Movie review by Greg Carlson
Francois Ozon’s broad – miles-wide broad – “Potiche” showcases the considerable talents of the treasured Catherine Deneuve. The iconic actress, whose career stretches back to the 1950s, has appeared in more than 100 movies, and has been directed by auteurs like Roman Polanski, Luis Bunuel, Francois Truffaut, and Lars von Trier. At the age of 67, Deneuve is as photogenic as ever, but the slight, flirtatious “Potiche” is unlikely to rank with Deneuve’s most memorable films. Pivoting on themes of empowerment and awakening while mired in stock plot devices orbiting around marital infidelities and soap opera-worthy questions of paternity, “Potiche” never explores very far beneath the surface of its cheery, colorful, stage-bound origins.
Ozon has adapted Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy’s 1980 play as a late-70s period piece to both accommodate the movie’s exaggerated sense of class divisions and to make room for the putty-like stretch of numerous farcical complications. The filmmaker, whose wide-ranging style includes several films that deal with psychologically and physically intricate considerations of sexuality (see Tim Palmer’s “Style and Sensation in the Contemporary French Cinema of the Body” for more), only flirts with some of the ideas that have juiced his better films, including “Swimming Pool” and “5×2.” “Potiche” is much closer to the director’s “8 Women,” the overburdened musical-comedy-murder-mystery featuring Deneuve alongside a veritable constellation of performers representing multiple generations of French movie royalty.
“Potiche” is also nowhere near the league of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” in spite of Ozon’s heartfelt visual homage to the Jacques Demy classic. “Potiche” was made once before in 1983 for broadcast on French television, and Ozon’s updates and additions, including the lead character’s political campaign, don’t alter its essential flakiness in the least. As a study of the personal and professional renaissance of Suzanne Pujol, a “trophy” housewife whose knack for business blossoms when she takes managerial control of the family-owned umbrella factory led by her philandering husband, “Potiche” works best as evidence (albeit slight) that decent roles occasionally exist for women past ingenue age.
In contrast to Ozon’s more serious-minded films, “Potiche” launches a volley of subplots that pad the running time without adding a soupcon of substance. Very little earnest consideration is given to whether Mrs. Pujol loves and respects her condescending husband, an omission that mitigates the potency of old flame Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu, as blustery and bearish as ever). Mrs. Pujol’s adult children belong in another story entirely. Daughter Joelle (Judith Godreche) is responsible for a half-baked, nonsensical betrayal of her mother that exists merely as an excuse for a parent-child reconciliation conversation. Ambiguous sexual orientation is son Laurent’s (Jeremie Renier) raison d’etre, but the content of his scenes is handled so much like an afterthought that one longs for Ozon’s usually frank treatment of homosexuality.
Most of “Potiche” is played for easy laughs, and enjoyment of the film depends largely on tolerance levels for caricature and stereotype. The period vibe is effectively accomplished via hairstyles (Godreche’s feathered Farrah Fawcett coiffure is particularly well-engineered), clothing, and pop music, and one scene gamely places Deneuve and Depardieu on a light-up disco floor. Ozon also cannot resist one musical number for good measure, and although the moment is as artificial as everything else in “Potiche,” it is pleasurable to see Deneuve, who has recorded with Serge Gainsbourg, Malcolm McLaren, and Bjork, sing “C’est beau la vie” as the movie’s curtain call.