François Ozon started out as the edgiest young auteur French cinema had seen in years, with outre early projects like the bizarre black comedy Sitcom, Fassbinder-derived Water Falls on Burning Rocks, and notorious featurette See the Sea—a movie whose murderous finale induced angry complaints from lesbian viewers when it was shown at San Francisco's Frameline festival.
Still just in his early 40s, this former enfant terrible has considerably mellowed with age, however, making classically French character studies like Time to Leave and Le Refuge that seem to amble inconsequentially yet arrive at real poignancy. (Probably his best film in this mode is 2004's 5 x 2, a superb dissection of a failed marriage told in reverse chronology.) He's also shown himself on occasion to be an unabashed star worshipper, reveling in the mature command of Charlotte Rampling in Under the Sand and Swimming Pool, or making the musical mystery 8 Women simply to bask in the multi-generational glamour of its feminine octet.
He's very much in that same groove with the new Potiche, another campily flavored mash note from gay male director to famous celluloid goddess: No less than Catherine Deneuve, for whom he specifically created it as a vehicle. (Or rather arranged it—it's based on a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy). She probably hasn't been surrounded by this many candy colors since The Young Girls of Rochefort, the excuse being that this is set in 1977, which Ozon lovingly renders in kitschy décor and Philippe Rombi's retro-kitschier score.
Suzanne (Deneuve) is trophy wife—even her own daughter says so—to ill-tempered Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who runs her late father's umbrella factory and doesn't appear the least grateful for having married into that fortune. Indeed, he's controlling and belittling towards her, while most likely banging his secretary (a very funny Karin Viard as Nadege). Yet in her pastel palace Suzanne maintains a sunny disposition—so much so that we first see her jogging in the pristine countryside, where all the cute critters of the forest come out to say hello as if she were Disney's Snow White.
But when Robert is hospitalized—basically being such a rageaholic gives him a heart attack—the trophy wife is persuaded to take his place, in a presumed mostly ceremonial gesture. This occurs just as the factory is facing a crisis, with its 300 employees justifiably striking against their “draconian” working conditions.
She faces a stiff learning curve—naively attending her first meeting with the strikers wearing her finest fur and pearls—but proves rather a natural with all the negotiating empathy Robert lacks. When he returns after three months' recuperation, she politely refuses to step down, making him now the “trophy husband,” a role he bitterly resists.
Her new position puts her back in contact with an old flame (and an old co-star), Gerard Depardieu as the area's staunchly pro-union Parliamentarian. In Ozon's giddiest touch, this fabled duo (who paired for Truffaut in The Last Metro 31 years ago) briefly line-dances at a disco called “Badaboum.”
This fable of female empowerment set at the height of the original Women's Liberation movement has been criticized for being too silly and slight. But it's considerably less so than 8 Women, travels quite an ambitious narrative arc, and is quite delightful throughout. Deneuve and Depardieu are clearly enjoying themselves, as is Ozon at his larkiest. Potiche might be an elaborate goof, yet it's got heart, and is a great deal of fun.
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