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

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article What do the Seventies represent, exactly? I’m not sure I mean the 1970s so much as ‘the Seventies’ - written in a nice bubbly script in yellow and orange; perhaps even with an exclamation mark, which inexplicably gave Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! (2009) a Seventies flavour. Why? Well, exactly.

What, then, are the Seventies currently taken to mean in popular culture? A colour scheme, a vaguely camp attitude, a soundtrack, all that disco, costumes, hip huggers and flared trousers? Hair and hairspray? For me, when looking back at old family photos, the Seventies has always been wallpaper. Wallpaper seems like the ultimate give away. It was the Seventies as the aftermath of the Sixties. The Sixties gone ripe, over-ripe. All that psychedelia thrust onto the domestic, the LSD dream machine turned into a colour scheme for kitchens and bathrooms, hippy-dom applied to home-furnishing.

Of course, for many of today’s cinephiles the Seventies are also what the Middle East is to Monotheism. The decade saw a whole slew of talented mavericks like Altman and Friedkin, Scorsese and Coppola, churning out masterpieces which seemed to challenge genres only to define them, revolutionize Hollywood only to revitalize it. And even now filmmakers who set their films in the Seventies regularly appeal to some of that edge, some of that kudos. 2007 saw both David Fincher’s Zodiac reproduce the old paramount logo as a reverent bow, and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster walk in the footsteps of the late, great Sidney Lumet. To say that an American film feels like something made in the Seventies sometimes seems to have become critical shorthand for authenticity and maturity.


But of course those Seventies weren’t the whole Seventies. Alongside the mavericks and masterpieces also ran the journeymen, the cash-ins and franchises. In Europe, for instance, the Seventies bubbled along with the often unintentionally funny Emmanuelle series and the euro-sex comedies, into which the ‘Carry On’ series constituted Britain’s (ahem) entry. This is the Seventies of garishness and crudity, of going almost too far, which has now become the harmless fun of disco nights and fancy dress parties, novelty wigs and cheap programming - a night of nostalgia on BBC 2.

François Ozon’s new film Potiche is set in 1977, beginning in the Spring of that year, as we are informed at the very beginning. But the date is at once redundant and deceptive, because we are not in the calendar 70s but rather The Seventies of popular nostalgia: the wallpaper is lemon coloured in the kitchen and the telephones are covered with what looks like green velvet. Everyone drives dinky little cars and many of the jokes rely on a smug if affectionate cloying attitude towards the past (similar, it could be argued, to that produced by the Mad Men television series). This is a world that supposedly hasn’t yet come to terms with the mistakes we perceive it is making, one which is blissfully unaware of its own faults and nonchalant of the anxieties and struggles to come. A secretary gives herself a quick blast of ozone-destroying hairspray before greeting her lover; male chauvinists (not sexists, that was later) glibly dismiss woman as a sex; repressed homosexuals huff about their girlfriends.

Madame Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) is a deceptively serene presence, at once light and perfectly in place, bouncing through life like a soap bubble, writing poetry that makes Hallmark look like Rimbaud. But she is also surrounded by her selfish and dysfunctional family who render pointless her act as the perfect statuette, the Potiche (trophy wife) of the title. Robert Pujol, her husband, slopes off to the Badda-Boom nightclub (closed on Thursdays) whenever he can, as well as groping his secretary at every opportunity. Her daughter is steely-eyed with self-interest, but fatally weak when it comes to her husband, who, like Mrs. Columbo, is oft-named but never sighted. Her gay son is her only support, who will stand by her come what may, though we feel there may be a quid pro quo in the offing - or perhaps outing.


Of course, this is the Seventies also of industrial agitation and trade unions: not the sexy student revolts of the Sixties, but the grimy grind of rights in an industrial context. Yet the film frankly does not seem too concerned with this beyond using it as a backdrop to get the plot off the ground. The workers, and ordinary people in general, are essentially just handy devices for moving the narrative along - kidnapping Robert and thus forcing Suzanne out of her apathy. Later, they will be the electorate which will propel Suzanne into the National political scene. Just as we might affectionately hanker after days when we could spray that hair spray with abandon, so might we adore Suzanne’s ascension wistfully, watching her declare to a rapturous crowd that we are all children and she wants to be our mother. In the same way that we didn’t know about the hole in the Ozone layer in the Seventies, so were we still to be disabused of the romantic notion that a powerful matriarch could act as a universal political panacea - by way of Thatcher, Palin, Bachman and Le Pen.

But this film strives to be guiltlessly apolitical. The strikers complain of dirty toilets and holidays, and are easily placated by the domestic goddess. Later, Suzanne will talk blandly about plans to build a motorway and protecting cheese producers. Politics is administration and if you can balance a household budget, and run an umbrella factory, Suzanne argues, why not France? Politics framed as anti-politics.

Similarly, the film has been cleaned pretty much of sex. The only character who wants some bouncy rumpus is the arch villain, Robert Pujol, who is frankly ravenous, even resorting to his wife’s bed one night, Thursday night, because the Bad-a-Boom is, you’ll remember, closed on a Thursday - a fact he reminds his wife of. In the opening sequence, Suzanne greets some real life Walt Disney animals - a squirrel, a deer - only to be nonplussed by the sight of two rabbits going at it like, well, rabbits. Suzanne ignores them and blithely returns her gaze to the squirrel.


But this de-sexing of the Seventies is only temporary and (again) deceptive. We find out that Suzanne, far from being a prude, decided early on in her marriage that Robert would eventually betray her and had thus struck pre-emptively, enjoying a series of one-off encounters with, among others, Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu), the communist politician who is Robert’s arch-enemy, and with whom affections are for a moment rekindled. Sex is something Suzanne has had and might well have again (upon being stranded by Babin, she hitches a lift with hirsute Spanish truck driving and there are glances), but she doesn’t make a song and dance about it.

Or perhaps she does. The dance she has with Babin at the Bad-a-Boom is equivalent to a sexual betrayal, and the various musical moments - along with the song which concludes the film - give us the feeling that this is a film that wants to let loose, but demurely realises it has had its day and steps down. In keeping with its use of the Seventies for gentle nostalgia rather than pointed satire, the film’s restraint is as important to its pleasures as are its occasional bursts of joy.

This Alternate Take was published on July 23, 2011.

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