Since his breakthrough movie Sitcom in 1998, writer / director FranÃ§ois Ozon’s movies have been anything but ordinary. Sitcom itself was a pitch black comedy featuring suicide, incest and a magic rat (no, really), and he followed that up with films such as Swimming Pool and Under the Sand “ both extremely intense psychodramas. In 2003 he convinced almost every leading French actress around, such as Catherine Deneuve, Emmannuelle BÃ©art, Isabelle Huppert and more to star in 8 Women, an utterly bizarre, yet kind of brilliant musical murder mystery.
So in comparison, the premise of Potiche seems slightly run of the mill. Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve) is the potiche of the title. ˜Potiche’ roughly translates as ˜Trophy Wife’ and Suzanne, a 1970s housewife appears to be the epitome of this. She is wholly subservient to her husband Robert, the tyrannical owner of an umbrella factory – a factory which was previously in her family, but which was her dowry on the occasion of their wedding. So he goes off to work and she stays at home, tending the house and the emotional needs of their grown up children, and ignoring his regular infidelities as best she can.
Everything is about to change however, as the workers in Robert’s factory revolt over the terrible pay and working conditions. This drives him into a frenzy, as does his son Laurent’s attempts to broker a reconciliation with the workers. Additionally, he’s worried that Laurent is unknowingly having an incestuous affair with his half-sister (there’s got to be a hint of incest in an Ozon movie after all). These stresses combine to give Robert a heart seizure, leaving him unable to work for a period. So Suzanne steps into the breach, assisted by the socialist mayor (GÃ©rard Depardieu “ whose casting alongside Deneuve again showcases Ozon’s ability to attract the biggest names in French cinema). To add to the complications, Mayor Babin and Robert utterly despise one another “ Robert as the epitome of the ruthless capitalist boss against Babin’s idealistic communist. Oh, and he and Suzanne are former lovers and he’s still holding a candle.
Suzanne quickly finds that she’s excellent at running the factory, and her more democratic approach is widely appreciated by the workers, and Suzanne finds that the position adds a whole new dimension to her life. But Robert can only remain off sick for so long, and he will inevitably want his factory back¦
On the surface, Potiche is a really nice, gentle, and fairly broad comedy “ the plot has many elements of a classic farce and this gives it an old fashioned feel, added to by its seventies setting. In fact the era is superbly realised, from the palette, to the costumes, through to squelchy synth music and melodramatic zooms on people’s faces as they receive surprising news. The habit that all the characters have of describing how they are feeling and what they are doing can be a touch irritating, but is easy enough to overlook.
Scratch a little deeper and Potiche‘s themes of class struggle and gender politics add another level of interest “ strong female characters are a feature of Ozon’s work so it shouldn’t be surprising that Suzanne is not by any means the pushover she at first appears to be. It’s to Ozon’s credit that he balances the seemingly contrasting elements of the movie in a manner that doesn’t jar. So despite the ˜ordinary’ premise, it’s a film that sits well enough in Ozon’s defiantly strange oeuvre. And there’s also a scene featuring Catherine Deneuve and GÃ©rard Depardieu disco dancing.