Potiche, based on the play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, is a thoroughly entertaining little film, but considering the subject matter, I was surprised that I didn’t find it at all compelling. Taking place in France in 1977, it tells the story of a submissive wife who steps in and gains independence as manager of her husband’s factory, which was in turmoil over a labor dispute. There are two themes at work here. The first is feminism, and indeed, it’s only appropriate that it would be set at the height of the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes, the French equivalent of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The second is relations between the working class and the bourgeois. Both reflect the social and political landscape of France in the 1970s, and in some branches of the movement, class and gender were one and the same issue.
Shades of this can be seen in Potiche, but even so, they’re not treated as historically significant. The film is essentially a lightweight comedy populated by colorful characters – a first-rate sitcom. Going on this alone, it’s successful; writer/director François Ozon does a nice job setting up the situations and making them funny, and he provides us with several engaging characters that may be frothy but still have some degree of truth to them. Some of them prove themselves quite unexpected, which is always a plus. He was also wise to rely on the talents of production designer Katia Wyszkop, costume designer Pascaline Chavanne, and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, whose combined efforts gave the film an appropriately theatrical look. The use of color in this film, mostly mustards and avocados and oranges, is visually striking.
A potiche is a decorative vase, but colloquially, it’s used to describe a woman regarded as a status symbol for her husband – a trophy wife. Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) is such a woman; she spends her days writing poems, doing needlepoint, and looking pretty, while her husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), rules her father’s umbrella factory with an iron fist. He’s the kind of man who will tell her that it’s not her place to have an opinion, but merely to agree with everything he says. She takes his chauvinism in stride, and even turns a blind eye to his almost nightly visits to a nightclub, where women are everywhere. When it comes to his employees, Robert is a tyrant, and inevitably, they go on strike and take him hostage. Being who he is, he refuses to budge.
To free her husband, Suzanne appeals to a former union leader named Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu). The two had an affair many years ago, despite the fact that he was a working man and she of the upper-crust. Robert, who despises Maurice politically, suffers a panic attack and is forced to recuperate at a hospital, leaving Suzanne in charge of the factory. As the months pass, she proves herself quite an effective leader. She even enlists her grown children, Laurent and Joelle (Jérémie Renier and Judith Godrèche), as coworkers. Complications arise when Robert fully recovers and plots to take back his factory. It will be a trying time both professionally and personally; confidences will be betrayed and family secrets will be revealed. We will even learn a few surprising things about Suzanne, who, in spite of her demeanor, isn’t as wholesome as she appears. In time, her ambition will far succeed running a factory.
Much of what we learn during the latter half would typically be the stuff of screwball comedies. I’m thinking back to films such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Oscar, in which multiple characters frantically work their way through a myriad of mixed-up situations. Perhaps the best example is Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, in which the humor came not only from culture clash but also from social, political, and economic issues; the film took place during the Cold War, and the main setting was a West Berlin branch of the Coca-Cola company. Although not one of Wilder’s best or even more recognized films, his audacity at satirizing both capitalism and communism made it engaging. If the themes of Potiche had been just as stylized as its look, perhaps it could have been a great film.
Alas, Ozon restrains himself. Rather than poke fun at the changing political and social climate of 1970s France, he instead uses it as a backdrop for an amusing but highly unoriginal plot. Does this mean Potiche is bad? No. As pure kitschy entertainment, the film is actually pretty good. And I enjoyed the performances a great deal, especially those of Deneuve and Depardieu. The character of Luchini is probably the funniest chauvinist I’ve ever seen; Luchini was wise to overplay the role somewhat, not only because it harkens back to the theatrics of the original play, but also because it enables us to see him in a slightly more sympathetic light. He’s a pig to be sure, but rather than a monster, he’s just plain ignorant. How sad that, even today, some men just can’t get with the times.
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