So arch you can practically hear its back breaking, Potiche finds François Ozon following up the psychologically incisive Hideaway by reverting to his campy 8 Women ways. Ozon immediately establishes his mood of lighthearted frivolity via an opening credit sequence in which the screen breaks into round-edged fragments, all of them encapsulating sights of Suzanne (Catherine Deneuve) jogging through a softly lit forest while wearing a candy-red track suit, stopping along her route to watch rabbits screw and write poetry about passing squirrels. That self-satisfied tongue-in-cheek mood doesn’t dissipate once Suzanne returns home, where her adulterous, umbrella factory-running husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), treats his wife like an empty-headed “trophy housewife” (the film’s title refers to a decorative vase that sits on a mantle), scoffing at her advice while explaining that her role is to be merely his most prized piece of domestic ornamentation.
Suzanne suffers her husband’s domination with good cheer until he falls so ill fuming over a worker’s strike that she must take over the company. As befitting a women’s-lib fantasy about looking good while kicking chauvinists’ asses, she carries out this task to great acclaim, a triumph that, as when she champions abortion rights, directly pays tribute to, while reducing to a cheeky one-note joke, Deneuve’s own feminist politics and status as an icon of female sexuality and power.
Ozon’s story also involves the plights of Suzanne’s Farrah Fawcett-coiffed conservative daughter, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche), her ascot-wearing liberal son, Laurent (Jérémie Rénier), and Robert’s secretary, Nadège (Karin Viard), whose affair with her boss becomes complicated by her admiration for Suzanne’s you-go-girl progressiveness. Furthermore, there’s the issue of Suzanne’s past fling with her husband’s union-labor nemesis, Maurice (Gérard Depardieu), which affords farcical paternity-related complications as well as opportunities to further the material’s shallow class and gender warfare-related concerns.
Potiche, however, is only interested in those issues insofar as they allow for dreary sitcom-style hijinks and opportunities to lavish adoration on Deneuve. Ozon treats his leading lady as a regal beauty who, despite her character’s initial subjugated status, remains one step ahead of her male counterparts not only in affairs of business (where her honesty and fairness are presented as the keys to true success), but also of the heart (far from a cheated-on fool, she’s eventually revealed to be an expert in clandestine indiscretions). Ozon’s cozy Lite-Brite period aesthetics are part and parcel of the material’s aggressive lightheartedness. Yet with his tale never rising above tepid cutesiness, the tone struck is less amusingly frothy than irritatingly precious, a situation not redeemed even by a typically charming Deneuve performance of imposing stateliness and playful, sexy insolence.
Potiche will play on March 3 as part of this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series. To purchase tickets, click here.