Potiche, directed by Francois Ozon, is a self-consciously kitsch social satire with two heavyweights of French acting in leading roles: Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve.
Ozon has said he wanted to recreate the “tone and verve” of screwball comedies, and this has been a partial success. At times I suppose you could liken it to a Billy Wilder movie without the understatement and sophistication. And with more showy visuals. It does have a certain brio to it, as it plays each situation for broad laughs in the spirit of high camp and with possibly just the tiniest hint of Hal Ashby in there for the bargain. It some ways it feels like a musical without songs.
Set in the 1970′s, Potiche follows Deneuve’s unappreciated, unfulfilled, bourgeois housewife in a paternalistic society. She is often told that it “isn’t her place” to say anything or do anything by her umbrella factory manager husband – who incidentally inherited the business from her father in the first place. This all changes when, unexpectedly, she takes charge of the factory and re-establishes an old friendship with a local communist MP (Depardieu).
This setting gives Ozon free reign to make political points on matters of gender equality and social class – with a distinct Goddard influence which is most visible when the boss is taken hostage in his office by striking workers: a famous scene from Tu Va Bien riffed on here, with panache. This socialist aspect feels somehow timely, with the film coming out with the world still in economic crisis: a failure of world capitalism.
When the boss complains that his workers have “gone on strike with no regard for what it will cost me”, we laugh because his selfish materialistic greed is manifested as common sense and entitlement. But the gender politics feels a bit tired and redundant. No doubt sexism still remains, but the cookie cutter view of suburban womanhood parodied here feels overly familiar, whether you’ve seen it done to death in Desperate Housewives or any number of other films and TV shows. It just all feels a bit obvious. That is, I suppose, if you come to the conclusion that the film’s admiration of Deneuve’s character is sincere.
Indeed I have been wondering a lot about how much this film should be taken at face value, ever since I came out of the screening this morning. In some ways I feel like the movie is about as sincere about its characters and setting as a Todd Solondz film. Taken this way Potiche become slightly more interesting to me, as it ironically celebrates the rise to power of the vacuous and the disengaged, over the scholarly and politicised. Deneuve charms the workers, but one socialist calls it as he sees it during a meeting, asking incredulously “what does that actually mean?” after another of her platitudes. “You can’t wear that to the factory! It’s provocation!” warns Depardieu. “I’m wearing my jewels to honour the workers. Without them I wouldn’t have any. It’s only fair to share” she replies, in the film’s smartest line. Whether this is a sign of a refreshing, down to earth wit, or of a clueless air head, is a matter to debate.
I can’t say I truly enjoyed Potiche, though I think I may have been alone in that, at least based on the reception it seemed to get as the credits rolled. But the further I get from it the more I come to appreciate it. It is certainly a film of ideas, with more meat on the bones than could seem obviously apparent at a first glance.