The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Potiche

Reviewed by John Bleasdale.

Director François Ozon
Length 103 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating *******---
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 3

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Trailer.

Catherine Deneuve stars in this crowd-pleasing French comedy as Suzanne Pujol, who begins as the ‘potiche’ of the title: a trophy wife whose role is to look beautiful, without a hair out of place, and leave her unfaithful, unscrupulous and savagely unsympathetic husband (Robert, played with scene-stealing aplomb by Fabrice Luchini) to get on with the business of running the umbrella factory she inherited from her father. This Robert does with as much contemptuous disdain for his workers as he holds for his wife. But his labour force have had enough - and so, it turns out, has Suzanne. When the striking workers take Robert hostage, it is up to her to take over the running of the factory, enlisting one-time flame and now Communist trade unionist Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu) to help bring about industrial harmony.

The 1970s setting and the twists and turns of the plot are beholden to the film’s origins as a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, and Ozon is happy to maintain a certain theatricality in both the performances and the mood of the piece - though the film is not as rigidly stagey in its conventions as Ozon’s 2002 film 8 Women in which Deneuve also starred. Deneuve is the centre of the picture right from the first shot when she jogs through a wood taken from a deodorant commercial, stopping only to jot down one of her sublimely banal poems upon the beauties of nature. Her tracksuit, the bubbly titles and the xylophone heavy soundtrack immediately place us in a self-consciously multicoloured 1970s. Of course, this is also the 1970s of strikes and unrest, but the political satire is the least successful element of the film. Somehow the glib self-confidence with which Deneuve revolutionises her domestic role doesn’t translate particularly convincingly to her newly-found political mission.

Perhaps this isn’t the fault of the film. Having lived under a similarly bouffant-ed Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and currently assessing the terrifying, but hopefully slight, possibility of Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann guiding the last remaining super power, the prospect of being ruled by a benevolent matriarch does not smack of de facto feminist revolution as much as it once did. In fact, the ‘anti-politician’ (male or female) is more often found in reactionary political movements - suspicious of subtlety and despising intellectual effort. Thatcher was forever resorting to domestic metaphors to frame herself as an anti-politician - “balancing a budget is like running a household”, etc. and Suzanne also sees herself as returning to the happier times of her patrician father, rather than forging ahead. And of course, France also has its own dominant female politician in Marine Le Pen, president of the Front National.

But such complaints and comparisons seem ungenerous as the film proceeds to gift its audience with a number of satisfying twists and some genuinely joyous moments, such as Depardieu and Deneuve cutting a rug at the Bad-a-Boom nightclub. Given Depardieu’s heft, this isn’t quite Travolta and Thurman in Pulp Fiction (1994), but the delicious pleasure of seeing two giants of French cinema so obviously enjoying themselves is not to be denied. At my screening, the moment was justly greeted with applause.

As a whimsical but satisfying piece of pastiche, Potiche is great fun, and has moments that are elevated by the quality of its cast. In particular, Fabrice Luchini deserves praise for more than holding his own against the two big guns, managing to squeeze every drop out of his role as the pantomime villain of the piece.

This review was published on July 05, 2011.