'Potiche': Frisky French Farce
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
The idea of François Ozon, the acclaimed French writer-director of films as rich and fascinating as "8 Women" and "Swimming Pool," tackling an adaptation of a 1970s stage comedy seems, at first, like a director tackling material that's beneath him. But the true pleasure of "Potiche" is that while Ozon does not stoop, he does conquer. Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy's play has been freely adapted by Ozon -- adding an act and some of the action, changing some of the character notes -- and he also puts in a few extra measures and moments inspired by recent political events in France.
You don't need to know the original material or French politics to enjoy Ozon's latest. You just need an appreciation for human folly, and an understanding that, in love and politics, the battle is often the fun. Catherine Deneuve is Suzanne Pujol, a trophy wife -- or, in French, potiche -- married to the successful umbrella-maker Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini). It's more of a social arrangement than a real marriage -- she's occupied by poetry and society and exercise (and the opening shots of Deneuve jogging in a red Adidas track suit are utterly winning) and he by his business affairs and affair with his secretary. It's a status quo as stable as it is miserable.
But when Robert is kidnapped by his striking workers, Suzanne not only approaches local Communist politician -- and old flame -- Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu) to try to negotiate his release, but also takes over the factory in his absence. And, in activity, she finds herself. Yes, much of the delight of the comedy is in seeing Deneuve play a woman so unlike herself, and in seeing a feminist icon play a privileged, trapped woman's tentative early steps toward feminism. But that isn't the only pleasure here.
Part of the director's triumph here is transforming stage comedy into film comedy: making the gestures smaller and the dialogue tighter, building characters out of caricature, taking action that was played out on a single set into the world. The music is a brilliant part of the film as well -- when Deneuve and Depardieu go to a discotheque, it's a chance for a lovely little dance number -- and a cherry on top of the sweet confection Ozon's making here. (Disco fans take note: If you've never thought of the Bee Gee's "More Than a Woman" as a feminist anthem, you will after this.)
Deneuve is the centerpiece of the film, but she's hardly alone. She has an easy byplay with Depardieu, who manages to evoke the pride and posturing of a small-town Leftist. Luchini, a stage actor, knows where to find the beats and breaks in his fussy philanderer's hypocritical dialogue. And Judith Godrèche and Jérémie Renier, as Deneuve's children, go through their own changes as they stand by their mom, accomplishing both quick and clever dialogue jokes and deeper character moments.
"Potiche" is breezy, easy fun -- but it isn't without its points, and the additional material Ozon adds to the story makes things a little richer and sadder than the Day-Glo colors and '70s styles would make you suspect. Finding yourself, the film suggests, is delightful and amazing ... and, as the film also states, hard work, and not always accomplished the first time out. The filmmaker and his cast are having a lot of fun, but they're also putting more than a few things to think about in between the laughs. Literally translated, the film's title means "small, useless and purely ornamental." The joke isn't just that Deneuve's character is so much more than those things; it's that the film is, too.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.