Saturday, March 19, 2011

Oh-So-French: Francois Ozon’s Potiche

Given Hollywood’s prolific record of remaking French comedies, any day now we’ll probably hear that someone is about to start shooting Potiche. The English translation: “decorative vase.” Idiomatically, it becomes “trophy wife,” even though the story’s middle-aged protagonist actually seems more of a grande dame in denial while her unfaithful husband routinely romps with his trophy mistress. But no need to parse words when it comes to cheating hearts. Vive la difference!

Perhaps Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon or another mature American celebrity would replace Catherine Deneuve, who stars in the original as Suzanne Pujol, the bourgeois spouse of tyrannical Robert (Fabrice Luchini). In their provincial town, he runs the family umbrella factory. Get the in-joke? The actress first rocketed to fame in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical masterpiece. She even sings again in the new film’s Bollywood-like final scene. This time around, the director is Francois Ozon, who was born in 1967 – the same year Deneuve gave another iconic performance, as a theoretically virtuous young woman who often slips away from marital bliss for anonymous, masochistic sex in Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour. Vive la difference! 

Director Francois Ozon
Enough with the history. But Potiche does go back a few decades to 1977, which may explain the license to commit kitsch. Ozon’s intended screwball sensibility suffers from an excess of campiness. The movie opens with a Disney-like flourish. Suzanne Pujol (Deneuve) is jogging alongside a forest, spotting friendly woodland creatures and composing poetry about them in a little notebook. This ability to multi-task does not mean much at home in her lavish mansion, where she’s essentially a prisoner of comfort and materialism. Although the servants are on holiday, Robert doesn’t want her to lift a finger. Meanwhile, his favorite pastime is frequenting a strip club called Badaboum (Thank you, Tony Soprano!).

Suzanne is restless, however. Her path to emancipation arrives when he experiences heart problems after being briefly held hostage by striking workers. His physician advises him to go on an extended cruise. (Where can I find a doctor like that?) The lady of leisure reluctantly assumes control at the factory. The employees are so used to abusive treatment from Robert that they don’t trust this benevolent interloper. She appoints her self-involved, conservative daughter Joelle (Judith Godreche) as a manager and art-student son Laurent (Jeremie Renier) as a designer. He creates a fanciful line of umbrellas inspired by Russia’s pioneering abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky, and is his mother’s ally in an effort to transform the company.

Judith Godreche, Catherine Denueve and Karin Viard
The same is true of Nadege (Karin Viard), Robert’s secretary and main squeeze who begins to appreciate being appreciated for her intellect rather than her body with the advent of an enlightened female boss. This feminist thread also weaves its way into the Suzanne’s relationship with Maurice (Gerard Depardieu), a former union activist who is now the mayor and a member of parliament. They were lovers long ago, something he’d like to rekindle. But she’s too busy reinventing herself after 30 years in a stultifying marriage to be easily seduced by the world of male dominance again.

These two pillars of French cinema, now in their 60s, lift the film out of farce each time they appear together in a scene. Never mind his considerable girth or page-boy hairdo, reminiscent of Javier Bardem’s sinister locks in No County for Old Men. Who cares that Deneuve’s curves have become matronly? The age-appropriate attraction between Suzanne and Maurice is quite sexy, despite the fact that it remains unconsummated onscreen, other than in a brief flashback to their lusty younger selves.

Ozon has demonstrated a fondness for older babes – witness Charlotte Rampling in Under the Sand (2000) and Swimming Pool (2003), both somber in tone. He cast Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardent and Danielle Darrieux in 8 Women (2002), a loopy murder mystery with several song and dance numbers. Despite ending on a silly melodic note, Potiche offers a solid message about society’s double standards. If only its path to equality were less exaggerated. Fans of broad humor might be tickled, but those who prefer comic understatement will likely feel underwhelmed.

Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve in Potiche
One of the movie’s worst gambits is Laurent, apparently gay without realizing it. Or does he? The role is never developed enough to accurately gauge his persona. So effective as the conflicted youngest son of a dead matriarch in Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (2008), Renier is a vaguely defined mamma’s boy this time around. As his calculating sister, Godreche’s Joelle has more complexity. Luchini tries hard to give his foaming-at-the-mouth autocrat a soul. Viard fares better, since Nadege is permitted to spread her wings, especially when she declares “I’ve learned that you don’t have to spread your legs to get ahead.” A common women’s movement seal of approval back in the day: Right on, sister.

But Potiche really belongs to Deneuve and Depardieu, who have shared credits in at least six earlier films, beginning with Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980). And, next year, the venerable duo will have an opportunity to flash their modern mettle in Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia. This live-action production pits ancient Gaulish villagers against invading Romans, all in 21st-century stereoscopic 3D. Depardieu reprises the latter titular hero he played in three previous adaptations from a popular series of comic books. Deneuve portrays the Queen of England. Luchini even shows up as Julius Caesar. Vive la difference!

 Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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