Potiche (France, 2010)April 04, 2011
It's a sad fact of the movie business that, as acting icons age, the opportunities afforded to them to ply their craft diminish. Fred Astaire spent time in The Towering Inferno. Jimmy Stewart climbed aboard Airport '77. Elizabeth Taylor spent time on a couple of soap operas. Laurence Olivier supported Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer. Gene Kelly sang and danced with Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu. For the most part, perhaps because she has mostly avoided the glare of the Hollywood spotlight, Catherine Deneuve has continued performing credibly long past what would be her "sell by" date in American movies. Still, there has been a variability to the quality of her roles in recent years; Potiche is arguably only the second movie in a decade (alongside A Christmas Tale) to provide the actress with a stage to showcase her still impressive talents. Deneuve is unquestionably the single most compelling reason to see this production.
The story, which director François Ozon adapted and expanded from the play by Pierre Barillet & Jean-Pierre Gredy, looks back through the prism of time at the politics of gender struggles and female equality as they were more than three decades ago. Unlike the recent Made in Dagenham, however, which incorporated similar themes, Potiche employs a lighter tone and a less soap opera-ish script to make its point without seeming stodgy and dated. While no one would agree that the "gender wars" are truly over (women are still routinely paid less than men for similar jobs), the great battles are in the past. Potiche recognizes this and, instead of attempting to stoke the fires of righteous indignation, it subtly pokes fun at the views that were the norm as recently as a generation ago. The result is a lighthearted production that maintains enough seriousness to be dramatically stable. Although there are probably too few laughs for Potiche to be considered a comedy, Ozon does not intend for this to slide into the lugubrious category in which many French dramas settle.
It's 1977 in the north of France and the workers at the umbrella factory of Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini) have gone on strike. His wife, Suzanne (Deneuve), is a traditional "trophy" wife: meek and submissive, she is meant to be seen rather than heard. Her daughter, Joelle (Judith Godriche), remarks that she doesn't want to follow in her mother's footsteps. Things change when circumstances force Suzanne to step in and run the factory. Not only is she good at the job, but she savors the experience and the taste of authority that accompanies it; even when Robert is able to return to work, she wants to continue in her current position. Her renewed affair with old flame Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu) widens the gap between husband and wife until they find themselves on opposite sides of a power struggle that doesn't end in the factory board room where the vote for control takes place.
Fundamentally, Potiche is about how the woman's place in society has changed over the years. By avoiding the preachy slant that has degraded many similar productions, Ozon drives home the point with more clarity and relevance. The director, whose large and varied resume includes dark dramas, steamy thrillers, and screwball musical-comedies, achieves a flippant tone that enhances rather than undermines the story. Potiche is engaging without being overpowering. The production seems more relevant to contemporary situations than a re-hashing of what was happening across the Western world during the 1970s, when women were seeking to crash through the so-called "glass ceiling."
In recreating the feel of the '70s, Ozon elects not to travel the "gentle nostalgia" route of many filmmakers. The soundtrack doesn't overflow with pop songs of the era and the costumes and hairdos, while colorful and out-of-date, are not the cartoonish distortions often seen. Potiche represents 1977 in a somewhat realistic fashion, if one that's not subdued (the color palette is bright). Those who lived through the year may feel a more fundamental connection to Ozon's representation than to that of filmmakers who take a hyperbolic, caricature-driven approach. A little understanding of the political climate in France during the '70s helps to anchor the movie's background, but is not absolutely necessary.
Deneuve, tearing into this meaty role, immediately falls in line with Ozon's playful tone and steers the movie through comedic and dramatic territory to the crowd-pleasing ending. She is charismatic and heroic. As with any strong protagonist, she is pitted against a villain. In this case, it's the snarling Fabrice Luchini, a misogynistic bully who enjoys crushing his opponents - even if one of them happens to be his wife. Luchini gets high points for his portrayal of this contemptuous weasel - the dislike we feel for him nudges us more firmly into Suzanne's corner. There's nothing noteworthy about Gerard Depardieu's performance - it's a supporting part that establishes him as the gender-reversed "love interest" - except that I was shocked at how portly the actor has become, taking him into late-life Orson Welles/Marlon Brando territory.
In the United States, Potiche will endure the kind of limited distribution reserved for "special interest foreign films." It's better than most dramas showing in multiplexes, but the combination of subtitles and thought-provoking content will keep it out of reach for many movie-goers. It's one to discover on DVD. Potiche isn't a great motion picture, but it's a solid production that makes the viewer feel he has invested 103 minutes rather than wasting them.
Potiche (France, 2010)
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Fabrice Luchini, Karin Viard, Judith Godreche
Screenplay: François Ozon, based on the play by Pierre Barillet & Jean-Pierre Gredy
Music: Philippe Rombi
U.S. Distributor: The Music Box
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