Sparkling French Farce
François Ozon has made some dark and disturbing gems like "Swimming Pool" and "Under the Sand," both of which starred Charlotte Rampling. Maybe something in Rampling inspired Ozon to make these complex and slightly twisted tales. But Catherine Denueve seems to inspire something else in Ozon. "Potiche" reteams the French star with Ozon who also directed her in "8 Women." These films may be just as twisted as the Rampling films but they are dressed up in a sly, colorful, energetic package.
The word "potiche" translates as "vase" and the decorative qualities of that object have led to the slang translation of the word to mean a "trophy wife." Fittingly, Deneuve is the trophy in this film in more ways than one. It's 1977 and Deneuve plays Suzanne Pujol, a trophy housewife in a provincial French town. Her husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini) runs the umbrella factory that she had inherited from her father. Her father was apparently a rather paternal boss who treated his workers like family but Robert treats them with contempt and in return they hate him. When Robert suffers a stroke, Suzanne is forced to take the reins of the company. Initially we're concerned that she doesn't have what it takes to run a company because Ozon presents her to us like some Disney cartoon character singing with the woodland animals. But guess what? This seemingly frivolous woman who's done nothing for years blossoms into a smart, effective executive. She also rekindles a romance with a former beau and union rabble rouser Maurice (Gerard Depardieu).
Writer-director François Ozon (along with playwrights Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy) turns the source material into a sparkling satire targeting sexual and class stereotypes. Ozon returns to the bubbly style of "8 Women" to create another confection of bold vivid fashion, decor, and music. The fact that the film places Deneuve's character in charge of an umbrella factory immediately prompts memories of her early role in the musical "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and that film's highly stylized and fashion conscious visuals. Ozon make "Potiche" something of a brightly colored sitcom but with some satiric bite to its breeziness. That tone has also colored his aptly named second feature "Sitcom."
The highlight of the film, though is the reteaming of Deneuve and Depardieu (who worked most famously together in "The Last Metro"). Ozon uses these two legendary French stars to perfection. He uses their celebrity, their iconic status, and the tabloid reports of their wilder past to full effect to give depth and background to the characters beyond what they do on screen. Plus he gives these older stars a chance to shine in lively, playful roles.
"Potiche" (rated R for some sexuality and in French with English subtitles), like its main character, is a charming delight masking a sly and surprising substance. But maybe that's what French farce is -- a sitcom with a brain.
Companion viewing: "Sitcom," "8 Women," "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"