DIR: Francois Ozon • WRI: Pierre Barillet, Jean-Pierre Gredy, Francois Ozon • PRO: Eric Altmeyer, Nicolas Altmeyer, Genevieve Lemal • DOP: Yorick Le Saux • ED: Laure Gardette • Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard, Judith Godreche, Jeremie Renier
Francois Ozon is that rare filmmaker blessed with both versatility and a solid work ethic. Potiche is the French directors twelfth full length feature film since his 1998 debut Sitcom and is again another sharp stylistic turn from his previous film, the low key drama Le Refuge (Hideaway). In fact, it’s difficult to think of any other professional filmmaker currently working that matches Ozon’s prolific output on the European stage. One has to look on the international stage for sufficient comparisons with perhaps only the insanely restless Japanese director Takashi Miike outdoing Ozon in terms of workrate and ability to switch genres at will.
French screen legend Catherine Deneuve plays Suzanne, the titular Potiche or ‘trophy wife, a slightly glamorous stay-at-home spouse of a rich industrialist Pujol (Fabrice Luchini) who runs an umbrella factory with an iron fist and who also casually cheats on his loyal wife with the foxy secretary Miss Nadege (Karin Viard). After his workers rebel against what they see as unacceptable working conditions and take him hostage, Suzanne to everyones surprise offers to take over the factory from her husband who in turn stays at home to recouperate from his ordeal. Soon enough, with the assistance of her ex-lover, communist party deputy Maurice Babin played by Gerard Depardieu she proves to be an astute and sympathetic manager improving the working conditions at the factory, renegotiating the employees contracts and providing key roles in the company for her otherwise feckless children, Laurent and Joelle. Upon her husband’s return,empowered by her new found confidence and sense of purpose, Suzanne refuses to accede her position and reveals herself to be someone with hidden reserves of strength and with a more complicated, colourful past than one would initially assume.
Much like Deneuve’s character, Potiche is on the surface a frothy, light-hearted confection withs its somewhat broad performances, gaudy Seventies period design, sitcom-style comedy and soap-opera twists but do a bit of scratching and the film also reveals itself to be a study of work place politics as well as a story of female empowerment, an ode to feminism disguised as camp; Fawlty Towers meets Douglas Sirk– with a pinch of Jacques Demy whose 1964 musical fantasy The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – also starring Deneuve – is quite clearly echoed throughout in the film’s vibrant colour schemes and heightened storybook style. Ozon utlizes Sixties style split-screen techniques, dreamy flashbacks and stages the odd musical number, including a showstopper at a local disco, in which we get to see Gallic icons Deneuve and Depardieu get down and groove Seventies style to a cheesy romantic ballad.
Potiche is hugely entertaining, funny and an absolute pleasure to sit through but it’s deliberate artifice does at times create an emotional distance that leaves one craving a bit more substance. However, this lack of substance is compensated for by Ozon’s energetic direction and the joy of performance that he coaxes from his talented cast. Deneuve, deceptively wily as the reborn matriarch creates sparks with both Luchini’s as her amusingly sexist husband and Depardieu as the romantic political idealist pining for her. It is in their characters, complex tangled histories where love and pragmatism do battle that the films true heart lies.
Derek Mc Donnell
Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Potiche is released on 10th June 2011