Reviewed at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
Deneuve runs! France’s most immaculate actress kicks off “Potiche” in a tracksuit, jogging through the woods, controlling her breathing and taking in the birds, deer and mating rabbits along the path. She plays Suzanne Pujol, an impossibly glamorous neglected housewife — a potiche, a decorative object — whose husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini) cheats on her, ignores her in favor of tyrannically running her family’s factory (that makes, naturally, umbrellas) and, shame of all shames, forgets her birthday. Suzanne is uncomplaining and irreproachably coiffed, spending her days puttering around the house and turning a blind eye to her husband’s indiscretions… until the stress of striking workers destroys his health and leaves her temporarily in charge of running the company.
Based on a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, and set in 1977, “Potiche” finds Ozon back in the campy territory of “8 Women,” though the winking here is less aggressive and strained. François Ozon’s frothy, candy-colored comedy could be described as women’s lib kitsch — set in 1977, it’s the story of a mid-life awakenin and workers’ rights discussions that’s really just a giant valentine to Catherine Deneuve, visibly enjoying herself in the role.
Accused by her daughter Joëlle (Judith Godrèche) of complacency, Suzanne discovers a talent for negotiating with the workers and running an ethical, caring corporation (she dismisses a plan to outsource manufacturing to Tunisia as unfair to the longterm employees — ah, the movies) that leads to major changes in how she sees herself and her place in the world. Also in the mix is Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu), a local politician and communist party member who was once Suzanne’s lover; Nadège (Karin Viard), Robert’s secretary and lover who begins to reconsider her own position when Suzanne comes into power; and Laurent (Jérémie Renier), Suzanne’s art school son with a taste for Kandinsky and flamboyant scarves.
“Potiche” is not subtle in its storytelling — Robert is a cartoon villain, apoplectic and chauvinist, spouting lines like “Your job is to share my opinions, not have your own,” which makes it all the easier to take pleasure in Suzanne’s flowering in her new position and new responsibilities. But even as she triumphs, Suzanne is never vengeful or angry. Her journey is one of self-discovery, not striking back, and when she finally discards Robert it’s almost as an afterthought, the new life she’s discovered far more involving than any resentment she might have carried.
“Potiche”‘s most affirming moment may actually be the turn taken in the storyline with the fond Babin, after Suzanne unapologetically confesses to details of her romantic past — this isn’t a film about a woman finding the man she should have ended up with, it’s one about her discovering the life she wants to lead.
“Potiche” will be released by Music Box Films in 2011.