Potiche (2010)

Trophy Wife

A return to form for François Ozon, Potiche is a melting pot of satire, farce and high camp with a sprinkling of stardust.


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

More Than A Woman by Mark Wilshin

After the overblown kitsch of Angel and the underplayed emancipation drama of Le Refuge, François Ozon is back on top form with Potiche, a hilarious amalgam of the two. He is, no doubt, indebted to his three stars – Deneuve, Depardieu and Luchini, whose very presence elevates the satirical story of Suzanne Pujol, trophy wife turned business mogul turned politician, into a glorious self-reflexive romp.

It’s no coincidence that the young debutante star of Les Parapluies De Cherbourg should find herself 50 years later running a factory that creates those magical bursts of cinematic colour. Nor that Depardieu should reprise his antibourgeois lothario from Les Valseuses. But for me, the film Potiche evokes the most is Sitcom – the same anarchic joie de vivre, the same sexual machinations and the same bourgeois family whose crises reflect the politics of a nation.

If Potiche were a layer cake baked in the patisserie of Sainte-Gudule it would be two thirds satire, one third wishful thinking. Set in 1977 under the presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, during another economic crisis and the industrial reforms of the Plans Barre, Potiche is a flamboyant critique of Sarko’s France. Whipping-boy-in-chief is industrialist Robert Pujol, married-in plutocrat and good-for-nothing philandering husband. Economising on paid leave, overtime and factory conditions as well as bribing and blackmailing politicians, it’s a dirty game reminiscent of Le Lapin Duracell’s Elysées.

Even the Président’s exercising habits find an echo in Potiche, as Suzanne jogs through the park, pausing like Blanche Neige to admire the friendly fauna or to jot down a pretty poem. Part Carla Bruni and part Ségolène Royal, Suzanne Pujol is more symbolic than naturalistic, rising from subdued housewife to powerful matriarch, a socialist Maggie contemporary sans etiquette. She’s no longer the queen of kitchen appliances, no longer effaced by her husband’s overbearing opinions, but a modern woman, prepared to divorce but ultimately deciding not to for family and fringe voters. She is Maman, the singing and successful socialist, a desperate mirage in contemporary France.

But politics aside, Potiche is a fabulously well-rounded comedy, its only faux pas a rather unseemly feminist pleading for abortion. Ozon’s politics don’t always translate into the more prurient ethics of celluloid. Just the right side of camp, with a perfectly pitched fringe-tossing performance from Jeremy Renier, Potiche‘s ogling is demurely askance, its musical numbers grounded. The best, a sexagenarian Saturday Night Fever style disco to Viens Faire Un Tour Sous La Pluie, is an exquisitely cinematic celebration of Deneuve and Depardieu, the King and Queen of French film. And even Eurovision kitsch is kept to a minimum with a rendition of Baccara’s Parlez Vouz Français and an amusingly inappropriate boardroom pointscoring.

Karin Viard and Fabrice Luchini are devastatingly funny too, and Judith Godrèche, in a role properly reserved for Ludivine Sagnier had it not been so one-dimensional, shines as the dazzling blonde, rampant capitalist and industrialist reactionary. Ozon’s antibourgeois rancour finds full expression here too in a sticky miasma of extramarital affairs and even a taboo-busting pensioner pash and an unresolved flirtation between Deneuve and lorry driver Sergi López.

Nothing escapes Ozon’s eye in this charming, all-ridiculing extravaganza. And that’s probably why it works. Satire follows hard on the heels of farce, pastiche on joke. And while the dialogue sparkles unrelentingly, the performances are also warm enough to raise a chuckle or two. Don’t expect politics à la Derrida or Foucault, but for riotous, political finger poking and good time high jinks, it’s the funniest film you’ll see this year. And that’s with subtitles.

Potiche is released in the UK on 17th January 2011