Tuesday, April 26, 2011
For French writer/director François Ozon and his countrymen, Potiche is, among other things, a political satire that lands some good jabs at current leaders. “There are many lines which come from the mouths of French politicians,” he told me when I interviewed him last month about the film. “But you need to be French to get that.”
That sailed right over my head, but the film worked for me as a tasty little fortune cookie with a surprisingly moving message. A heartfelt girl-power personal empowerment story played mostly for laughs, Potiche includes glittering shards plucked from Hollywood musicals, broad French comedies, and the farcical play it’s loosely based on. That mash-up of styles and tones might feel merely manic or disjointed in the hands of a lesser director, but Ozon makes it work.
It starts almost like a live-action Disney classic. Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve), the 1970s potiche, or trophy wife, who is the movie’s heroine, is out for some exercise in curlers and a brightly colored track suit. Jogging down a sunny path to a bouncy soundtrack, she pauses only to commune with one of the cute little animals she passes along the way.
But this is an Ozon fairy tale, as the two little bunnies whose humping the camera pauses to capture remind us. So our power-walk toward Suzanne’s happy ending makes a few unexpected stops, from light comic references to adultery and gay incest to serious explorations of betrayal and forgiveness within Suzanne’s family. There’s also a tender subplot about her gentle snuffing of an old flame.
In the end, Ozon’s bemused humanism embraces even Suzanne’s patronizing and womanizing husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who is revealed to be a lonely weakling yearning for his wife’s love and approval after she comes into her own. But for most of the movie Robert personifies everything Suzanne rebels against, from misogyny and greed to disrespect for and mistreatment of the workers in her father’s umbrella factory, which Robert has mismanaged for years.
When he gets injured in a strike, Suzanne reluctantly takes the reins, and the social changes that have been unfolding outside her calm, perfectly appointed mansion start to penetrate its thick walls. Suzanne’s sensitive and sensible approach to management proves far more effective than Robert’s bullying and bluster, and her lack of drama makes her accomplishments that much more impressive. She deals with striking workers with the same quiet confidence she brings to everything else, simply finding a new use for skills she honed in years of running a household and raising her children. She even effortlessly blends the two worlds, bringing her spoiled adult children to work with her and giving them responsible roles in the company in hopes of waking up their dormant talents.
Her son Laurent (the always excellent Jérémie Renier, playing against type as his mother’s sunny sidekick) blossoms, finding his bliss by creating new designs for the factory’s umbrellas, He also comes out of the closet – although, as is often the case in Ozon’s movies, Laurent’s gayness is simply a fact of life, a plot point but not a complication.
Suzanne’s daughter Joelle (Judith Godrèche) is a harder case, her Farrah Fawcett hairdo and smile turning out to conceal a hard heart and an adamantine resistance to change. Married to a clone of her father, Joelle is reproducing all the worst parts of her parents’ marriage, right down to an unquestioning acceptance of male dominance that leads her to betray her own mother – and herself.
The preternatural calm and air of supreme self-sufficiency that can make Deneuve seem icy, even wooden at times works well here, playing as self-knowledge and grace under pressure. It also helps color the actress’ scenes with her old screen partner Gérard Depardieu. He plays Babin, a labor leader Suzanne finds herself in partnership with more than two decades after the clandestine love affair of their youth. When Babin asks Suzanne to marry him, telling her she’s the love of his life, she dismisses the notion, kindly but quickly. It’s too late for all that, she says.
You’d think subverting that classic happy ending would leave us frustrated, but Ozon pulls that off too, with an ease that mirrors his heroine’s. After all, with Deneuve in the part, it’s easy to believe that Suzanne will be just fine – maybe even better off – on her own.
Written for TimeOFF