Published: May 18, 2011
Directed by François Ozon
You don’t have to have carried a lifelong torch for French cinema to appreciate François Ozon, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The fortysomething writer/director exercises the same sort of visual and tonal genre mastery as Todd Haynes, except a naughty streak runs through Ozon’s work—perhaps because he’s French—that effortlessly straddles the silly and the serious. It’s a sensibility that made 2002’s 8 femmes, his riff on 1950s melodrama, feel nostalgically entertaining while avoiding seeming old fashioned. And it’s the same sort of balancing act he pulls off in Potiche, where he wraps social satire up in traditional French farce and art decorates it to the hilt of ’70s gaudiness.
In 1977, workers at an umbrella factory are threatening to strike thanks to the iron-fist rule of factory owner Robert Pujol (comic gem Fabrice Luchini). The philandering Robert married into his power; the business is actually owned by the family of his wife Suzanne (a still-captivating Catherine Deneuve), the pretty on the eyes but not good for much else trophy wife of the title. She wears bright red jogging suits and jots down snippets of nature-inspired verse while on a run. She acts the doting mother to her women’s-lib-talking daughter Joëlle (Judith Godrèche, who expertly rocks Cathy Lee Crosby feathered hair) and art-school son Laurent (Jérémie Renier). She doesn’t even appear to know that Robert carries on with his secretary Nadège (Karin Viard) when he’s not getting it from a local house of ill repute. And yet when Robert has a heart attack and somebody else needs to step in and run the company and negotiate with communist rabble-rouser Maurice (Gérard Depardieu), it’s Suzanne who blossoms into a figure of mature empowerment and class politics.
That is, through a frothy veil of nostalgic iris-wipes, pantsuits, bubblegum period pop, disco dancing, and a healthy dose of self-awareness. The blatant in-joke here, of course, is that in 1964 Deneuve was catapulted to stardom playing the beyond beautiful Geneviève in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. And Ozon maintains the sense of color-saturated panache of Cherbourg throughout Potiche, only instead of mid-’60s cotton candy hues it’s a sea of corduroy shades, denim (both workingman’s and fashionable), widescreen ties, and cable-knit turtlenecks. It’s all a little too cheeky, with the nearly septuagenarian icon Deneuve still having the onscreen charisma to make anything a little magical—and here, she spends an entire movie in the sort of fussy middle-class fashion horrors that Katherine Helmond suffered wearing on Soap and still manages to look utterly regal.
> Email Bret McCabe