By Richard von Busack
The trailers for Francois Ozon’s Potiche look fairly atrocious, so it’s a surprise to see it and discover why it’s been sticking around. It’s based on a 1970s farce by Barillet and Grédy, who also did Cactus Flower, which recently begot Just Go With It. Ozon (working with the brilliant cinematographer Yorick Le Saux of I Am Love) goes vintage Hollywood in its look. So many films today are made by people who don’t know how to work a color wheel, so the visuals here are fairly intoxicating. Ozon wields tricky shades of burnt orange and forest green before turning to more flamboyant rose colors of the love scenes. The action takes place at an umbrella factory, so Ozon can get in a tribute to the bright artificial shades of Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as well; the movie pops with color like a night of fireworks.
The premise is lightly feminist: a “potiche” (trophy wife) of 1977, played by Catherine Deneuve, is under the thumb of her factory-owning husband (the undersized Fabrice Luchini). Though he married into the business, the chauvinist pig still conducts himself as if he built the factory from the ground up. Moreover, he’s sleeping with his secretary. She’s played by the bright comedienne Karin Viard, the bigoted baker in Klapisch’s Paris, a wielder of bright, false smiles. When the boss is taken hostage by his striking employees, Mrs. Pujol has to sort things out. Fortunately the well-bred lady has a liaison: she once had a cross-class affair with the local Communist MP (Gerard Depardieu).
(right to left: Judith Godrèche, Deneuve, Viard.)
Depardieu is now as huge as a Frigidaire, and his trademark pumpkin-shell haircut is going thin, but he does have some gallantry left. Despite his lumbering bulk, he makes the premise work: he’s holding forth an ancient regime French tradition, in which romance accomplishes what politics can’t.
Like Made in Dagenham before it, Potiche has a deeper nostalgic appeal than the clothes, the color and the sugar-frosted pop music on the soundtrack. It’s recalling a time when labor had clout. It’s of an era before our current one, where the only position for a worker is prone.
Being farce, it’s a reinforcement job, not a demolition. Farce is hard for some people to take; it’s like concertina music, in that it’s impossible for some people to tell when it’s well done or if it’s always just that irritating. Potiche is well timed, though, acted without mugging by a cast that knows how to work the theatrical moves. We can see it when Viard haughtily rebuffs a pass, Deneuve turns nobly away from a former lover, or Luchini unsuccessfully tries to find some solace at his wife’s breast. The cast doesn’t linger over the quips; the script is machinery built to move forward. The main silliness in Potiche will be a deal-breaker for the literal-minded: its ultimate endorsement of the idea that maternalism wins where paternalism fails.