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Potiche: The only trophy here is La Deneuve

Catherine Deneuve in a scene from the French film "Potiche"

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2.5 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

Usually, a French comedy has to get remade in Hollywood before it stops being funny. But Potiche manages the job all by itself. Sure, there are a few laughs along the way, yet not the wry crisp brand that French cinema does so well. Instead, this is the broader stuff that, hailing from the stage tradition of Molière, struggles to make the leap to the screen.

Don't despair, though. The film is still worth watching, and the one fabulous reason why can be summed up in two celebrated words: Catherine Deneuve.

The source is a théâtre de boulevard play, obviously an antic crowd-pleaser that director François Ozon tries to tone down even while smartening up. With a résumé that stretches from Under the Sand through 8 Women to Swimming Pool, Ozon is an elastic talent adept in many genres, but he has trouble with this stretch.

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The place is a town in Northern France and the time is the late seventies, a period conveyed by the supersaturated colours that drench every frame and, in the process, nearly drown us.

Fittingly, then, Deneuve first appears in a deep pink jogging suit, taking a little exercise in the woods adjoining the family mansion. Yes, she's playing the title role: Suzanne is a potiche, a knick-knack adornment to her pompous and dismissive spouse Robert (Fabrice Luchini), who runs a vast factory. As aging trophy wives go, Suzanne is far from stupid and apparently not unhappy - she communes with nature, writes her little poems, and ignores her husband's serial womanizing.

All that changes abruptly when the factory workers go out on strike, even taking the tyrannical Robert hostage. To gain his release, the dutiful woman pays a visit to Babin the mayor, an ardent communist and, as it happens, a former lover of Suzanne before her marriage. Enter a gargantuan Gérard Depardieu, which gives us a welcome chance to see him and Deneuve sharing the screen once again (in truth, these days, he hogs more than his share). The first time was way back in Truffaut's The Last Metro and, in the over three decades since, this much is clear - the years have treated her much more kindly than him.

Anyway, Robert is returned but the trauma leaves him indisposed, forcing Suzanne to temporarily take over the factory's reins. Well, the inevitable happens: She promptly appeases the workers, settles the strike and, with the help of her flinty daughter and her "artistic" son, soon has the business up and running more efficiently than ever. So, with her innate talents released, it's out with the potiche and in with the entrepreneur: "I've changed. I'm a new woman."

From there, Ozon strives to give the material a feminist charge, even as the original play cavorts off on its farcical high jinks - role-reversals, tales of confused parentage, and a convenient boardroom betrayal. But Ozon's efforts only seem to compromise the piece: At one end, the serious stuff wipes clean with a petit mouchoir; at the other, the laughs get strangled.

Happily, Deneuve is there to put her distinctive stamp on an otherwise flat character. Indeed, courtesy of a third-act revelation, she proves that appearances can be dangerously deceptive - that, all along, the trophy wife possessed trophies of her own.

Without its star, this picture would float off forgettably into the ether. But with Deneuve's anchoring presence, it at least sticks around long enough to make an impression and, inadvertently, a point: In Potiche, a strong woman saves the day but an even stronger one saves the movie.

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Potiche

  • Directed and written by François Ozon
  • Starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu
  • Classification: 14A
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