Like Snow White in a red track suit jogging through the forest while communing with a succession of animals (a deer, a squirrel, copulating rabbits), Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve) is a woman who has convinced herself that life is perfect.
She is a proper bourgeois housewife, “the queen of the kitchen appliances,” as she scoffs in a self-effacing moment. And like all goddesses of hearth and home, Suzanne is utterly taken for granted. Her husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini, playing a very believable cad) not only ignores her, but carries on a flagrant affair with his brassy secretary under Suzanne’s nose. Her daughter, Joelle (Judith Godrèche), with two children of her own, a philandering husband, and no job, sneers to Suzanne that the last thing she wants to end up like is her mother: a trophy housewife. Only Suzanne’s effeminate son Laurent (Jérémie Renier) — a clear stand-in for Potiche‘s equally adoring director Francois Ozon — sees the spark inside the dowdy housewife’s drag. But for the rest of the world, Suzanne is little more than a domestic ornament, part of the dowry, like her father’s umbrella factory (a nod to Deneuve’s breakout art house role in Umbrellas of Cherbourg) handed over to her husband the day they married. She has no voice or direction of her own.
But the year is 1977, and change is in the air in Ozon’s frothy and defiant feminist farce Potiche, a French term for trophy wife. It’s the tale of one woman’s casting off the chains of housewifery to find her inner “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar.”
When the workers go on strike at the Pujol umbrella factory and Robert suffers a heart attack, Suzanne is entrusted with running the business. Will the domestic appliance with the immaculate hairdo and sensible heels pull it off? Knowing the temperament of director Ozon, who loves nothing more than strong, attitudinal women and whose filmic sensibility is deeply indebted to women’s melodrama stalwarts like Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Ozon makes a comparison between the workers throwing off the shackles of oppression at the umbrella factory and Suzanne doing the same as she shrugs off her boorish husband and undergoes her own awakening.
Suzanne not only fills in for her husband, she does his job one better. In the ultimate touché, the newly liberated Suzanne plops her emasculated husband down in front of the TV with a slice of quiche to watch a women’s TV show while she commandeers the factory. Where her husband was a tyrant, Suzanne is a warm and maternal boss and a sterling example of the righteousness of a world run by women for a change. Taking her newfound freedom to the limit, Suzanne even rekindles a long-ago love affair with the handsome working-class communist who has since become the town mayor, Maurice Babin (an enormous, bear-like Gérard Depardieu).
Beneath its “you-go-girl” trappings, Potiche at times evokes Frank Oz’s frivolous The Stepford Wives remake. With its split screens, Brady Bunch-perky lensing, twinkling music, and goofy Charlie’s Angels-esque sound effects each time a plot twist is introduced, Ozon riffs on the outdated sitcomish style of the past. Potiche‘s winking backward glance at the feminist emancipation of the ’70s makes the women’s movement look both natural and predestined, as well as a bit silly. You admire Ozon’s intent if not his execution. It’s not his best work, but it is a pleasant enough diversion.
Ozon is a very talented art-house wonder with an occasionally strange career arc, whose work has moved between heart-heavy dramas steeped in loss and longing like Time to Leave and Under the Sand and the rarer peppy, colorful spin on old genre pictures like 8 Women. Potiche is without a doubt in the latter camp, a shop window beautifully crafted to show off Ozon’s beloved star Deneuve in all her resplendent middle-aged glory. As Suzanne takes firmer control of her own destiny, she lets her hair down and summons up the great force-of-nature beauty that was, and is, Deneuve then and now. Like Deneuve, Suzanne is the quintessential French woman: strong, opinionated, but still undeniably beautiful and glamorous. It is clear that like Laurent, who remains devotedly at her side through all of Potiche‘s shifts of power, the director is also a fan.
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