénier) is too fay for the job (he’s interested in interior design and doesn’t believe in big business), and his daughter, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche) is oddly right-wing militant about the entire deal. The task, then, naturally, falls to Suzanne.
Suzanne, of course, proves to be a stronger leader than her husband ever was, using innovation and personal touches to endear herself to the workers. Gone are her husbands plans to outsource (gulp), and gone were her days of being a trophy wife. Know, though, that while this is a bright and chipper farcical movie, Suzanne’s place of power is not lip service to the feminist cause. Ozon and Deneuve have created a real icon for the audience to genuinely love, and not some callow pseudo-feminist image. When Deneuve is in her office, and happily declares that she in in charge, you believe it.
Of course, there are more sexual complications through all of this. Babin, for instance, finds himself drawn back into the bourgeois romantic trap he found himself drawn to twenty years previous, and he is tempted to romance Suzanne again. Nadège proclaims that she is done being a squeeze, and prefers the new feminine version of the company. Robert reveals that he may have fathered their son’s betrothed, but Suzanne reveals that Robert may not be the father of their son. Suzanne is only too glad to have the sexual attention, and to reveal that she still has some sexual prowess to spread around.
I was astonished at how well “Potiche” dealt with its issues of sexual agency. Suzanne was a character who had genuine feminine power, and used her good-spirited wiles to charm people, but was never once calculating or wicked about it. She flirted with truck drivers, and remembered with fondness her defiant acts of infidelity. By the film’s end, we see Suzanne cheerily taking up new mantles of power. Much more than any tale of American female empowerment, “Potiche” actually cuts to the heart if the matter.
What’s more, it’s entirely fun. It feels like an old musical that is only missing its songs. By all means, breathe deep the joys of “Potiche.”