”Potiche” is French for ”trophy wife”. The setting is a pastoral suburb of Paris, 1977. Catherine Deneuve plays Suzanne Pujol, the fairly airheaded bourgeois daughter of a successful factory owner. In her youth, she married the enterprising Robert, who sternly took over her father’s umbrella factory, leaving Suzanne to a life of bored leisure. At first it seems like Robert is a domineering, conservative male who’s convinced that Suzanne neither should nor could hold a job. But as the movie progresses we learn that Suzanne, for most of her life, has actually embraced and enjoyed her leisure, relieving her boredom with various erotic flings. In most ways that matter, therefore, she really is a trophy wife. (And, truthfully, Robert is a domineering, conservative male who prefers a wife like that, but part of that attitude is also due to the fact that he knows her well enough to know she prefers it that way, too – most of the time.)
But in her golden years Suzanne starts feeling that she could and should do more; that she should get a life of her own. So when the factory workers go on strike and Robert’s bad temper gives him serious health problems, Suzanne (after a lot of complicated arguing with Robert) takes over the management of the factory, giving the workers better conditions, and hiring their two adult children, Laurent and Joëlle, to run the factory with her. She also gets a lot of help from the communist mayor, Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu), who was one of the ones she once had a fling with.
The interpersonal relations are complex and often farcical. The movie, which is fairly loosely based on a 1980 stage-play, is a comedy, but a subtle one, depending on little funny throwaway jokes, with very few laugh-out-loud moments. Apparently the original play was not a comedy, but the movie was turned into one in order to make fun of all the political shenanigans (by the logic that today’s audiences wouldn’t be interested in a serious version of these events). Considering how low-key most of the comedy here is, I remain unconvinced as to whether this was a good idea. However, where the comedy and the political substance of the movie fail to deliver much excitement, it is saved by the actors and the idyllic directing. Deneuve and Depardieu are pretty much the grand old woman and the grand old man of French cinema, and the movie works as an excellent tour de force and showcase for their stellar skills and careers. The song performed by Deneuve at the end seems to be more apropos of her acting career than of her particular character in this movie. And one can only feel that this is as it should be.
Director Francois Ozon’s mission in life seems to be, in proper French fashion, to make cinematic homages to women, which is a noble ambition. It worked better in the rather excellent 8 Women (2002), but if you enjoy the actors Potiche is also worth your time.
The new DVD release, out on 10th October 2011, is a 2-disc version, containing interviews, outtakes, trailers, costume test, and a making of feature. A good package by any standard.
Director: Francois Ozon
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depadieu,
Runtime: 103 min.