Catherine Deneuve strides into the opening scene of François Ozon’s daffy, would-be feminist farce as the most demure jogger ever to don a red track suit. Playfully miscast as sexagenarian, provincial potiche (trophy wife) Suzanne Pujol, she trots down a country path like a Gallic Snow White, daintily exhaling through pursed lips, rapturously sighting a deer and a trilling bird before she’s discomfited by a pair of humping bunnies, then recovering quickly by whipping out a tiny notebook to record a poem on Mr. Squirrel. Bringing her father’s umbrella factory in her dowry 30 years earlier, Suzanne now, in 1977, panics and plots when her reactionary, habitually unfaithful husband (Fabrice Luchini) is first kidnapped by his striking workers, then sent away to recover from his ordeal, leaving an opportunity for this deceptively recessive hausfrau to negotiate reforms as interim CEO, and for Ozon to pair his star up with Gérard Depardieu (recalling late-period Brando with his self-bemusement and expanding girth), cast as the town’s communist mayor in his seventh film with Deneuve.
Adapted from a ’70s stage comedy that, at least in this incarnation, resembles Born Yesterday crossed with Tout Va Bien, Potiche stays in cruise control, getting most of its laughs from presenting Deneuve in a series of tasteless ensembles (the short white fur jacket she wears to her first labor meeting being a lowlight) and revelations that Suzanne hasn’t been a staid victim during decades of filial neglect. Deneuve gets some cute lines (clucking when strikers equate her spouse to Hitler, “Hardly! He does have the lock of hair, but still…”), as other characters are assigned one trait each: apoplexy for Luchini, ruthless chicanery for Suzanne’s daughter (Judith Godrèche), sunny cluelessness for her art-student son (Jérémie Renier) that extends to his liaisons with locals who might be his parents’ illegitimate offspring. Depardieu’s scenes with his fellow legend are mostly lightweight badinage and one twirl around a hooker bar’s Saturday Night Fever-style disco floor; nothing’s theoretically wrong with giving the stars a frothy vehicle, but so soon after their sublime work in André Téchiné’s Changing Times, Ozon’s froth looks especially trivial. When he wraps up with an all-conquering Deneuve crooning to an adoring election-night throng, the star’s good humor isn’t enough to dispel the regret that Potiche doesn’t demand more of her or the audience.