French Comedy

Prolific Gallic director Francois Ozon is nothing if not unpredictable, hopping from genre to genre and from era to era with an easy touch, showing in the process his love for colorful and stylish cinema.

His new film, “Potiche,” which I saw at the 2010 Toronto Film Fest, and serves this month as the opening night of the 2011 Palm Springs Film Fest, is a star vehicle for Catherine Deneuve, one of the director’s favorite actresses; she had also appeared in “8 Women.”

Set in 1977, in the small, provincial town of Sainte-Guennole, the film boasts retro-kitschy visual style, and recalls not only old Hollywood melodramas but also the work of the late and great director Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” which starred the very young Deneuve, “Lola”).

The frothy tale, penned by Ozon, which is based on the play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy, betrays its theatrical origins, despite efforts to open it up.  For example, in the opening scene in which Deneuve is shown jogging in the forest, dressed in a red suit, expressing her marvels at nature.

When the story begins, Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) projects the image of a docile, happy housewife, who relishes her traditional bourgeois life. She is doting on her grumpy husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), an industrialist, who spends his days running the family’s umbrella business and his afternoons with his mistresses.

To her husband, her two grown-up children, and everybody else, Suzanne is a trophy housewife, lacking real power and social awareness of her position—she is “un potiche,” as they say in French.

Things change, when the factory’s workers go on strike to protest their poor working conditions, and all hell breaks loose. Suffering a heart attack, Robert is ordered by his doctors to take tiem off until he recovers. What’s a woman like Suzanne to do?

She begins to run the company with the assistance of the town’s mayor, Maurice Bain (Gerard Depardieu), who happens to be her former beau.

Lacking skills and experience, at first Suzanne is a laughing stock of the employees, but in time, she gains knowledge and save the faltering business, while also improving the working conditions.

In fact, she becomes so popular and successful that no one wants her husband to come back. But Mr. Pool is the kind of man who will not give up easily—or go down without a real fight. Feeling that his very masculinity is tarnished, he resorts to using blackmail and forming secret alliances, in his determination to win back his role as the head of the company—and more importantly, the head of the household.


Except that Mrs. Pool is not the same femme anymore, and he is shocked to realize how many tricks she possesses up her sleeve.

A light feminist streak runs through this intentionally campy and light comedic fable, which is a minor film in the oeuvre of the gifted Ozon, who has made some really great films. My favorite film of his is “Under the Sand, in 2000, with a luminous performance from Charlotte Rampling. “Potiche’ is more in the vein of “8 Women,” whose all-star cast also included Catherine Deneuve.

Even so, it’s a pleasure to see Deneuve and Depardieu (who had first appeared together in Truffaut’s superior melodrama, “The Last Metro”) sharing the screen.  Deneuve shines as the housewife-matriarch who learns how to rise to the occasion, and Depardieu has some excellent moments as the Marxist mayor, who’s still in love with Deneuve (which is not hard to believe considering how she looks).